African Leaders’ “Third-Termism” is Destroying Global Democracy

The President of Guinea, Alpha Conde, has sought an extension for his presidential mandate. He follows a long list of African presidents who have sought out ways to extend their two-term presidency.

Last week, a Guinean court jailed opposition and protest leaders for organising rallies against Conde seeking a third-term. Article 10 of the Guinean Constitution reads that “all citizens have the right of demonstration [manifestation] and procession. In July 2018, Conde imposed a general ban on demonstrations in the country, granting himself power to imprison those who exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Last month, Conde asked his government to look into drafting a possible new constitution. Under this new constitution, the 81-year-old would be able to run for a third term, after his second term expires next year.

Conde’s actions have violated both Article 10 of the Guinean Constitution and Article 4 of the African Union Constitution which legally binds African nations to function by “condemnation and rejection of unconstitutional changes of government”. While local critics have been outspoken against Conde, the African Union remains silent.

“Third-termism”, as it is called, is Africa’s constitutional failure. Opposition leader and former Prime Minister of Guinea, Cellou Dalein Diallo, of the Union des Forces Democratiques de Guinee (UFDG), said that the opposition is united and “massively mobilised”.

“We must prevent the promotion of the new constitution of the third term. The day Alpha Conde will take a decree to say we are going to the referendum is the day everyone will get things started at their towns, borders, neighbourhoods. That is the motto … because we are in the legality and he is in the illegality.

“They must be treated as people who are outlaws,” he continued.

While the African Union has been silent, the Russian ambassador to Guinea, Alexander Bregadze, said in January that, “Constitutions are not Bibles or Qurans, they are there to adapt to reality, not the other way round.”

In the context of Conde’s third-termism, the African Union’s silence is especially troubling.

“Street protests probably are insufficient on their own to thwart a third term bid,” Judd Devermont, Africa programme director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said.

“Usually, it requires opposition unity, ruling party defections, and international community engagement to foil a term extension gambit. That’s what happened in Nigeria in 2006 and Burkina Faso in 2014. If Conde goes forward with a referendum, he can fiddle with the results to tilt the vote in his favour.”

The African Union has set a precedent of allowing its member leaders to break Article 4 of its constitution. Cameroon’s Paul Biya, Sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest leader, was re-elected for a seventh term last year, after coming into power in 1982. Immediately after the election, eighteen legal challenges to the election were filed. Cameroon’s council – appointed by Biya – rejected all eighteen.

Like Conde, under Biya’s 36-year rule, opposition rallies are banned and their leaders imprisoned.

The AU’s lack of criticism and action against presidents like Conde, Biya and Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza shows condonation of unconstitutional illegality by its members.

Many other AU leaders have resisted their terms limits, with no critical sanctions or bans undertaken by the AU. They include: Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Chad’s Idriss Derby, Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh, Togo’s Faure Gnassingbe, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Congo Republic’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara and Comoros’ Azali Assoumani. All eleven leaders are heads of states and government of the Member States of the Constitutive Act of the African Union.

Third-termism is not just an African problem. If the AU refuses to tackle autocracy among non-democratically-elected leaders, the problem will not only persist but grow.

The world cannot survive without Africa. The continent’s resources (minerals, food and oil) are indispensable to the survival of both the human population and the world economy. Although economically poor, Africa is incredibly important on the world stage. Its actions have a ripple effect on the political world stage.

The Russian Ambassador, Alexander Bregadze’s reply to the Guinean constitution being changed reveals Russian support for third-Termism. Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s licentious rewording of the Russian constitution shares similarities with those of African leaders’. ‘The permission of non-democratic, unconstitutional leaderships by leaders who are legally bound to joint accountability is a troubling step for the future of democracy worldwide.