By Albert Mbiatem
The perennial manipulations of presidential term limits by incumbents is increasingly ebbing away hopes for democratic consolidation in Africa. Following several years of political instabilities characterised by civil wars in the Great Lakes region, a new security threat – disputes over presidential term limits – is beginning to emerge. After Uganda and Burundi, Rwanda as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may join the trend of incumbent heads of state scheming to for additional, if not, unlimited terms. The fragility in these states and political antagonisms associated with the phenomenon of unlimited terms is becoming a potential security threat in the Great Lakes region as incumbent governments in the four countries seek to have more than two constitutional presidential terms. In Uganda and Burundi, the incumbents have so far succeeded to maintain themselves after “constitutional amendments or interpretation” that enable extending their terms. In Rwanda, the process to support President Paul Kagame’s third term mandate is in motion. In DRC, the government has so far struggled to set up a protective mechanism towards maintaining Joseph Kabila in power. But unlike Paul Kagame, an “extended or perpetual stay” of Joseph Kabila at the helm of the Congolese state is very likely to be a new trigger of insecurity in the country, region and beyond.
Beside the persistent quest by self-interested rulers and warlords toward the control of extensive natural resources in DRC, a dilemma over power maintenance or peaceful transition remains prevalent as Joseph Kabila has so far not declared that he is out of the 2016 presidential race. Having succeeded the father – Laurent Kabila – in 2001 following an assassination, Joseph Kabila was elected democratically in 2006 and re-elected in 2011 amidst allegations of a fraudulent electoral process. With regard to unpopular attempts or decisions of his government, the current political trend in DRC suggests a probable constitutional amendment or other form of manipulation to render President Kabila eligible for a third term presidential mandate or even extend his stay in power. Still trapped in the complex web of structural problems and personal interests from within and beyond its borders, DRC seems to slide more towards greater fragility if President Kabila insists on vying for a third presidential term.
The constitution (Article 220) of the DRC clearly stipulates that the president cannot seek a third term after his second presidential mandate. Despite this position, President Kabila has attempted severally to extend his stay in power. One attempt was in January 2015 when he suggested that the presidential and parliamentary elections should be contingent upon compilation of a new electoral roll. His proposal provoked violent demonstrations that led to deaths of over 40 people after protesters violently clashed with police. Protesters were angry with the decision to carry out a national census ahead of the poll; a move that many considered could delay the polls for years thus allowing the president to postpone standing down. After cancelling this divisive proposal under popular pressure, President Kabila however struggled to organise a national dialogue with the opposition (although boycotted by some opposition parties) and the civil society with the intention to maintain himself at the helm of an eventual government of national unity. The other attempt was the increase in the number of provinces from 11 to 26 as of 30th June 2015 which has been described by many observers as a means to gain more political momentum from loyalists he has appointed to rule the new provinces and thereby weaken political opponents. Moreover, other scenarios to perpetuate his rule in DRC are predictable; he may decide to delay elections under the pretext of credible financial and logistic problems and, of course, security reasons.
The political contentions emerging from disputes on presidential terms in the Great Lakes region have potential implications not only to security but would also likely undermine development efforts. Previous experiences from repercussions of violent conflict in the DRC point to high possibilities that a political divide resulting from third term eligibility or re-election of President Kabila, would provoke upheavals or a possible return to armed conflict. Due to the porosity of borders and the landlocked nature of the region, political instability in a single state often affects the bordering countries in the region. For instance, the recent decision by President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi to run for a third term did not only provoke violent demonstrations and murderous/repressive government reaction; but it also led to the displacement of Burundians into neigbouring countries.
The high level of greed and corruption that prevails in the DRC tends to exacerbate an already unstable situation in the country. The Great Lakes states portray alarming features relating to electoral authoritarianism and political fragmentation with the ruling elites clinging to power and more often than not failing to respond to needs of the citizens. Citizens in these states are confronted with situations where personal interests of a few supersede collective goals. Their fundamental human rights in these contexts are often violated because rulers are bent on outsmarting members of the opposition and civil society in order to sustain their selfish agenda. The fear is that the divide over presidential term limits in DRC would exacerbate the level of instability in the Great Lakes region that may lead to extensive loss of lives, displacement of civilian populations and economic regression. Despite some semblance of pro-government support in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and DRC, the strong opposition against unlimited presidential terms reveals elements of probable regional instability that the region might wish to guard against.
The term limit predicament in the Great Lakes region and DRC in particular has so far raised many contestations within the African continent and beyond. But the lack of concrete actions and decisions by regional and international organisations is alarming. The recent controversial election of incumbent president of Burundi has spoken to the low level of influence and determination of the main regional scheme – the Africa Union, the East African Community and indeed the UN. With such regional “leniency”, Joseph Kabila can expect to have his way in extending his stay in power despite popular condemnation and the recent disapproval by the US. Therefore, the situation remains precarious as long as leaders of the region tend to prioritise personal interests over collective goals; as long as they undermine the fact that peaceful and fair transfer of power is essential to political stability, justice, economic development, and peace.
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