Nigerian human rights activist, lawyer and writer Chidi Anselm Odinkalu* writes on the democratic backsliding in Africa as military officers increasingly seize power and elected leaders elongate their tenure by arbitrarily changing the constitution. And he analyses the causes of the unsavoury trend and what it portends for the continent
Macky Sall, Senegal’s president since the beginning of April 2012, has had somewhat of a charmed life. Born in December 1961, he has lived at the cutting edge of his country’s political leadership for over a quarter of a century as city mayor, cabinet minister, prime minister, president of the National Assembly, and president.
Over this period, he has been a leader in the opposition Democratic Party of Senegal (PDS), protégé and later opponent to President Abdoulaye Wade, and since 2008, founder of a political party start-up, Alliance for the Republic (APR).
To become president in 2012, he defeated the incumbent, Abdoulaye Wade, precluding him from re-election to what would have been a third term.
Now approaching the sun-set of his second term, which will end in 2024, Macky Sall wants to up-end his country’s constitution and do that for which he excoriated and ultimately defeated his predecessor and mentor – run for a third term.
After months of ill-concealed dithering, he has all but confirmed his intention to run for what would be a constitutionally prohibited third term in a recent interview with the French magazine L’Express.
Article 27 of Senegal’s 2016 Constitution could not be clearer: it prescribes the duration of a presidential term as five years and adds that “[n]o one may exercise more than two consecutive mandates.” If Macky were to finagle a tilt at the presidency for a third time, he would be in breach of this provision.
For the moment, it seems, his plan is more than merely to run again. To make that happen, he seems intent on dictating whom he will run against too. His strongest opponent is Mayor of Ziguinchor and founder of the “Yewwi askan wi” (Free the People) coalition, Ousmane Sonko, whom Macky has systematically sought to tarnish and exclude from the contest with a succession of desperately specious criminal charges, so he can designate a hapless paper-weight as his opponent.
Macky Sall is the latest of Africa’s president in search of an interminable presidency. If he succeeds, he will be at least the 15th African president to do so in eight years since 2015. It was not supposed to be this way.
Independence in many African countries arrived as somewhat of an anti-climax. In its wake, constitutional instability established itself as the preferred means of succession to power.
In the 50 years from the beginning of 1955 to the end of 2004, West Africa alone reported 169 “military interventions of some type”, both successful and unsuccessful. There From 1952 to 1998, the continent recorded 85 successful coups. The cost to the continent is incalculable. Ironically, Macky Sall’s Senegal is one of the few countries on the continent that has so far not reported any.
The mutual assurance of non-interference on the back of which this toxic trend was established began to suffer re-examination following the onset of the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone in 1989.
In 1990, Nigeria led the launch of a regional peace-enforcement intervention in Liberia which altered the way in which the continent responded to internal instability. The following year, African leaders in Kampala, Uganda, diagnosed the interminable presidency as central to the continent’s conflict and instability pathologies and agreed that “[t]here should be periodic renewal of the mandate of political leaders. At the same time, the tenure of elected leaders in various branches of government should be constitutionally limited to a given number of years.”
In the four years that followed, 37 African countries altered their constitutions, with all of them introducing presidential term limits.
At the continental level, regional institutions, including the Economic Community of African States, ECOWAS, and the Organisation of African Unity, OAU, which became the African Union in 2000, began to evolve rules for oversight over elections and constitutional instability.
What emerged by the turn of the millennium was a continental package deal, by which the leaders of the continent agreed three things. First, access to political power would be based on political legitimacy conferred through credible elections, supervised by regional institutions. Second, to guarantee political competition, presidential term limits will be limited. Third, in return for respect for these two stipulations, the continent outlawed unconstitutional changes in government or coups.
By 2014, the continent went further to make the unconstitutional change in government an international crime in Africa. Those involved in it will become liable to be tried before the African Court of Justice and Human and Peoples’ Rights. This was far reaching.
In effect, the prohibition against unconstitutional changes of government in Africa was part of an implicit bargain to install guardrails against abuse of presidential incumbency on the understanding that those who seek power had to undertake to abide by some determinate rules for access thereto. These rules were meant to ensure that they will not seek to convert incumbency into interminable rulership.
But, far from eventuating, what has happened nearly across the continent is that incumbents and their parties, aided by the willing complicity or abdication of regional institutions, have retrenched the norms on term limits and credible elections, while simultaneously entrenching the prohibition against unconstitutional changes in government into a rule for interminable presidency.
In response, coups are making a return to the continent on an “epidemic” level. Take Guinea for instance. The country had never had a peaceful transition of power in over half a century of independence before 2010, when it installed Alpha Condé as its elected president.
Under the Constitution, he was allowed two terms of five years each, which were to lapse in 2020. But, rather than quit power as stipulated, President Condé, who was born in 1938, chose at 82 to organize a rigged referendum to amend the constitution, enabling him to rule until he was at least 94 years old. To ensure this, President Condé deployed the military, killing many protesters against the referendum.
Seven months later, amidst even more violent protests and more killings, Condé got himself proclaimed winner in elections for his interminable presidency boycotted by the opposition. Neither ECOWAS nor the African Union remembered that there were continental norms against interminable presidency and rigged ballots. In September 2021, the military overthrew President Condé, whereupon ECOWAS and the African Union quickly re-discovered their voices.
As President Condé was busy securing his interminable presidency in Guinea, the ruling party in Mali organized elections under the cover of COVID-19, at the end of which they used the judiciary to steal seats won by the opposition. What followed was a mass uprising which ultimately led the military to sack an unpopular ruling party and take over power. Once again, the AU and ECOWAS, complicitly silent in the preceding manipulation and fabrications, suddenly perked up.
By the turn of the millennium, military rule in Africa had rightly passed its sell-by date. Yet since 2002, the African Union has recorded and acted against 14 successful coups, most of them the result of presidential abuse of power or against the designs of an interminable presidency.
Africa, the continent with the youngest demographic in the world now has the distinction of having the four longest serving elective presidencies in the world. In Gabon and Togo, the Bongo and Eyadema dynasties have been in power for 55 years each. Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang approaches his 44th year as president, while Cameroon’s Paul Biya has clocked over 40.
Across the continent, elections are in disrepute and the interminable president is back in vogue. Senegal’s Macky Sall is its latest poster boy. What happens over the next year with his effort to dismantle the constitution will be pivotal for the fate of the continent.
Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is a Professor of Practice in International Human Rights Law at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He is the former Chairman of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission. Odinkalu conducts research on contemporary challenges of multilateralism in regional systems in development, human rights, and governance. Odinkalu can be reached at email@example.com