Should bullets replace ballots?

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Zimbabwean Armed Forces have placed Africa’s longest-(self) serving President under house arrest.

This was bound to happen, sooner rather than later, after the 37-year reign of blood and terror by Robert Mugabe. The 93-year-old dictator and his entourage have been desperately clinging to the presidency for years now as they found themselves unwilling to relinquish the power they had over Zimbabwe.

There might be a sense of confusion among the proletariat over the situation in the country and suggestions that this was not a military coup but just a move to protect Mugabe from his own entourage. In the meantime, the army is cheerfully tweeting that the country and the world have just witnessed a “bloodless transition” – which could well be a euphemism for a coup d’État.

What is happening in Zimbabwe should come as no surprise, arguing that it was in fact long overdue, and is not even considered heretical anymore. Mugabe’s reign is a textbook example of how African leaders change from hero to zero after their zeitgeist of absolute power and the inherent belief that only God (created by themselves in their image) can remove them from power. Meanwhile, as these despotic leaders divide and rule, their favourite way to justify their struggles is to continue blaming everything on the evils of their former colonial overlords.

Africa is rife with leaders who are currently trying to evade the death knell on their absolute power, which are presidential term limits. By so doing, they compromise national constitutions/organisations/ democracy, and trigger local and regional instability and conflict. Mugabe has always argued that term limits are not compatible with African complexities.

This Mugabe-like reasoning is in clear contradiction with the 2002 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which calls on member states to “entrench a political culture of change of power.” The Charter also identifies “illegal means of accessing or maintaining power,” including “any refusal to relinquish power after free, fair and transparent elections,” and “any constitutional amendment which infringes the principles of democratic changes of power.”

Many African scholars even posit that there is a direct link between adherence to democratic constitutional frameworks and stability/economic development. According to Shola Omotola, from Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, term limit extensions violate the 2000 Framework for an OAU Response to Unconstitutional Changes of Government. Late Mwangi Kimenyi, former director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution (Washington, DC), states that extending terms “entrenches corruption networks and inequality. (…) Long-serving leaders are deceiving themselves if they believe that they are doing good for their citizens’ livelihoods.” Others even argue that clinging on to power for decades amounts to “constitutional coups”.

Since the turn of the century, a dozen of African leaders have actually tried to circumvent the realities of term limits. Half of them, including Paul Biya in Cameroon, Idris Deby in Chad, and Ismail Guelleh of Djibouti were successful in exploiting institutional loopholes. With strong and unflinching parliamentary majorities, leaders can easily alter constitutional provisions and manipulate elections.

In 2005, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni proposed a “political sweetener”: he combined the scrapping of term limits with the promise of a return to multiparty democracy. His opponents were in an awkward position, since opposing the removal of term limits would have also resulted in saying no to the reintroduction of multiparty politics.

Recently, we saw the political manoeuvring of Pierre Nkurunziza, president of Burundi. After approximately 10 years in office, he was keen on retaining power and a third consecutive five-year term, which is in contravention with his country’s constitution. Nkurunziza’s desire to stay in power has brought the country to its knees and on the brink of another civil war.

The democratic process is not a strong enough safeguard against these political overlords. Even when African leaders lose elections, it is not assured that they will leave office. Notable to this was Robert Mugabe’s nationwide campaign of violence against his political opponents causing the leading candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, to withdraw from the second round.

All of these events lead to a crucial question that face several African countries: In the absence of term limits, can a military coup be a genuine push for democracy? Can, or rather, should bullets replace ballots? Or should the international community – whatever the definition for that is – step in to overcome the stranglehold on power exerted by Africa’s strongmen? Or are there powerful members of the international community invisibly backing despots to keep a status quo in Africa. They may not be interested to see an open and democratic Africa.

If we want to usher a new era of predictability, with far-reaching implications for the rule of law and stability, we can start by institutionalising respect for term limits in Africa, including in Mauritius, of course…

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