The constitutional referendum held on 25 October in Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) was marred by violence, boycotted by the opposition, and smacked of political brigandage. President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, head of state since 1979 (except 1992-7) had managed to manipulate the constitution to allow him to seek a third term: it was almost a coup. His Burundian counterpart, Pierre Nkurunziza, was re-elected for a third term last July, though without amending the constitution. He managed this by vigorously repressing the opposition, the media and defenders of human rights, who had all called on him to uphold the 2005 constitution, which had emerged from a peace agreement that had ended 10 years of civil war. Events in Burundi herald the next crisis that all the countries of central Africa and the Great Lakes region risk.
Burundi’s neighbour, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), will hold a presidential election at the end of 2016. President Joseph Kabila is nearing the end of his second term, but has not said clearly that he is prepared to hand over power. He will find it difficult to amend the constitution, for the same reasons as in Burundi: the present constitution emerged from the hard-won peace agreement after the two Congo wars (1997-2002) (1). But the opposition has never accepted the results of the election that returned Kabila to power in 2011. In January 2015 there were riots in Kinshasa against a proposed amendment to the electoral law that would have involved a census. This would have been impossible to complete before the election and would have given Kabila an excuse to extend his time in office by repeatedly postponing the ballot. At least 42 died in the protests.
The DRC, geographically central, with a population of 75 million and great mineralwealth, has a unique place in Africa; Patrice Lumumba, independence movement leader and first democratically elected president, was briefly a symbol of hope for the whole continent. But between 1998 and 2002, the DRC was involved in the first pan-African war, involving nine countries. Now, once again, the situation in the DRC looks precarious.
The solution is simple: follow the rules and civil peace will prevail. But if the constitution is altered to fit the ego of each new president, countries slide into chaos. In some countries democratic moves — such as the speeches at La Baule (2), the sovereign national conferences of the 1990s and democratic changes of government — seem to have made no difference. Between independence and the end of the cold war, African presidents often assumed a mandate for life, and the practice seems to be returning.
Democracy has often failed in Africa. Even so, the progress outweighs the setbacks: from Cap Verde to South Africa, there are more free andfair elections than rigged ones. But a few regressive regimes could drag others down. As we say in Guinea, “one bad peanut can spoil a whole mouthful.”
Sassou-Nguesso has powerful supporters in the West, and controls all Congo-Brazzaville’s wealth, especially oil. The same is true of José Eduardo dos Santos, in power in Angola since 1979. At the start of his career he claimed to be a Marxist-Leninist; today his family has a huge fortune, which his eldest daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is increasing. She has extensive holdings in Angola and seems ready to buy out Portugal. In Cameroon, the regime led by Paul Biya, in power since 1982, is stagnant.
Rays of hope
Burkina Faso offers far more hope, with a popular uprising against any modification of the constitution in October 2014, followed by successful resistance to an attempted coup by General Gilbert Diendere last September. In Senegal, the mechanisms of democracy work well, with changes of government since 2000 that have not threatened national unity. The institutions of Benin, the first African country to hold a sovereign national conference, in 1990, appear stable. Benin is also the only country to have successfully “recycled” a dictator. Mathieu Kerekoucame to power through a coup in 1972, but accepted an election defeat in 1991 and came back five years later to serve two terms. The elite have played a key role in Benin, which has the advantage of sitting astride tradition and modernity.
Tradition can be static and backward-looking but it can also act as a safety net. In Senegal and Benin, where there is respect for traditional leaders, there have been no massacres of opposition supporters at rallies in football stadiums. That is not the case in Guinea, where Ahmed Sekou Toure demolished all the structures of the traditional chiefdoms at independence in 1958. Now Guinea’s institutions have neither tradition nor modernity.
