The African Union (AU) has a critical role to play in ensuring democratic governance in Africa. It should therefore speak out strongly against attempts by African leaders to manipulate constitutions to extend their mandates, said the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
At a seminar yesterday on the margins of the 24th bi-annual AU summit, held in Addis Ababa, ISS researchers said the AU Constitutive Act and other documents, like the 2007 Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance provide a framework for ensuring democratic changes of government on the continent. Civil society organisations and groups opposing constitutional changes to prolong the rule of the incumbents – like those in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – should be able to draw on the support of the AU, said the ISS.
The popular overthrow of Burkina Faso‘s former president Blaise Compaore has set a precedent and indicates the strong opposition in many parts of the continent against African leaders who stay in power for extended periods.
Stephanie Wolters, head of the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis division of the ISS, said efforts by leaders to prolong their mandates is already causing political instability in countries like the DRC, Burundi and the Republic of Congo.
‘In all three of these countries, the constitutions were the result of negotiations following conflict and therefore the efforts to change them are a very emotional issue. People see them as a step backwards.’
The decision by the senate of the DRC to block the government’s proposed controversial new law, which would potentially postpone presidential elections for several years, was ‘unprecedented’ and seen as a victory for the opposition, she said.
Lori-Anne Theroux-Benoni, head of the ISS office in Dakar, said interventions by the AU and regional economic communities like the Economic Community of West African Sates (ECOWAS) to sanction unconstitutional changes of government should be better coordinated. ‘For sanctions to work, they must be seen as a real threat,’ she said.
It is critical for the AU to pre-empt possible instability linked to elections and the issue of presidential mandates, said the ISS. The AU has sent special envoys to Togo and Burundi recently to try and mitigate the risk of violence in those countries. In Togo the constitution does not impose term limits, but there is strong opposition against President Faure Gnassingbe‘s bid for a third term. In Burundi supporters of a third term for President Pierre Nkurunziza are arguing that he should constitutionally be able to run for elections later this year.