Let’s turn a new page for a real democracy in Africa

For decades, several African countries have been ignoring the democratic rule of power changeover. In order to stop this “African Evil”, as French Tunisian journalist Béchir Ben Yahmed defined it in his weekly magazine Jeune Afrique just one year ago, a number of African and European associations have launched a campaign called “Let’s turn a new page in favor of a political changeover in Africa”.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Credits AFPZimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Credits AFP

The site (in French) supporting the petition for the initiative explains how citizens of Africa and Europe, as well as people from other continents – thinkers, artists, activists, journalists, religious leaders, associations, and unions – are joining forces to turn the page on authoritarian regimes and set the groundwork for true democracy in Africa.

Moreover, the campaign manifesto lists the various constitutional violations carried out in many African countries in order to ensure some presidents kept their charge for life, that power is passed on from father to son, or to provide a third mandate by amending the constitutional law that only allows a maximum of two consecutive mandates.

This process has indeed numerous precedents in Africa. One of the most notorious cases is the lifelong presidency of Gabon’s El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, who rose to power in 1967 and ruled the country until his death, in 2009.

In 41 years of rule, Papa Bongo, as he was nicknamed, saw seven French presidents and generations of bloodthirsty and corrupted African leaders like Joseph Mobutu, Idi Amin Dada or Jean-Bédel Bokassa. He took advantage of the golden age of the export of expensive raw materials to the Western countries, and saw the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the late 80s followed by the rise of fake democracies and the end of the Cold War that marked a turning point for the African continent.

Another African president who stayed in power for a long time is the Togolese Eyadéma. The official bio describes him as “a man of peace and dialogue who, thanks to his patience, his knowledge of men, and his outstanding experience has succeeded in preventing the outbreak of a civil war, bringing back peace and harmony in the country, as well as strengthening national unity.”

Reality tells us a very different story. Sergeant Etienne Gnassingbé Eyadéma rose to power in 1967 through a coup and established a highly repressive regime that did not disappear until his death in 2005.

It is noteworthy that twelve countries in Sub Saharan Africa (including Eritrea, which has never had presidential elections) have made amendments in their Constitution, removing the limit for presidential mandates.

Nonetheless, out of nineteen presidents who rose to power in the last century and who are still in office, fourteen are African. Similarly, eight out of ten heads of state who have been in power for the past two decades are African, as are the only four presidents in the world who have been ruling for over thirty years.

Among those are:

- Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, an excellent tennis player and the head of the oligarchy that holds all the power in Equatorial Guinea;

- President Paul Biya of Cameroon, in office since 1982 and who made constitutional amendments three years ago to extend his mandate;

- President of Angola José Eduardo Dos Santos, in office since September 1979, who approved a new Constitution four years ago, which helped him being reelected, in August 2012, for a new 5-year mandate.

- Last but not least, ninety-year-old Robert Gabriel Mugabe, who firmly holds the fate of Zimbabwe: six presidential mandates scarred by the worst cholera epidemic that had ever plagued the continent, and by forced mass evictions, as well as an inflation rate that surged to 231.000.000% (October 2008).

We shall also include in the list a number of outgoing presidents, like Burundian Pierre Nkurunziza, Burkinabé Blaise Compaoré, Beninese Boni Yayi, and Congolese Denis Sassou Nguesso and Joseph Kabila who attempted to change their own country’s Constitution with the goal of running for president again. And even for those rare cases where African dictators managed to turn the regime into a democracy, their main national interest has always been the transfer of resources abroad rather than the well-being of their own country’s population.

Edited by Sayuri Romei 

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