Africa is still founded on rural societies with a low educational level, where the use of ethnicity for political ends can have devastating consequences. But superhuman efforts have been made to build a civil society on non-ethnic lines, to act as a counterbalance. In Burundi, Nkurunziza played the tribal card to stay in power only after a failed coup against him. In Guinea in 2010, President Alpha Conde accused the Fula people of handing out poisoned water at a political gathering, a ploy to divide the electorate. Last October Conde got himself re-elected at the first round. Vote rigging was whitewashed by western embassies and EU observers; the electoral register was falsified and voting cards were handed out to anyone who looked likely to vote for Conde. The reported turnout was more than 90% in regions that supported Conde, compared with 50% in opposition strongholds.
In anglophone countries — even Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe — it would be unthinkable to accuse Britain, the former colonial power, of influencing elections. Rwanda adopted English as its official language to emphasise that it was making a fresh start after independence and looking to the future. But the country is far from a model of democracy. Paul Kagame heads an efficient administration (which has even managed to eliminate the use of plastic carrier bags); but he had the constitution amended last November so as to be able to stand for a third term in 2017, and give himself the option of continuing as president until 2034. Ghana is another country where the high profile of the state, collective discipline and cleanliness of the streets contrast with other (especially francophone) countries. With so much paternalism and cronyism, Françafrique seems to have inherited the worst of both France and Africa.
It’s hard for democracy to advance in countries under foreign supervision, subject to the demands of international financial institutions, the UN and/or former colonial powers. In francophone Africa, external interventions have become permanent, despite the French government’s solemn declarations that it has broken with past practices. France is still keen to maintain a strong presence in Africa, yet relations with its former colonies have been perverted since independence: they are played out at personal level, among friends rather than among states seeking a common good. For instance, in 2004, after a phone call from his friend Sassou-Nguesso, Jacques Chirac ordered the release of the head of Congo-Brazzaville’s national police, arrested in France for crimes against humanity. Nicolas Sarkozy is close to the president of Côte d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, whose wedding ceremony he conducted as mayor of Neuilly.
Black and white cliques work together for private profit (and are ruining France too, though the French media show no interest). France has seen many scandals involving African countries, and vice versa. In 2005 South African president Jacob Zuma was charged (in his own country) with accepting a kickback from the French group Thales in relation to arms contracts.
Africa’s only answer to a persistent French desire to re-colonise it is to corrupt France’s power-greedy elites. The country has a growing number of information websites on Africa, but none provide serious coverage of elections, scandals or struggles for influence, and most reporting on elections in Togo, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire or Congo falls wide of the mark. Few reported that the outcome of Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential election in October 2015 was not credible: Ouattara was re-elected at the first round with 83.6% of the vote, a figure that recalls Soviet elections: the social and electoral makeup of African countries make it impossible for anyone to win at the first round with so high a proportion of the vote.
There is an urgent need for honest French reporting of corruption, the conduct of elections and the influence of various presidents’ sons (as in Togo, Gabon, Senegal, Mali or Guinea). Africans seem sure of their French godfathers: “It’s only after François Hollande was elected that I was able to sleep soundly,” Conde was reported to have said in Paris in 2012. Last October, Hollande publicly congratulated his Guinean protégé on his re-election even before the official results were in.
The argument invoked by western governments — a need to ensure the stability of the regimes in power — leads to disaster. Institutional stability is desirable, though in Africa, where there are no states worthy of the name, strong men make strong institutions. But as Barack Obama remarked, “Africa doesn’t need strong men, it needs strong institutions.” Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaore, replied confidently, just three months before being ousted: “There are no strong institutions without strong men.”Whena strong man comes to power, everyone bows down — the supreme court, the army, the national police and sometimes even the Church, as in Guinea. Back in 1978 Valéry Giscard d’Estaing invoked “stability” to justify Operation Léopard, a military intervention in Zaire (now the DRC) to free European hostages held by rebels opposing Marshal Joseph Mobutu. France was helping an ally: when Mobutu fell in 1997, after 32 years in power, all of the DRC fell with him.
The modern world is changing faster than Africa’s outdated systems, founded on postcolonial archaisms. The best form of government is known throughout the world: it is democracy. We must build political systems that are strong and flexible, like buildings designed to withstand earthquakes. There is nothing revolutionary in this: it’s a matter of establishing a social contract founded on a bare minimum of trust, by allowing internal debate and strengthening institutions.
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