Democracy is on the line in Burkina Faso and beyond if Compaoré is allowed to change the constitution – By Johnnie Carson
Democracy is on the line in Burkina Faso. What happens there over the next few weeks and months may determine whether democracy continues on its positive trajectory across sub-Saharan Africa or whether it stalls or begins to slowly unravel and collapse. Those states in the international community that follow democratic norms need to speak out clearly against African leaders who seek to change their government structures in order to remain in power indefinitely.
For the past week, tens of thousands of people in Burkina Faso have taken to the streets of their capital, Ouagadougou, to protest a planned parliamentary vote to alter the country’s democratic constitution, which would allow President Blaise Compaoré to remain in power for another term. Compaoré, a former solider, came to power nearly three decades ago in a military coup d’état in 1987. Since abandoning his uniform and opening the door to multiparty politics and constitutional rule, Compaoré has been elected five times as the country’s president, and until recently said that he would abide by the country’s new constitution and step down at the end of his current term which ends in 2015.
However, with the next elections fast approaching and his thirst for power still strong, Compaoré has changed his mind and decided to “modify” the constitution to remain in power for at least one more term – or maybe two or three. The Burkinabé parliament, which is dominated by Compaoré’s stalwarts, must approve the constitutional change by a two-thirds vote, or the issue will go to a public referendum. Either way, Compaoré appears determined to get his way despite the massive street protests.
President Compaoré’ s attempted power grab may appear to be only a localized issue – another African leader seeking to turn the presidency of his country into a modern day chieftaincy. However, the problem is far greater. If Compaoré is allowed to manipulate and subvert his country’s constitution, there are probably a half dozen African leaders waiting in the wings to try to do the same.
Leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Gabon, Congo Brazzaville and Benin all face strict two term constitutional limitations, and it is believed that President Joseph Kabila of the DRC has already signaled his desire to alter his country’s constitution in the run up to the next presidential elections in 2015. He is not alone. There are reports that President Denis Sassou Nguesso in neighboring Congo-Brazzaville may do the same and Rwandan opposition leaders have speculated that President Paul Kagame in Kigali may attempt to play a similar game.
African leaders like Blaise Compaoré who remain in power for long periods of time claim their leadership helps to foster stability, democracy and economic growth. But this statement does not align well with the facts.
African leaders who have been in power for two or three decades exhibit many of the same negative characteristics. Their governments become increasingly more corrupt. Human rights abuses expand. Press freedoms are curtailed. And political space for civil society, non-governmental groups and opposition parties begins to disappear. When these aging regimes collapse, they frequently generate long periods of political tension, violence and uncertainty.
In Angola, where President Eduardo Dos Santos has been in power since 1979, corruption is rampant. The government’s state owned oil industry is regarded by some as a slush fund for senior members of the ruling party and the president’s family.
The same is true in Equatorial Guinea, where President Teodoro Obiang has ruled for 35 years. Obiang’s family has squandered millions of dollars of the country’s oil wealth while many of the country’s population continue to live in deep poverty.
In Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe has been in power since April 1980, human rights abuses and harassment of opposition political leaders has been a common occurrence for much of the last decade.
In Cameroon, President Paul Biya has been in office for just over three decades. Once hailed as the Switzerland of Africa because of its rich African, Anglo-French culture, Cameroon has struggled economically and politically. As corruption has flourished inside his own government, President Biya has kept a tight leash on opposition politics and civil society activism.
And in Uganda, President Museveni, in charge since 1987, leads an aid-dependent government that has been accused multiple times of corruption, including the misappropriation of millions of dollars intended for HIV and malaria prevention. Like the other multi-decade leaders, Museveni has intimidated, harassed and beaten opposition political leaders and has punished and pushed aside those in his inner circle who seek to encourage political change at the top.
The image of African leaders who maintain power for long periods is not a good one.
The attempt of African leaders to remain in power indefinitely is clearly an affront to democracy and to the rights of their own people. It is also an affront to the Obama Administration’s policy toward Africa. Shortly after he became president in 2009, President Obama told members of the Ghanaian parliament in Accra that strengthening democratic institutions and promoting the rule of law were his number one policy priority in Africa. He said: “In the 21st century, capable, reliable, and transparent institutions are the key to success — strong parliaments; honest police forces; independent judges — an independent press; (and) a vibrant private sector…(and) civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in people’s everyday lives.” Recognizing how many of Africa’s past leaders had abused power, President Obama told the parliamentarians “Africa doesn’t need more strong men, it needs strong institutions.”
Over the past five years, the Obama Administration has reaffirmed this policy. In June 2012, the White House issued a comprehensive policy document reaffirming that the Administration’s number priority was “strengthening democratic institutions.” The document said “…support for democracy is critical to U.S. interests and is a fundamental component of American leadership abroad. …The United States will not stand idly by when actors threaten legitimately elected governments or manipulate the fairness and integrity of democratic processes, and we will stand in steady partnership with those who are committed to the principles of equality, justice and the rule of law.”
And in the run up to August 2014 U.S. Africa summit, National Security Advisor Ambassador Susan Rice applauded Africa’s democratic progress and told a largely African diplomatic audience that “… we (the Administration) are unabashed in our support for democracy and human rights. We will continue to invest in promoting democracy in Africa, as elsewhere, because, over the long-term, democracies are more stable, more peaceful, and they’re better able to provide for their citizens.”
President Blaise Compaoré has decided that he can bring the peace, stability and economic prosperity that the people of Burkina Faso want. But the people of Burkina Faso are familiar with Africa’s long history of “strong man politics”, and they have voted with their feet by turning out in the tens of thousands to protest. The democratic members of the international community, especially France, the U.S. and the European Community, should now express their strong support for democracy in Burkina Faso and an end to the manipulation of constitutions by strongmen parading as democrats.
African leaders who believe in democracy and the rule of law should also speak out. If Blaise Compaoré is able to manipulate his country’s constitution, other so called democratic leaders will do the same and all of Africa will lose.
Ambassador Johnnie Carson is Senior Advisor, United States Institute of Peace & Senior Fellow, Jackson Institute, Yale University.