U.S. Diplomat Decries Hijack Of Constitutions in Africa

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Prof. Shinn: "But the idea that any particular leader ought to be legally eligible to remain in power in perpetuity, I think is just plain wrong. I think it is bad for the people who live in that country and it is not even good for the leader himself."

[Global: Africa]

A high-ranking United States diplomat and academic has joined the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in castigating African leaders who deliberately change their country’s constitutions in order to prolong their stay in power.

David H. Shinn, currently adjunct professor of International Affairs at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Relations warned African leaders against tampering with their constitutions in a bid to stay in power longer than necessary.

The career diplomat, who has served in seven African countries, said: “Those who change [their country’s] constitution simply want to extend their power. They decide that they like the position that they are in, that it provides them with the ability to extend a certain amount of patronage that is probably very satisfying to their ego. Theirs is nothing more than a desire to remain in power. Pure and simple.”

Prof. Shinn who received his BA, MA and PhD from George Washington University is a former US Ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. In an exclusive interview with The Black Star News, he compared the United States' position vis-à-vis the behavior of such African leaders to a medical condition: “It is schizophrenic because the United States government is on the record for opposing these constitutional changes that allow a leader to extend in office beyond what was originally written in
the constitution. On the other hand, the United States continues to have fairly quite cordial relations with a number of leaders who do just that.”

He listed Uganda’s President Yoweri K. Museveni as among at least 12 African leaders who have changed their country’s constitutions with the sole purpose of extending their rule, and some of whom the U.S. government has continued to have good relations with. He added: “If you look at the list of those leaders who have extended in office, the United States has good relations with several of them [although] the relations with some of them have not been particularly good.” He said those African leaders who continued to enjoy good relations with the U.S. included the late Gabonese President Omar Bongo, and the Presidents of Algeria and Tunisia, even after their prolonged their regimes.

Term limits were introduced by more than half of the continent’s states between 1990 and 1994. They came as part of a “democracy package” that included multi-party competitive elections, freedom of the press and constitutionalism. They were meant to end the practice of presidency for life, a fading era when dictators were ousted only by a coup d’état or death, or both.

Other analysts say after a surge in formulation of democratic institutions there has been considerable pushback. Dr. Kathryn Sturman, the acting head of the Governance of Africa's Resources Program of the South African Institute of International Affairs reports that the  democratic trend has been reversed in the new millennium.

She says it started with President Sam Nujoma of Namibia in 1999, followed by presidents Abdou Diouf of Senegal, Lansana Conte of Guinea, the late Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo, the late Bongo, Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, Idriss Deby of Chad, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Museveni of Uganda.  “In 2008 Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria and Paul Biya of
Cameroon joined the list of leaders ruling past their sell-by dates.

Notably, Biya introduced term limits to Cameroon in 1996, only to scrap them when his own retirement loomed,” she said.

Other African leaders --in Malawi, Zambia and Nigeria-- tried, in vain, to amend their constitutions in an attempt to prolong their reign of power.

Dr. Sturman says "robust opposition from civil society, political parties and the media has seen off these attempts."

 “The disturbing patterns seen in Africa’s struggle over term limits have continued as the Organization of African Unity has been reformed into the African Union," she adds.

"When the AU signed its new constitution in 2000, it incorporated principles of democracy and provided for sanctions against unconstitutional changes of government. New institutions were set up to protect democracy, including the Peace and Security Council, the Pan-African Parliament and the African Peer Review Mechanism of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development."

Dr. Sturman went on to add: “The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance was adopted by the AU in January 2007. Article 23 of the charter defines unconstitutional changes of government as 'illegal means of accessing or maintaining power,' including 'any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments, which is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government.' Sanctions are to be implemented by the AU against any government that tampers with its
constitution in this way. The immediate problem for the AU is that this charter has not yet entered into force. Sanctions have been implemented only against coup d’états. There is no precedent yet for sanctions against an incumbent president. And it doesn’t help that Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, who has been chairing the AU this year, has expressed his distaste for democracy from this platform.”

In terms of President Barack Obama's impact in changing U.S. engagement with the rest of the world, Prof. Shinn offered a mixed assessment: "He has tried to institute a very different approach to the Islamic world and I think to some extent, he has accomplished that. Certainly the rhetoric has changed enormously and I think that is to his credit.” Yet, Prof. Shinn adds, there hasn't been a clear cut focus with respect to Africa even though the President and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have
made trips to Africa within a short period of their coming to office.

Separately, last month Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon told the annual summit meeting of Heads of State of the African Union (AU) that the UN was concerned about the resurgence of unconstitutional changes of government in Africa.

“These actions run counter to fundamental United Nations values, international law, and the African Union’s own Constitutional Act," the world's top diplomat said. "We must also guard against the manipulation of established processes to retain power.”

Prof. Shinn noted that It is feared these types of changes could lead to a resurgence of violence in Africa leading to yet another Rwanda-like genocide. Asked whether he shared these fears, Prof Shinn said he was happy that in Rwanda itself, President Kagame had transformed his country in such a way that would avoid a return of the 1994 massacres.  He was also happy that Kagame had instituted a two seven year term. “It would be interesting to see what happens at the end of those two terms,” Shinn quipped.

Prof. Shinn goes on to say that when one looks further afield, things in Africa are rather worrisome. “The Democratic Republic of Congo is a classic case in point. Yes, it is very worrisome indeed. The situation in Darfur is somewhat better for the moment, otherwise it could return to a more difficult situation.” He was happy to note that in other parts of Africa where violence has visited before, like Sierra Leone and Liberia, two countries that were in a critical situation some 10 years ago, are much better today.

Some African leaders have said the Western world has got to accept that Western-style Democracy may not necessarily be suitable for the continent.

“Speaking as a Westerner, I obviously come with a certain bias. My bias is that the general Western liberal democratic concepts are sound ones and applicable around the world, not just to the West and to Africa but to elsewhere too," Prof. Shinn counters.  "They have been tried and tested too and make a lot of sense. But every country has got to adapt them to some extent. Even when you talk about the issue of term limits, which I firmly believe in, and an absolute core part of democracy,  that doesn’t mean you have to have term limits of precisely what the United States has, which is that the President has two terms of four years each."

He concludes: "It may make more sense for African constitutions to have two terms of five years, or two terms of six years or conceivably three terms of four years. Who knows what the precise arrangement should be?

That is up to the African countries to decide. But the idea that any particular leader ought to be legally eligible to remain in power in perpetuity, I think is just plain wrong. I think it is bad for the people who live in that country and it is not even good for the leader himself.”


Gombya is The Black Star News Europe News Editor and Africa contributor based in London

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