In the last decade, at least a dozen African leaders have had their time in office extended through constitutional amendments. The leaders of Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Djibouti, Uganda and Zimbabwe alone have been in power collectively for almost 150 years.
The latest attempt to prolong power came from Burkina Faso’s leader of 27 years, Blaise Compaore. The attempt met with fierce resistance in the capital, Ouagadougou, and eventually led to military intervention. Compaore resigned Friday.
Constitutional scholars and analysts see this as a worrying trend, and one that has little justification.
David Bilchitz, a University of Johannesburg law professor who has dedicated much of his career to studying constitutions, said maintaining power through constitutional change is no more defensible than the old tactic of grabbing it via a coup.
“I think we must distinguish — and it’s a very important distinction to make in the context of some of the developments in relation to African constitutions — the use of formal legal processes often to mask what is substantively undemocratic,” he said.
James Stent, a researcher at the Good Governance Africa think tank, said changing the constitution to stay in power "is a pretty typical example of bad governance. The AU [African Union], in fact, stands against the extension of presidential limits. There’s really no legal or moral basis in which to extend rule beyond constitutional limits.”
People push back
Increasingly, the public is losing its tolerance for bad governance. Stent said the growing trend of African nations' citizens pushing back is positive.
“It means, for one, that people are more aware of their rights in a democracy,” he said. “And perhaps also that the stories of resistance to regimes being successful, which we saw in the Arab Spring, that citizens who previously may have been unwilling to stand up to the government for fear of reprisals are now more willing to do so, and are willing to stand up for democratic processes.”
Experts say not all efforts to extend power are necessarily bad. Bilchitz noted that U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for re-election three times, defying what was then American political tradition, to steer his nation through World War II. Roosevelt died during his fourth term in office, and the U.S. Constitution was later amended to limit presidents to two four-year terms.
Such cases of extending power, Bilchitz said, are extraordinary — like a recent decision by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to suspend October’s special senatorial elections because of the nation’s Ebola crisis. The act drew allegations of abuse from her critics. Bilchitz said it was a tough call.
"I think Liberia is undergoing a tremendously trying time, an emergency which is affecting the health and the very livelihoods of the people," he said. "And so there may be a case for not having elections right at this moment, postponing it under some exception. But that would be for a limited period, and for a very limited purpose.”
The trend of constitutional tinkering does not appear to be slowing. Recently, the leaders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi — three neighbors at the nexus of what is surely the most blood-soaked patch of the continent — all have been accused of looking to the constitution for extensions.