Extending Term Limits, Constitutional Referendums and Elections in Francophone Africa

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As I argue in my recent article Extending Term Limits, Constitutional Referendums and Elections in Francophone Africa, all of the five most recent presidential elections in Francophone Africa (Guinea, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Chad and Congo-Brazzaville) were “extension elections” – contests engineered by constitutional revisions to prolong the tenure of the sitting president.

Being a comeback kid in politics always captures public attention and presidential comebacks are no exceptions. President Lula da Silva has done it recently in Brazil. U.S president Grover Cleveland did it in 1892. Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville returned to the presidency in 1997 and Vladmir Putin of Russia came back in 2012 after a stint as Prime Minister. All of these cases have one thing in common – the candidate had vacated the presidential seat for at least one term and regained it afterwards.

So what explains this process? One might therefore be tempted to think that leaders simply want to stay in office because they are power hungry, or corrupt, or bullies. This may be part of it, but the reality is also more complicated. In the case of Guinea, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Chad and Congo-Brazzaville, it is important to factor in the reality that overturning term-limits could perhaps be said to be a francophone habit. France itself was not practising term limits until 2008, after Jacques Chirac decided not to ran for a third term even though the French constitution would have allowed it at the time. It was Chirac’s example that set in motion the 2008 constitutional amendments which imposed two term limits in France. Hence, the French have not opposed term limit extensions in former colonies, in as much as they oppose military takeovers from presidents they have endorsed.

In practical terms, France has vigorously pursued a foreign policy that arm-twisted francophone African countries to sign bilateral defence and technical assistance agreements which allow for stationing French special forces and military facilities in these countries to intervene against any coups and insurrections that threaten the sitting heads-of-state. This explains why these French kingpins often govern with impunity and yet manage to remain in power for so long. A byproduct of the phenomenon is tactical replacement by their offspring when they cease to be presidents.

So, you will find that all African heads-of state currently in extension are francophone except Uganda which is Anglophone and Equatorial Guinea which is Lusophone. A look at   African countries that have experienced presidential extensions reveals that ten are Francophone, three Anglophone, two Belgicophone, and two Lusophone. The Francophone majority is clear and continues unabated. This trend is not found in anglophone Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, Malawi, Gambia, Sierre Leone, Zambia or South Africa. Uganda and Equatorial Guinea are anomalies, as are the peculiar geopolitique of Rwanda and Burundi which led to their extensions. Therefore, unlike the francophone examples, none of the others incur foreign policy   strings pulled by the former colonial master who  also happened not to practise presidential term limits.

Notable examples of Francophone never-ending presidencies include: Omar Bongo of Gabon (42 years in office) whose son Ali Bongo replaced him after his passing in 2009; Paul Biya of Cameroon (41 years and counting); Denis Sassou-Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville (40 years and counting – in two separate presidential bouts from 1979 to 1992 and from 1997 to date); Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo (38 years) whose son Faurre Gnassingbé replaced him after his passing in 2005 and was re-elected into a controversial fourth term in 2020; Ben Ali of Tunisia (34 years); Felix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire (33 years) in a country where the current president Alassane Ouattara was re-elected into a controversial third term in 2020; Idriss Déby of Chad (31 years) whose son Mahamat Déby replaced him after his passing in 2021; Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso (27 years); and Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria (22 years).

The few leaders who were not obsequious to France did not last long or were unsupported by France, as was the case for Guinean heads-of-state since Ahmed Sekou Toure led Guinea as the first colony to leave the French empire in 1958, or Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d’Ivoire, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso and Francois Bozizé of Central African Republic. Except for Guinea and Mali, which did not sign the foreign policy defence agreements at independence, all other Francophone African states signed such pacts at one point or another. These agreements have influenced the political and security arrangements in these countries in one way or another over the years, and still do. Lately, Mali and Burkina Faso have discontinued with those agreements amid a growing tide of anti-French feeling in the region.

There have been some exceptions. In 2008, Abdoulaye Wade effected a constitutional amendment in Senegal which introduced a third presidential term but was prevented from reaping its fruits by a sound rejection of him at the 2012 presidential election when he lost in the second round to Macky Sall. In 2014, ordinary citizens in Burkina Faso rejected the attempt by Blaise Compaoré to extend his term limits and marched into the parliament building to disrupt the National Assembly’s proceedings underway to legitimise the attempted extension. From 2015 to 2018, civil society in DRC resisted Joseph Kabila whose two maximum terms expired in December 2016 but wanted to remain in office. Outside of these few examples, however, Francophone efforts to extend presidential terms have been successful, with the resulting elections won by the incumbent.

This brings us to an interesting juncture, because there are reports that Sall, who prevented Wade from perpetuating the extension habit in Senegal, is now considering a third term himself. Taking lessons from his own experience of flourishing to defeat Wade, he is making sure that no opposition candidate thrives to pose a serious challenge to his candidacy and has been harassing them periodically. The latest victim is Ousmane Sonko. Sall reportedly blocked ECOWAS efforts to amend the subregion’s Democracy Protocol to limit presidential terms to two. Senegal is one of four countries (with Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire and Djibouti) which French president Emmanuel Macron announced in February 2023 would convert their French military bases into academies as part of France’s Africa ‘reset’ button to assuage anti-French sentiments. This is particularly notable because Senegal, Gabon and Cote d’Ivoire are long-term bastions of Françafrique policy.

Given that some 3,000 French troops who left Mali from the closure of Operation Barkhane are hibernating in Niger and Chad, however, the French have not really left. Even the 400 who left Burkina Faso recently were redeployed to Cote d’Ivoire (300) and Senegal (100). Many are therefore sceptical about France’s Africa policy ‘reset’, and the idea that attacks on term limits in Francophone countries will end anytime soon.

Dr Michael Amoah (email) is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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