“L'Afrique est en effervescent,” (Africa is effervescent), said a colleague the other day, referring to the current political protests in Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and dozens of other African nations. In the past few months, Africa has witnessed increasing public advocacy for fair electoral practices and presidential term limits.
Sparking this trend is the onset of elections in 30 African countries scheduled for 2015 and 2016, including Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Togo and Zambia.
Many of these countries have seen their fair share of public discontent. And while such disaccord might be chalked up to business as usual in Africa, positive signs abound that Africa is entering into a new era where government rule must increasingly be accountable to the public.
In Togo, the public appears fatigued with the ruling family’s 48-year reign. Since mid-December 2014, opposition groups such as the CAP 2015 political coalition and Organizations for the Defense of Human Rights are demanding constitutional and electoral reforms ahead of the March 2015 presidential poll to include a two-term presidential limit. Since early January, the protests have been occurring on a daily basis. This public demand for government reforms is a notable shift from the previous decades of fear that silenced the general populace from uttering a word contrary to the government.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Parliament hastily voted on and approved an electoral referendum mandating a pre-election national census on Saturday, January 17. A national census in the vast, highly-populated Central African country could take up to four years to complete. Opposition groups claim the referendum is an attempt to delay elections and keep President Joseph Kabila in power beyond his second term, set to end in 2016. Since the referendum was made, protests have ricocheted across the country, from the western capital of Kinshasa to Bukavu and Goma in the east. On January 23, International SOS issued a Stand By Alert for expatriates to be ready to evacuate in case of escalating violence during the protests.
It could be argued that the leaders of such African countries are carefully walking a political maneuvering tightrope, in which an increasingly vocal public has the ability to influence and even topple government power. While changing constitutions according to the whims of government leaders remains pervasive throughout the continent, some African leaders are now preceding with such activity cautiously, particularly in the recent aftermath of Burkina Faso’s ousting of President Blaise Campaoré in October 2014.
Burkina Faso ruling party Congrès pour la démocratie et le progress attempted to reverse a constitutional amendment made in 2000 limiting presidents to two terms. The reversal would have enabled President Blaise Campaoré, in power since 1987, to seek a third term. Days before the parliament was to vote on the amendment, thousands of protesters publically expressed their discontent. Campaoré fled the country, leaving an interim in power until the November 2015 elections.
Not all countries are taking notes on Burkina Faso however. In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza’s campaign for a third term has seen little public resistance. Increasingly repressive measures in the past year, including assassination attempts on journalists, violent crackdowns on opposition group gatherings, and even banning the Burundian pastime of running groups, have left a public shrouded in fear.
Nonetheless Burkina Faso joins a growing list of African nations that respect electoral term limits, rendering countries like Burundi political outliers. In 2005, Benin President Mathieu Kerekou retired after unsuccessfully seeking an unconstitutional third term, to which voter constituents adapted the slogan, “Ne touche pas ma constitution.” (Hands off my constitution.) And in 2001, both Ghana President Jerry Rawling and Zambia President Frederick Chiluba caved to mounting public opposition, abandoning pursuit of a third term and retiring from office.
Regardless of whether public opposition across Africa will result in lasting change, this trend indicates a voting citizenry increasingly buying into and defending the democratic process.
“The next 12-18 months are going to be critical for democracy and elections across Africa,” said former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs at roundtable discussion hosted by the National Democratic Institute in Washington D.C.
With a public increasingly providing democratic oversight to its governments, the Togo, DRC and Burkina Faso examples offer hope that African nations are on the cusp of making significant gains in institutionalizing democratic processes. This is a new, effervescent Africa, one in the midst of change.