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July 11, 2019

No third term


July 11, 2019

Two issues have dominated the attention of the African Union (AU) in the last weeks: the upheaval in Sudan and the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area. In the midst of these, a brewing crisis in Guinea seems to have skipped attention.

Guinean President Alpha Conde, the West African country’s first democratically elected leader, who is currently serving his second five-year term, is supposed to leave office in 2020 under the rules of the 2010 Constitution. However, the 81-year-old is thought to be seeking ways to orchestrate a constitutional change that would allow him to run for a third and even a fourth time.

Conde has so far evaded talking directly about the issue, but he has also refused to rule out a third term, saying his decision would be based on the “will of the people”. Prime Minister Ibrahima Kassory Fofana, appointed in May 2019, also signalled that a referendum on a new constitution is a possibility. A billboard containing the message “Yes to a referendum. Yes to a new Constitution. We support you for life.” has also been hoisted outside Guinea’s National Assembly.

If the president succeeds, he will be following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Lansana Conte – a man Conde fought hard and long to depose – who abolished term and age limits on the presidency in 2001 and died in office in 2008.

Conde’s apparent third-term bid is already causing significant deterioration of stability in Guinea. Opposition parties, civil society groups and trade unions opposed to constitutional reforms have established the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (FNDC) and called for protests. Security forces have wounded and arrested protesters and one person has reportedly been killed.

Guinea is not the only country in Africa that is grappling with the problem, dubbed “third-termism”, where incumbents either eliminate or modify presidential term limits to cling on to power. Many countries, from Egypt to Uganda to Comoros are facing the very same problem today.

The AU has controversially avoided engaging the third-term phenomenon in the past, drawing criticism that the organisation is a mere “Big Boys’ Club” serving the interests of incumbents. Conde’s attempt to cling on to power presents the AU with a prime opportunity to redeem itself, deter “constitutional coups” and support democratic alternation of power.

The AU regime against the unconstitutional change of government, first pronounced in the Lome Declaration, formalised in the AU Constitutive Act and further elaborated in the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, encompasses a range of different acts, and tasks the institution with countering coups and other types of unlawful and undemocratic power grabs.

In line with these provisions, the AU has consistently rejected military coups, most recently taking a strong stance against the attempt of the Sudanese military to take over the country following the removal of long-time President Omar al-Bashir. Moreover, on two occasions, the AU has rejected the refusal of incumbents to step down following electoral defeat - in Ivory Coast in 2011 and in the Gambia in 2017.

The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance also prohibits any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments that constitute “an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government”. However, the AU has never publicly invoked this prohibition, despite the prevalence of third-termism across the continent and has largely remained silent in the face of “constitutional coups” - incumbent leaders making amendments to the constitution to avoid term and age limits.

While it generally calls on states to follow established procedures for constitutional amendment and to ensure full citizen participation in the process, the AU seems to have merely opted to engage in quiet diplomacy on the issue.

Excerpted from: ‘It’s time for the African Union to put a stop to ‘third-termism’.


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