In the 1980s and 1990s, military coups were commonplace in Africa. Today, they’re relatively rare. The African Union deserves some credit for this success in spreading democratic norms. Sixteen years ago, the 54-member bloc wisely adopted a policy that punishes governments that came to power through military coups. For instance, in September, when an army general tried to take power in Burkina Faso, the African Union called for the suspension of all economic, political, and military cooperation with the country, and asked the West African Economic and Monetary Union to deny the coup leaders access to Burkina Faso’s financial reserves. The pressure worked. Burkina Faso returned to civilian rule. The general was charged with high treason.
The African Union should be praised for its role in discouraging military coups. But the organization has been much less effective when it comes to preventing “constitutional coups.” When leaders strong-arm their parliaments and judiciaries to change their constitutions to stay in power after their terms end, the African Union has generally kept mum. The reason for this is simple: While all sitting heads of states have an interest in dissuading would-be rebels from ousting them from power, few leaders want to limit their own options for staying in charge for as long as they want.
That’s why the African Union has been largely ineffective at handling the constitutional crises erupting across the region. Last year, when Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he was running for a third term — despite a two-term limit set by the country’s constitution and a peace agreement — it set off widespread violence that continues to this day. But regional African Union leaders have little moral standing to insist that he step down, because they are busy engineering extra time in office for themselves.
Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, who was asked by the African Union to help resolve the crisis in Burundi, has been in power for 30 years. In 2005, he changed his country’s constitution to allow him to run for a fifth term. Last Thursday, Museveni won reelection in polls marred by the arrest of three of his rivals. Meanwhile, Rwandan President Paul Kagame recently announced that he’d seek a third term, after a referendum approved constitutional changes that would allow him to stay in power until 2034. And Joseph Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is widely suspected of trying to engineer a constitutional amendment that would allow him to stay for a third term.
Luckily, ordinary people across Africa are far less accepting of the idea of a president serving for life, just as they have become less accepting of military coups. Moves by Kabila and Nkurunziza set up widespread protests.
“It’s a sign that people realize how damaging it can be to a have leader in power that long,” said Jennifer Dunham, director of research of Freedom of the Press and Freedom in the World at Freedom House. The African Union should do what it can to show that “constitutional coups” can be just as damaging as military coups.