Tag Archives: West Africa

Central Africa region 2018 – Autocratic entrenchment and increasing instability

The Central Africa region remains a haven for autocratic and semi-autocratic regimes, in sharp contrast to West Africa, and the situation did not improve in 2018. The sub-region is home to the world’s three longest serving presidents: Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea (39 years in power), Cameroon’s Paul Biya (36 years), and Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso (34 years). Moreover, Idriss Déby (27 years) of Chad is not far behind, and the Bongo family has ruled Gabon for over 50 years. Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central African Republic (CAR) is the only president elected in legitimately competitive polls, in 2016, although his government now has limited control over national territory beyond the capital Bangui.

All six countries, member states of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC by its French acronym), are ranked “not free” by Freedom House, and score below continental averages on the Mo Ibrahim governance index. The six countries share a common currency – the Central African CFA franc – which was first introduced during colonial times in the five francophone territories making up the Federation of Equatorial French Africa (AEF). Equatorial Guinea, the only former Spanish colony member of CEMAC, adopted the CFA in 1984. Only Congo and CAR have experienced brief periods of electoral democracy in the 1990s, before autocrats returned to power in 1997 and 2003, respectively.

The sub-region experienced further autocratic entrenchment and growing instability in 2018. Biya of Cameroon won a seventh term in elections that lacked credibility. Cameroon also continues its descent towards civil war, as the crisis in the Anglophone regions of the country deepens. Anglophone separatists recently created their own crypto-currency, known as AmbaCoin. In Equatorial Guinea, Vice-president Teodorín Obiang who is the son of the current president was promoted major-general as the family closed ranks after an alleged coup attempt in 2017. Teodorín recently presided over a cabinet meeting, confirming fears he is positioned to replace his father soon. In Congo, Sassou Nguesso’s son Denis Christel, one of 10 family members elected to the National Assembly in 2017, was rumored to be preparing to run against his father in 2021. In Gabon, Ali Bongo has been ill for months and the constitutional court took it upon itself to amend the constitution to delineate responsibilities between the prime minister and the vice-president in the event of a “temporary” absence of the president. Déby pushed through a new constitution for Chad that enhanced presidential powers and eliminated the post of prime minister (see previous blog post here). The CAR is increasingly ungovernable, and various armed groups have spread violence to new regions of the country.

Prospects for replacing one-man or dynastic rule in the sub-region through democratic elections are bleak and stand in sharp contrast to democratic progress in neighboring West Africa, where only Togo is left with a president serving more than two terms. Unlike the successful alternation of power that has taken place in 14 of 15 West African countries member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in the last decade, the Central Africa sub-region is a sobering example of strong-man rule in fragile states that could implode into violence.

The situation is not much better when expanding the analysis to the larger Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), which in addition to the CEMAC countries includes Angola, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and São Tomé and Príncipe. São Tomé and Príncipe is the only country in the larger Central Africa region that regularly holds credible elections and is rated as “free” by Freedom House. The region overall has had limited democratic experiences and ECCAS lacks the equivalent of the 2001 ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. In contrast to the evolving democratic norms and regional institutions with increasing clout seen in West Africa, Central Africa remains at the mercy of personal networks among autocratic heads of state focused on mutual elite support.

The road to inclusive and credible elections in Central Africa remains long and tortuous, and 2018 has thus far not been a good year for the region. It remains to be seen whether the presidential elections in the DRC on December 23 will break the pattern and result in a peaceful transfer of executive power and more accountable governance [see previous blog post on the DRC here]. The outlook is far from promising, with a worsening political situation and increasing violence as election day approaches.

Constitutional reforms underway in West Africa

A number of countries in West Africa are undergoing a constitutional reform process, in pursuit of stronger, democratic institutions: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Mali. Senegal held a constitutional referendum earlier this year. In stark contrast to recent constitutional changes and ongoing debates in the Central Africa region – Congo Brazzaville, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – where focus has been on extending presidential terms, the declared intent of some of these reforms is to build bulwarks against presidential overreach and overstay.

The constitutional changes in Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Mali follow the violent overturn of democratic processes in all three countries, albeit under very different circumstances. In Benin and Senegal, constitutional reform was a promise of the presidential campaigns of Patrick Talon and Macky Sall, respectively.

Constitutional review commissions in Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire are preparing completely new constitutions. A principal concern in Burkina Faso is to find ways to “lock in” presidential term limits and to better balance strong presidential powers. It was former President Blaise Compaoré’s attempt at removing presidential term limits that led to his overthrow in October 2014 in a popular uprising. A 92-member commission representing the ruling party, opposition parties (including the CDP of Compaoré) and civil society (including labor unions and traditional authorities) was seated in early June. Its members have two months to present a new draft constitution. The draft will undergo popular consultations, go to the president for comment and be finalized by the commission before submission to a popular referendum. Opposition parties have demanded, however, that the decisions of the constitutional commission be reached by consensus, threatening to walk out on the process otherwise.

In Cote d’Ivoire,  President Ouattara appointed a commission of 10 experts at the end of May, giving them a month to make proposals for a new constitution. During the month of June, Ouattara himself undertook consultations with opposition parties, civil society, traditional leaders and others to receive their suggestions before scheduling a referendum to take place before the end of the year. Key expected changes include the introduction of a vice-presidency and the rewording of article 35 which requires a presidential candidate to be born of both parents of Ivorian origin. The constitutional review process is controversial, however. Opposition parties criticize it for being insufficiently participatory, rushed and ill-timed, as the country has yet to fully heal and reconcile after the 2010 election-related violence.

In Mali, a 13-member expert commission is charged with proposing revisions to the 1992 constitution to incorporate provisions of the 2015 Algiers peace accord signed between the government of Mali and former rebel groups. The constitutional commission will have six months to complete its job. The 1992 constitution is the consensual product of the 1992 National Conference and is vested with significant popular legitimacy. It is unlikely to be completely scrapped and replaced.

The constitutional revision that passed by referendum in Senegal in March of this year shortened presidential terms from seven to five years, and added wording to clarify that “no one can serve more than two consecutive terms” (Art. 27). Other articles were amended to provide for greater oversight by the National Assembly and Constitutional Court, although changes affecting presidential powers are overall fairly minor.

In an even more radical move, newly elected President Patrice Talon of Benin has suggested that presidential terms be limited to one single term. A 35-member commission with representation from political parties and civil society was charged with proposing a series of political and institutional reforms. The commission submitted its report on June 28. The report includes two constitutional scenarios – one where the current two five-year terms are maintained, the other where they are replaced by one single six- or seven year term. The commission was divided on the issue, as some members were concerned a single term would not provide sufficient incentives for accountability.

The process and focus of these various constitutional reforms vary and reflect different priorities and political realities in each country. Overall, however, the combined picture is one of democratic dynamism that contrasts sharply with the institutional atrophy witnessed in other regions of the continent.