From changing constitutions to delaying elections: A collection of African democracies

by Maria-Jose Alvear

Democracy on the African continent takes many forms. Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Senegal and Botswana offer a few examples of the numerous interpretations of free speech and the right to vote. Despite their divergences from the West’s understanding of democracy, all hope for Africa’s democracies is not to be lost when one considers, for example, Botswana, which has successfully undergone the transition to democracy and can serve as a yardstick and role-model for other African states, such as Angola. This kind of inter-African assistance might facilitate a transition between those who are attempting to cling to power and those who respect their presidential terms.

Rwanda: Changing the constitution to retain power

In November 2015, Rwanda’s parliament approved a constitutional amendment to extend the president’s time in office. This will enable current Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, to stay in power until 2034, a potential tenure of nineteen more years. Kagame secured the presidency in 2000 but has been in control since his forces marched into the capital, Kigali, to end the 1994 genocide. He was re-elected in 2010 for a second seven-year term. A constitutional Referendum held in December 2015 revealed that 98% of voters called for a change to the constitution that would allow Kagame to serve a third term. In the upcoming 2017 elections, he would therefore be able to run for another seven-year term, which could be followed by two five-year terms. The main opposition party in Rwanda, the Democratic Green Party, which holds no seats in Parliament, tried to block the constitutional amendments but was rejected by the courts.

Kagame won widespread renown for ending the genocide, stabilizing the country and fostering economic growth. Human rights groups nevertheless condemn the nation’s severe governmental restrictions of freedom of expression. Dissent has been crushed and opposition figures have been imprisoned, charges that are denied by the government. Former Lieutenant General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, once a close ally of Kagame, and now considered persona non grata, reflects on the twenty years after the genocide as follows: “There is a lot of disappointment in the government’s efforts to truly reconcile the country and [to make] sure that we avoid the same circumstances that led to war. The current government is doing exactly the same thing that the then Rwandan government was doing – rigging elections and imprisoning voices of opposition.”

Most critics of the government have been driven into exile because of the country’s security services. One of the few that remain is journalist Robert Mugabe, who served as a soldier with the forces that freed the country from its genocidal government in 1994. Now, as editor of the independent website “Great Lakes Voice,” he decries the culture of fear instilled by the current regime: “There is no free media; there is no free civil society; there is no opposition.”

Kagame won widespread renown for ending the genocide … Human rights groups nevertheless condemn the nation’s severe governmental restrictions of freedom of expression.

Democratic Republic of the Congo: Delaying elections to remain in power

President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has also been manipulating constitutional term limits to retain power. Kabila has been leading the DRC since 2001, and his constitutional second term is expected to end by the close of 2016. Nevertheless, actions undertaken by the government during 2015 reveal that an attempt has been made to keep him in office, not by changing the constitution, but by delaying the elections.


President Kagame delivering his speech during the 9th National Dialogue at Parliament

Last year, government supporters attempted to pass a law requiring the country to hold a census before elections, which would have tied the date of elections to the completion of the nationwide census. In a vast and inadequately connected country, a census would have taken several years. This proposal, strongly rejected by the opposition, sparked violent protests and riots. According to the United Nations, at least thirty people were killed in Kinshasa, the country’s capital, after the police brutally repressed demonstrations against the electoral bill. Furthermore, the United Nations joint Human Rights Office’s report on human rights and fundamental freedoms during the pre-electoral period in the DRC reveals that at least 649 people, including protesters, political opponents and activists, have been detained.

Senegal: Efforts to cut presidential terms

In March 2016, almost two-thirds of Senegalese citizens approved fifteen constitutional amendments in a referendum that confirmed not only a two-term limit for the presidency, but also a reduction of the term length from seven to five years. Additionally, independent candidates can now run in all elections, rights of the political opposition will be strengthened, local governments will have more powers and the right to a healthy environment and land ownership are now constitutionally guaranteed.

Such encouraging results represent significant democratic progress in Senegal, which is considered by many a beacon of democracy in the region. “We are a modern African democracy. Today in Africa, many countries impose mandates. Here we are giving referendums for which people can say yes or no,” explained Mamadou Diagne, a human resources representative at an oil company, to Business Insider.

freedom of expression

Botswana: Stable democracy

Botswana is another example of a politically stable, multi-party constitutional democracy. A 2015 report from the Southern Africa Resource Center and the United Nations Development Program confirms that elections have been held in the country every five years since Botswana gained its independence from Great Britain in 1966. In October 2014, Ian Khama was re-elected as president for a second and final five-year term. On this occasion, his party, the Botswana Democratic Party, won thirty-seven out of fifty-seven seats in parliament and maintained rural support. The Umbrella for Democratic Change, a political coalition of the three opposition parties, won seventeen seats with the support of urban areas and young voters.

According to the NGO Freedom House, Botswana’s 2015 overview was generally positive, although there are areas that require improvement. By way of example, as the nation lacks a freedom of information law, the government has been accused of excessive secrecy. For instance, the anticorruption body has special powers of investigation, arrest and seizure and publishing articles deemed critical of the president is proscribed under the penal code. Even though local broadcast media is dominated by the state, there are several independent newspapers and magazines, a private television system and two private radio stations. Internet access is not restricted but is rare outside cities. It is therefore clear that even in Africa’s most promising democracy, there is still much room for growth.

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