Will a popular uprising in a relatively stable nation force other African leaders to rethink plans to extend their time in power?

By Hanna Ucko Neill, Global Conflicts Analyst, Coordinator Armed Conflict Database

Late last month, a popular uprising in Burkina Faso ousted President Blaise Compaoré – previously one of Africa’s savviest operators. Probably few people will have watched this event as closely as Congolese President Joseph Kabila. Compaoré’s resignation followed attempts to change the constitution to extend his many years in office and would have some resonance for Kabila, who looks set to try the same thing.

Compaoré’s 27 years in power came to an end after 100,000 protesters descended on the parliament building in the capital, Ouagadougou. Lawmakers inside were preparing to vote on a government plan to amend the constitution to remove presidential term limits and allow Compaoré to again stand for re-election in November 2015. However, angry demonstrators set the parliament alight before the vote could proceed, and up to 30 people were killed after the security forces were sent in. Eventually, the military intervened to force Compaoré to step down. Today, the uprising’s leaders, and regional political blocs ECOWAS and the African Union, are waiting for power to be transferred to a civilian leader, as the military has promised.

Compaoré’s tenure has parallels to Kabila’s. He had started his second seven-year term in office when constitutional term limits were introduced in 2000, and was elected to his ‘first’ amended five-year term in 2005, just before those limits were ruled to come into force. Kabila first became president after his father was assassinated in 2001 and was elected to his first five-year term in a delayed 2006 poll.

As reported for months in the ACD (including in the recently published third-quarter report), Kabila has been pushing for a new constitution to allow him to run for a third term beyond 2016. This new Congolese constitution would extend presidential terms from five to seven years and lift all term limits.

However, after recent events in Ouagadougou, it will be interesting to see if Kabila and other African leaders with similar ambitions rethink their plans.

Compaoré made a considerable miscalculation in thinking he would be able to convince the political class and his presidential guard to back him for another term. Although better trained and equipped, the presidential guard was outnumbered by the national army, which had already tried to force him from office in April 2011.

Compaoré also failed to secure international support. The United States and France, which both run military operations from the country against Islamist terrorists in the Sahel, encouraged Compaoré to stand down, as scheduled, in 2015. A letter from French President François Hollande even offered France’s support in finding Compaoré a job with an international organisation.

Kabila is playing things differently; he has reorganised the army, placed loyalists in key positions and cracked down on free speech. His government has banned more than 60 newspapers and other media outlets. In August, opposition MP Jean-Bertrand Ewanga Isewanga Iwoka was arrested at a demonstration and charged with offending the head of state.

Despite this, opposition politicians, civil-society groups and all of DRC’s aid partners continue to object to Kabila’s proposed amendments. Not all Congolese citizens are convinced by the president’s proposals, either; protests have already erupted in Kinshasa and Congo’s east.

Kabila is not alone in weighing up ways to ensure his political longevity. Reports from East African countries are equally concerning. Rwanda’s controversial president Paul Kagame hinted in April that he may amend the constitution to permit him to run for a third seven-year term in 2017. While Kagame’s critics describe his regime as repressive, the state-controlled Rwandan media has recently published articles supporting a constitutional extension of Kagame’s rule.

In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza is not only attempting to remove presidential term limits, but to push through other constitutional revisions affecting power-sharing between Tutsi and Hutu communities. Currently, the government and national assembly must be 40% Tutsi and 60% Hutu. The government has created several legislative obstacles for those who oppose its new blueprint, including laws on political rallies.

There are also doubts as to whether Djibouti’s Omar Guelleh and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni will leave office as scheduled, and concerns about the state of democracy in Congo-Brazzaville, Togo, and Benin.

After the Arab Spring that swept through the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, some have seen in Burkina Faso hopes for an African equivalent. It seems that relative stability and economic growth will not stop citizens sometimes simply becoming fed up with authoritarianism. Events in Ouagadougou, at the very least, highlight that African leaders may no longer be able to ignore the will of the people. 

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