Succession bane of African politics

Over the next five years, nearly 20 countries will hold elections in which long-serving presidents will have to choose between clinging to power or organising a credible transition to a new generation of leaders.

The Africa Report.

North Africa’s awakening —which swept away the dictatorships of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi within six months in 2011 — sent a powerful signal to leaders on the rest of the continent. Tolerance is wearing thin for life presidents and their extended families of kleptocrats and security thugs.

The presidents of countries such as Uganda, Burkina Faso, Eritrea and Congo- Brazzaville have responded with their own schemes to legitimise extensions to their rule, but the pressure from opposition forces is mounting. After a decade of strong growth following Africa’s wave of democratisation in the 1990s, citizens and activists are jealously guarding new economic and political freedoms.

Aisha Abdullahi, the African Union’s Commissioner for politics, sees opposition groupings taking on the succession question more forcefully: “In Nigeria and Senegal, where the incumbent presidents attempted to enjoy an unconstitutional third term, the people protested. In Senegal President Abdoulaye (Wade) was voted out of power and in Nigeria during President (Olusegun) Obasanjo’s government, people protested and he withdrew (plans to change the constitution to allow a third term).”

Abdullahi also believes that opposition parties are getting better organised to take on sit-tight leaders and entrenched regimes: “All across the continent, the opposition parties are beginning to understand that opposition is not about fighting but coming together in a constructive manner, to provide checks and balances to government.”

In Djibouti, where the press, opposition, security services and ruling party are subservient to the presidency, President Omar Guelleh faced no serious challenge to his extended stay in office. In 2011, Guelleh said he would work with a hand-picked team to find a successor in 2016: “I will try, with all discretion and the help of certain people selected for their wisdom, their patriotism and their disinterest to identify the person that could best carry out this heavy task.”

Sudan’s succession is more complicated. President Omar al-Bashir announced in 2012 that he would not represent the National Congress Party in another presidential election. He seized power in 1989, backed by the National Islamic Front and the military; his Islamist regime is now fighting internal wars on four fronts and still jousting with South Sudan.

But Al-Bashir’s indictment by the International Criminal Court at The Hague for war crimes in Darfur may make him reluctant to leave the presidency voluntarily for fear his successor would hand him over to the court.

The defeat of incumbent presidents by opposition challengers in countries such as Ghana, Mauritius and Senegal remains the exception not the rule. That’s mainly due to the powerful monolithic parties such as long-serving Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF which has ruled the country since independence in 1980, helped by its close ties with the Central Intelligence Organisation and the army, as well as its stranglehold on business.

In Mozambique, as in Namibia, the long-serving ruling party does not face a serious threat from the opposition but respects the constitution and imposes term limits on its presidents. In late 2012, supporters of President Armando Guebuza tried to persuade the ruling Frelimo to allow him to run for a third term to manage the development of the country’s multi-billion-dollar gas industry.

But Frelimo militants and opposition activists thought Guebuza would use another term to expand his personal business interests and those of his children. So far they have won the day.

Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame appointed a three-member panel of the Rwandan Patriotic Front to develop a succession plan in February. Kagame repeats like a mantra that he will be leaving in 2017, but always adds caveats: “Come 2017, we are going to have change. But there needs to be continuity and stability. Therefore the challenge is how do we organise this change while at the same time ensuring continuity of what we have achieved and retaining the stability of the country?”

Even the most hardened military commander-turned president such as Yoweri Museveni, Kagame and Blaise Compaoré keeps an obsessive eye on the power plays. The ambitious but careless leader can pay an extremely high price. Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja orchestrated a third term and changed the constitution in 2009. But less than a year later, in February 2010, he was overthrown by Colonel Salou Djibo.

General David Sejusa’s open letter in late May about Uganda’s deepening succession crisis and the military’s opposition to the fast rise of Museveni’s son Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba forced the Museveni family out of the succession closet. In June, Muhoozi denied there was a plot to install him but keeps the promises vague: “The power to choose how Uganda is governed lies with Ugandans and not a single individual …Uganda is not a monarchy where leadership is passed on from father to son.”

In Burkina Faso, Compaoré has been diminished by the army mutinies and student protests of 2011, although he’s still plotting another unconstitutional term for 2015. Compaoré counts on his Congress for Democracy and Progress and the weakness of the opposition to stay in power. He told our sister publication Jeune Afrique in October 2012: “If I say today that I am going, it will be a problem … If I say the opposite, it will equally be a problem because people will say that I am hanging on to power.”

Nevertheless, the military has a history of intervention in politics and Compaoré himself came to power in a coup that killed president Thomas Sankara in 1987. Compaoré’s response to the 2011 mutinies was to improve conditions for soldiers and to impose more discipline throughout the ranks.

