African third-termism: debunking Congo’s “constitutional coup”

By Jean Baptiste Abadie - 6 October 2015 at 7:05 pm
African third-termism: debunking Congo’s “constitutional coup”

Forget the US’ 2016 mania: more than a dozen African countries will hold presidential elections next year in what amounts to a disquieting coincidence for anyone familiar with the intricacies of the Dark Continent. Why? Because many African countries have caught a bad case of “third-termism” – an affliction that keeps two-term presidents bedridden in the Presidential palace for a third (and unconstitutional) run. The first symptom of this terrible disease usually manifests itself as an unstoppable desire to amend their countries’ constitutions and scrap the pesky two-terms-you’re-out clause. Left untreated, the disease can easily spiral out of control, leading to popular uprisings, military coups or, in milder cases, the so-called “constitutional coup”, where the leader calmly faces down internal and international pressure and secures a third consecutive term after organizing elections of dubious standards. After the dust settles, the “third-termist” bug goes into remission for the length of an election cycle.

With Africa’s 2016 round the corner, third-termism has spread like wildfire, paying no regard to geography, and has engulfed a dozen countries, such as Burundi, DRC, Burkina Faso, Uganda, the Gambia, Togo. The leaders of these countries have used multiple ploys to make sure they get away with it: from claiming political instability, to fending off Islamic terrorism, all the way to the brazen excuse paraded by Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza who boasted of having the blessing of the Supreme Court to run for a third term. It’s no small wonder then that the moment any African ruler talks about tinkering with the constitution, the international community cries foul and prescribes hard to swallow medication, ranging from military interventions, to sanctions, or in certain cases, the loud slap on the wrist followed by the stealthy slap on the back that heralds the resumption of a ‘business as usual’ attitude.

Reports emerged on October 6th that the long list of clingy African strongmen is on the verge of adding yet another name: Congo-Brazzaville, the DRC’s northern namesake. Denis Sassou Nguesso, president from 1979 to 1992 and then from 1997 onwards, announced he will hold on October 25th a constitutional referendum to change his country’s aged constitution. As expected, the international media wrote off Sassou Nguesso’s exercise as another ‘constitutional coup’, and then went off to bemoan the epidemic spread of third-termism.

Voice of America dryly wrote about “a proposed constitutional amendment to allow President Denis Sassou Nguesso to run for a third term,” before going on to add that “the proposed amendment, announced Monday after a cabinet meeting, also would abolish an upper age limit of 70 for presidential candidates. President Sassou Nguesso is 72 and is barred by the current constitution from seeking another term.” The announcement was met with protests in Congo-Brazzaville’s capital and strongly worded statements from members of the opposition.

While this reads like a textbook case of third-termism, the reality is in fact a bit more complex. Pierre Mabiala, Minister of Land Affairs, had this to say in a speech delivered in the opposition stronghold city of Dolisie: “No third term can happen! We are seeing this in almost all media outlets, especially international ones. A third term. He wants a third term. No, sirs! No!” Mabiala’s rage stems from the fact that the constitutional amendments under discussion are not linked to the suppression of the two-term clause but are part of a sustained, and opposition-backed effort to revamp the country’s political system from the ground up.

The current constitution, an outgrowth of Congo-Brazzaville’s bloody civil war, was never meant to be anything than a transitional tool to bring a semblance of stability to the oil-rich nation. As such, the current Congolese political system can be best described as ‘ultra presidential’: the President holds in his pen the entire executive power for the duration of the 7-year term. Since the Prime Minister post is abolished under the current document, ministers and their attributions are established by presidential decree and the President can go about his business with almost no checks or balances. The Parliament is largely ceremonial and cannot suspend, impeach, vote down or sanction the laws written and enacted by the government.

After 14 years of ruling unhindered – during which time the Congolese state’s barely registered on the radar of international media outlets or international watchdogs, a sign of the relative calm of the country – Sassou Nguesso, 72, used the powers at his disposal to call for the writing of a new constitution that would reduce the presidential term to five years and install strict checks and balances on the office of the President. What’s more, while the draft constitution has not been fully hashed out yet, the two-term limit will not be removed and there are no loopholes that could reasonably be exploited by Sassou Nguesso – chatter to the contrary, is nothing more than speculation at this point.

Indeed, most international observers have glossed over the fundamental changes the new constitution will bring, such as reinstating the Prime Minister’s post and giving the Parliament the option to censure the government, focusing instead on the scrapping of an amendment blocking out individuals above the age of 70 from running for President. While Sassou Nguesso is indeed 72 years old and is barred by the current document from running, it’s worth mentioning that Ange Edouard Poungui, a popular former Prime Minister, freedom fighter and opposition leader, is 73 years old, a fact that casts a shadow over the argument that scrapping the age limit is an open invitation for the incumbent president. Moreover, Sassou Nguesso has never mentioned his desire to stand for a third term, focusing his most recent efforts on acting as the UN-backed international mediator in the drawn-out conflict raging in the Central African Republic.

When all is said and done, Congo-Brazzaville looks more like a false positive case of third-termism than the terminal case the international media reports it to be. In the end, it will be up to the people of Congo-Brazzaville to go to polls on the 25th and cast their vote: you can’t call changing the constitution a “coup” if it’s voted up in internationally recognized elections.

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