March 20th is something of an anomaly for African politics, featuring no less than two pivotal presidential elections and a constitutional referendum. What’s surprising about these three polls is not so much the outcomes – a betting man would easily get all of them right – but the way in which a 24-hour period can encompass with near perfection the diverging paths taken by African leaders in their respective bids to strengthen their rule. Let’s take a look at Senegal’s referendum, Congo-Brazzaville’s sham presidential election and Niger’s budding authoritarian rule.
In Senegal, for example, the X in the box pertains to whether a raft of constitutional changes, which will include giving more power to the National Assembly and local administrations as well as changes to existing laws on issues such as inheritance and local communities’ control of natural resources, will be ratified.
The run-up to this constitutional referendum has been made controversial by the news that, in contrast to expectations, Senegalese president Mackey Sall will not be serving the truncated term he promised he would. Not for want of trying, however. In contrast to his fellow African presidents such as Rwanda’s Kagame, Uganda’s Museveni and Burundi’s Nkurunziza, one of Sall’s stated aims has always been to reduce the tenure of his nation’s presidencies from seven years to five years, starting with his own. In February 2016 however, the nation’s constitutional court rejected his proposal and stated that these changes will instead only apply to presidents serving after him. Even with the get-out clause of this being the constitutional court’s decision rather than him reneging on his word, this news has provoked consternation among Senegal’s electorate, with human rights campaigner Aboubacry Mbodj saying that Sall has broken a promise and that in Africa “promises are very strong and sacred”.
This outcry, however, is made to look rather tame compared to the controversy surrounding the Presidential and parliamentary run-off elections in Niger, which have thus far included the arrest of journalists and “coup plotters”, while the Constitutional Court deemed 15 of the candidates as “morally inept” for misdemeanours which include chasing married women. At the eye of the storm, however, is the incarceration of the country’s opposition leader Hama Amadou, whose COPA party received 17% of the votes compared to the incumbent government’s 48% in the first round of presidential votes in February.
Speaking from his jail cell, where he is being held on “baby trafficking” charges – he and his wife have been accused of frequenting “baby factories” in south-eastern Nigeria – Amadou has officially withdrawn from the presidential run-off, accusing the government of fraud and “unfair treatment between the two candidates”. The incumbent government, on the other hand, is arguing that COPA’s withdrawal owes more to sour grapes than to soured democracy, with Interior Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou arguing that the opposition only “retired because they cannot win” and that “For them, the rules exist only when they win.” Even before the polls close, the clear winner now is likely to be incumbent President Mahamadou Issoufou.
A clear winner, albeit in even murkier circumstances is also likely to emerge in Congo-Brazzaville, where, many dissenters argue a “constitutional coup” has taken place. This comes after President Sassou Nguesso succeeded in pushing through a constitutional change that will allow him to run for another term in a referendum process that US Department spokesman John Kirby argued was “marred by violence, intimidation and severe restrictions on political freedoms”.
This maelstrom of malevolence is certainly nothing new for Congo-Brazzaville, which has rather a poor record with regards human rights and corruption, having been declared by independent watchdog “Freedom House” as ‘Not Free’ and ranking at 146 out of 167 countries on Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. The outcome, of course, is that the sound money is on Nguesso winning the election by foul means or fair – probably the former – and improving on his already three-decade long record as one of Africa’s longest serving leaders.
There is some pressure from the international community, and particularly from the US, to step in and lean on Congo-Brazzaville to ensure that Sassou’s rule is not allowed to continue indefinitely. The case for this is made stronger by the fact that despite its own considerable political tensions, the country is currently playing host to refugees from a number of other nations, such as the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. It is also one of the Gulf of Guinea’s major oil producers, with the US being one of its most important customers following a bilateral investment treaty in 1994, which encourages and protects US investment. With so many other international fish to fry at present, however, the US getting involved seems unlikely.
What the West can take from this cursory snapshot into African politics, however, is that Africa is moving at different speeds and that a reformist, pro-democratic current is slowly making its way through the plethora of both new and old authoritarian leaders. Senegal, Niger and Congo-Brazzaville represent three very different situations, steered by three very different leaders. Taken together, however, they can perhaps be viewed as representing the three main forces not of African politics, but politics globally: those seemingly trying to give greater power to the people, those avariciously determined to keep power in their own hands and those wavering somewhere in the middle.