By Herman J. Cohen
A political upheaval in the West African country of Burkina Faso from October 29–31, 2014 resulted in the premature departure of President Blaise Compaoré, who had been head of state since 1987.
More than a hundred thousand protesters took to the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou, in response to Compaoré’s attempt to amend the constitution to eliminate the two-term limit on the presidential mandate. Compaoré wanted to run for a third term, and the population was fed up with his long misrule.
The mob burned down the Parliament building to prevent the enactment of the constitutional change, and Compaoré fled for his life in a French military helicopter. The Burkina Faso military, including the elite presidential guard, did not defend the president against the protesters.
Since 1990, most African countries have rewritten their constitutions to eliminate the so-called “one-party state” in favor of multiparty democracy. The new constitutions have included a two-term limit on heads of state to prevent African strongmen from remaining in power indefinitely through the falsification of election results.
The implementation of the two-term limit has worked as intended in many African countries, such as Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique. In all of these countries, the elected heads of state departed after two terms, and in some cases, opposition leaders were elected in their place. In other cases, the ruling parties maintained power, but with fresh faces at the top.
Some African heads of state have succeeded in eliminating the two-term limit for their own benefit: Paul Biya in Cameroon, Idriss Déby in Chad, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, and Omar Hassan al-Bashir in Sudan have all essentially made themselves “presidents for life” through their manipulation of the electoral process.
The recent upheaval in Burkina Faso, however, signals a growing desire in Africa for the rotation of power.
In 2007, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo demanded that Parliament amend the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. Obasanjo offered each member of Parliament a bribe of US$1 million, but even still, popular outrage caused them to vote against the constitutional amendment.
The next major challenge to the two-term constitutional limit is currently taking place in the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.), where President Joseph Kabila is in the last two years of his second mandate. The D.R.C.’s constitution provides for a two-term presidential limit with the additional stipulation that the clause in question cannot be amended. Despite this ironclad prohibition on more than two terms, Kabila’s parliamentary majority is blithely discussing the possibility of a constitutional amendment.
Kabila was easily elected under the D.R.C.’s new constitution in 2006. He had brought an end to civil war, and he was popular in the densely populated eastern provinces.
In the election of 2011, Kabila was re-elected, but all the observers, both international and domestic, condemned the election as a total fraud. Since then, social, economic, and security conditions have deteriorated, and Kabila has become highly unpopular. The huge revenues from the D.R.C.’s exports of close to one million tons of refined copper per annum are bringing no benefits to the people.
A new element in the D.R.C. is international opinion. Both the American and French governments have warned Kabila and his majority party not to try to amend the constitution. Both are major donor countries, and both see no hope for economic development and honest government as long as Kabila remains in power.
The cloud generated by Burkina Faso is also hanging heavily over the D.R.C. Kabila knows that the number and vehemence of protesters in the capital city of Kinshasa will greatly dwarf the crowds in Ouagadougou if he attempts to change the constitution. Indeed, talk of such a change has diminished in Kinshasa since the events of Ouagadougou.
The new trend in sub-Saharan Africa is against leaders keeping themselves in power indefinitely. The recent events in Burkina Faso will therefore be remembered as a milestone in contemporary African history.
Herman J. Cohen was the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1989 to 1993 and brokered an end to the Eritrean-Ethiopian war in 1991. He now heads Cohen and Woods International, which has represented the governments of Angola and Zimbabwe.