Obama may struggle to persuade African leaders to step down timeously at leadership summit.
When United States President Barack Obama faces the large group of heads of state he invited for the first US-Africa Leadership Summit in Washington on August 6, he will almost certainly be aware that many of them came to power while he was still a university student.
Civil society organisations are urging him to use the opportunity afforded by the summit to remind the long-serving African leaders about the need to step down after their terms expire.
In no less than six African countries, most of them Francophone, there are plans afoot by heads of state to change their Constitutions to stay in power for longer than legally permitted.
The rumours and allegations on changing term limits have led to political strife and, in some cases, violent protests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Burkina Faso, Benin, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.
“The bids by leaders to change their Constitutions to stay on are one of the main sources of instability in many countries in Africa today,” says DRC legal expert Jean-Pierre Fofé Djofia Malewa.
Speaking at a conference on international justice organised by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa in Senegal earlier this month, he said all eyes are on Obama to see whether he will mention the issue at the summit.
“The message should be [to] keep things simple [and] stick to the Constitution,” he said.
In the DRC, President Joseph Kabila has been in power for more than 13 years. His party is flighting the idea of either scrapping the constitutional term limits, as many of his peers have done, or changing the electoral system to a proportional one similar to that in South Africa.
The second option would allow Kabila to turn back the clock and run in the next two elections.
Kabila could learn from his Angolan neighbour José Eduardo dos Santos, who has been in power since 1979 and only changed the electoral system in 2010, ensuring that he has ample time for two constitutional mandates.
Could a word from Obama make Kabila change his mind?
Civil society activist Jeggan Grey-Johnson, from the regional office of the Open Society Foundation in Johannesburg, says Obama is being encouraged to use the summit as a platform to urge heads of state to recommit to prior engagements and instruments on good governance.
But he thinks the summit is mainly in reaction to the many previous Africa-China, Africa-Japan or Africa-Europe summits, in which politics did not play a big role.
“Obama has to tread carefully because speaking about governance could be seen as contentious,” says Grey-Johnson.
In May, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated on a visit to Kinshasa that the US is prepared to give the DRC $30-million in aid to hold elections “in accordance with the Constitution”, which was seen as a clear warning about sticking to the presidential term limits.
Swaying the other Francophone heads of state might be more difficult. In Burkina Faso, for example, plans by the ruling party to hold a referendum to change article 37 of the Constitution in order for long-time President Blaise Compaoré to serve another term has led to huge political strife.
In an interview with the weekly pan-African news magazine Jeune Afrique earlier this month, the man who took over from the popular Thomas Sankara as president in 1987 after Sankara was slain, refused to say whether he is going to push for a third term next year.
But he did say that after 27 years in power “you don’t think about yourself, but about the future of your country”.
Asked whether he is talking to his peers about constitutional term limits, notably to presidents Kabila, Thomas Boni Yayi of Benin, Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, he admitted: “I would lie if I said no, but actually [we talk] very little.”
Of this group, Sassou-Nguesso is certainly the most experienced. Having ruled the Republic of the Congo between 1979 and 1992, he again came to power in 1997, won elections in 2002 and 2009 and still seems fit enough to try for a third term in 2016. The Constitution currently forbids this.
In Rwanda, Kagame has been in power since 2000 and was elected with overwhelming majorities in 2003 and 2011. The Constitution limits the head of state to two seven-year terms, but there have been persistent suggestions by his supporters that he should change the Constitution in order to stay on beyond 2017.
These rumours and frequent media articles are seen as an effort to gauge international opinion.
The same can be said about the rumours about a third-term bid in Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza is supposed to quit power next year. Political conflict, especially involving the youth wing of the ruling party, has raised concern among observers, including the United Nations and the African Union.