Don’t touch my constitution! Burkina Faso's lesson

A popular uprising in the west African country reflects a wider awakening among citizens and young people across the continent.

Yuhniwo Ngenge
4 November 2014

The political and constitutional crisis in Burkina Faso erupted with speed and still has some way to run. Its immediate cause was a scheduled vote to amend the constitution, which would have paved the way for the incumbent president, Blaise Compaoré - who came to power in 1987 - to prolong his stay. But on Thursday 30 October, protesters took to the streets in the west African country's main cities, Ouagadougou and Bobo Diolaasu, burned down parliament and ensured the vote's postponement.

The protests led the army to impose a state of emergency. Compaoré, who had briefly disappeared from the scene, returned to announce the establishment of a twelve-month transitional administration which he insisted on heading. By noon on Friday 31 October, however, fresh protests forced the president to resign. The scene has now shifted to the army, amid concerns that military leaders are seeking to use the opportunity to take power and deny the people the fruits of their victory.

The questions raised by these developments go to the heart of constitutional democracy. They include why term limits have become such a sensitive issue in contemporary Africa, and why and how citizens are taking steps to protect them from abuse.

In Burkina Faso's case, Article 37 of the 1991 constitution (which was revised in 2000, 2003 and 2012) imposes a two-term limit for the president. The planned vote was the second time Compaoré had sought to manipulate the rule; the first was in 1997, when he repealed the term-limit provision set in 1991, before civil and political strife forced him to reintroduce it in 2000.

Most sub-Saharan countries introduced term-limit provisions as part of a package of reforms in the early and mid-1990s to democratise politics and end the growing phenomenon of "life presidencies" in post-colonial Africa. The events in Burkina Faso provide a fresh reminder of a disturbing trend: presidents introducing constitutional term-limits only to scrap them (or attempt to do so) when they are no longer politically convenient. This has happened in two waves - with a third one now underway.

The political context

The first wave came just before and after the turn of the millennium. If Blaise Compaoré in 1997 was the pioneer, he was followed by Sam Nujoma of Namibia (1999), Omar Bongo of Gabon (2003), Lansane Conté of Guinea (2003), Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo (2002), and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia in (2002).

The second wave picked up from the mid-2000s through the turn of the decade with Idriss Déby of Chad (2005), Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (2005), Paul Biya of Cameroon (2008), Abdelazziz Bouteflika of Algeria (2008). There were also several failed attempts to abolish term-limits, including in Zambia (2001), Malawi (2003), by Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria (2006), Mamadou Tandja of Niger in 2009, and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal (2011).

Today, a third wave is appearing, even as the crisis in Burkina Faso unfolds. Incumbents in at least three other African countries are currently seeking officially to scrap term-limit provisions to pave the way for their re-election, while others may discreetly be preparing the ground for it.

The first group comprises Joseph-Désiré Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, and Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville. In a familiar tone, characteristic of how changes have been engineered across the continent, allies of Rwanda’s Paul Kagame have been urging him to stay and are now seeking a vote to allow him a third term, even as the president himself remains suspiciously ambiguous on the subject. The incumbent Yayi Boni In Benin, often considered a rare positive story of francophone Africa’s democratic progress in recent decades, has also proposed reforms to the 1990 constitution which many local actors see as a strategic ploy designed eventually to extend his stay in power.

These nineteen countries, twelve of them francophone and six anglophone (along with Cameroon which is both) are a sad reminder of the challenges of entrenching democratic alternation of power and constitutional governance on the continent. In this context, events in Burkina Faso reinforce a glimmer of hope, resonant of the early days of Arab-spring revolts, that the populace can rise up to demand political change. They reveal that Africans, long held back by the chains of a victim mentality or tribal or patronage-based loyalties, are becoming more politically conscious and engaged. Younger Africans in particular are highly distrustful of politicians and becoming more resilient against repressive leadership. In addition they are also becoming more aware of their rights and more willing to fight to protect the constitutions in which these rights are enshrined.

The attitude of "touche pas a ma constitution" has inspired a French human-rights project  with this name and provoked African citizens to widespread protests. In Senegal, the phrase was a rallying-cry for protesters as they fought Abdoulaye Wade's efforts in 2011 to run for a third term. The same was  the case in Cameroon in 2008 and more recently in the DRC. Although the protests have not all been successful, they are significant for two reasons.

First, they demonstrate that citizens no longer see constitutions as a matter for politicians alone, but as determining their own relationship with these politicians. In other words, they  are  beginning to recognise not only what a constitution is but also why it matters for them.

Second, they are a signal to authoritarian leaders across the continent that citizens are no longer prepared to remain passive observers while politicians make and break rules and tamper with their constitutions for selfish political interests.

It is not hard to see why this is becoming the case. Multiparty politics, introduced during the democratic reforms of the early and mid-1990s, has failed to take genuine root across most of Africa. A single party dominated by one individual has consistently dominated the political space, due in part to questionable, yet barely  challenged, electoral victories.  The well-known examples include Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), Paul Biya’s Cameroon Peoples’ Democratic Movement (CPDM), Sassou Ngessou’s Congolese Party of Labour (CPL), Joseph Kabila’s  Peoples’ Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), and Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

Opposition political parties are either too weak to be effective due to an uneven playing-field, persecuted and intimidated into silence, or become victims of different forms of cooptation by the ruling regime. In consequence, such parties split apart or lose public credibility, to the advantage of the ruling party. The examples of manipulation include Cameroon’s Social Democratic Front (SDF) and Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Moreover, the dominance of one political party has created extremely weak political institutions. Legislatures are dominated by the same party that holds the executive power; judiciaries are packed with sympathetic judges; the military is co-opted with high salaries and other benefits. Thus, parliaments and judiciaries become mere agents of the executive, completely incapable of upholding the principle of separation of powers and providing effective checks on the executive. Unsurprisingly, African heads of state have become increasingly powerful and unaccountable, setting up patronage systems in which friends and sympathisers are rewarded and troublemakers punished.

All this has generated greater citizen distrust with the broader political establishment across the continent, often reflected in high voter abstention. Opposition parties as well as the ruling party are increasingly seen as two sides of the same coin, having the capture and retention of political power as their only objective and seeing political office only as a means for self-enrichment. The torching of Burkina Faso’s parliament and the homes of members of parliament from both regime and opposition sides is a clear sign of this broader dissatisfaction.

The lesson

So how can the widely observed political apathy in Africa be reconciled with the scenes in Burkina Faso, where citizens risked (and in thirty cases lost) their lives in order to prevent a parliamentary vote? The timing is instructive. That the government was overthrown at the moment it sought to entrench its power in the constitution indicates a growing understanding of the separation of the state (as something owned by the people-as-sovereign) from the government (as transitory managers of the state on behalf of the people). The constitution provides the rules which cannot be broken if this core concept of democratic constitutionalism is to hold.

Blaise Compaoré - once regarded by some as Africa’s venerated peacemaker - is now gone in disgrace. Will others contemplating a longer stint in power take heed? Perhaps. But one lesson they must learn from Burkina Faso is that sub-Saharan Africa’s citizens and youth are waking up and guarding their constitutions closely. It’s no longer business as usual.

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