With elections in Algeria planned for April 2014 and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika just returned from France in July after being hospitalised for a stroke in April, the security forces hold the keys to a post-Bouteflika future. While the ruling National Liberation Front has a strong national base and long history as a ruling party, it is Lieutenant General Mohamed “Tewfik” Mediène and Chief-of-Staff General Ahmed Gaïd Salah who control power forces within the military and intelligence services that have an interest in protecting their prerogatives should a succession become a necessity.

In 2012, Bouteflika said he would not seek another term, but the ruling party has not yet sought to identify and select a candidate.

The popular opposition to Wade’s third-term bid — from groups like Y’en a Marre (We’ve Had Enough) — and attempts to prepare his son Karim to take over in 2012 show how popular opposition can defeat some leaders’ efforts to perpetuate their hold on power.

Early this year, Burkinabe activists formed M37, an opposition platform based on the model of Senegal’s M23, which successfully campaigned against a third term for Wade. Its aim is to stop Compaoré’s machinations to change the constitution and take another term. M37 knows that Compaoré’s party, the CDP, does not have the two-thirds majority in parliament to change term limits but believe he may try to fix a national referendum.

In Cameroon, President Paul Biya will be 85 when he is up for re-election again in October 2018. But he is haunted by the largest protests of his presidency, in 2008, when people demonstrated against his changes to the constitution and the high cost of living. The security forces killed around 100 people in those protests. Now civic activists are threatening to take to the streets if the government raises the fuel price. In 2012 fuel subsidies accounted for 14% of the national budget but Biya seems afraid of antagonising the activists now. He will remember that in neighbouring Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan was forced to abandon plans to cut the subsidy after mass protests.

Plans to change the constitution usually suggest that a president wants to stay in power beyond his mandate, whether it be Thomas Yayi Boni in Benin or Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A constitution setting out term limits is often the main obstacle blocking aspiring presidents-for-life. The constitution is the only impediment to Congo-Brazzaville’s Denis Sassou-Nguesso from running for a third term in 2016. Abdullahi thinks the constitutional road to a life presidency is coming to an end: “We have some cases where attempts have been made by the leaders to modify the constitution, but I think it’s a practice that we shall soon get rid of.”

In early July, opposition leader Zéphirin Diabré in Burkina Faso banded together with opposition and civil society groups to protest against Compaoré’s plans to create a senate to fix the constitution. At their protests on 29 June in Ouagadougou, one banner was unambiguous: “25 years in power. Enough is enough. Go away!”

During the Arab Spring, Bouteflika announced that he would implement fundamental reforms through a new constitution, a process which has since stalled. He does not need to change the constitution again to run in 2014 because he already changed it in 2008 to run in as many elections as he likes. El Fadjr El Jadid leader Tahar Benbaïbèche said that Bouteflika’s illness had paralysed government: “Algeria has never experienced a situation like that since independence…The absence of the president of the republic created blockages at all of the institutions.”

By promoting the political and business interests of their families, presidents can complicate their own successions. Handing power from father to son has not been accepted by the population while the president is living but has happened when a sitting president dies in office, as in Togo in 2005 and Gabon in 2009 or the DRC in 2001. Gabon’s President Ali Ben Bongo raised a laugh at a London business conference in 2011 when he explained he was simply following his “father’s profession” when he took over the presidency in Libreville.

But the stakes are deadly serious for the would-be dynasties. In Equatorial Guinea, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo’s grip on power ensures the dominance of his children and relatives in the political, military and business elite in Malabo.

His son Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue is vice-president for defence and security; Gabriel Mbega Obiang Lima, a son from another mother, is oil minister; and his brother-in-law Candido Nsue Okomo runs the state- owned oil company GEPetrol. Nguema gave Mangue a more powerful post and a claimed diplomatic immunity in a reshuffle in May 2012 as France and the United States were pursuing charges against the president’s son for money laundering.

Unplanned transitions within ruling families can bring chaos and conflict, as they did after President Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s death in Togo in February 2005. He had not chosen anyone to replace him from his family or the ruling party. With the support of the military, Eyadéma’s son Faure Gnassingbé took over and organised elections that the opposition denounced as fraudulent.

Family politics continue to cause instability. Faure’s government arrested his half- brother and former defence minister Kpatcha Gnassingbé in 2009 based on claims that he was plotting a coup. The courts sentenced Kpatcha to jail for 20 years. As part of Eyadéma’s legacy, his family’s networks remain a part of the regime blurring the lines between the state and private power. The constitution does not bar Faure from running for a third term in 2015.

Although it’s clear that most of the veteran presidents contemplating political successions over the next five years are scheming to prolong their grip on power, it is equally clear they will face a better organised and equipped opposition well able to exploit information technology and social media.

Not only is popular resistance growing to the tired formula of dynastic politics still being planned in states such as Equatorial Guinea and Uganda, but people resent the chaos and repression that go along with such systems.

The political turmoil left in the wake of Ben Ali’s and Mubarak’s dynastic ambitions could provide a stark reality check for Malabo and Kampala. –