ROGUES CORNER: What cows and coastlines have to do with democracy - and dictatorship - in Africa

Pastoralist cultures are hardy and survivalist, the climate can treacherous. The most prudent thing is to identify a good leader and follow them.

THIS is the second Rogues Corner, our weekly opinion articles that are on the edge, and make for very uncomfortable or contrarian reading, about Africa – while raising important questions about the past, present, or future of the continent. In most the cases, Mail & Guardian Africa doesn’t share or endorse the views of the authors.


BURUNDI and Rwanda have been in the news recently for their third term controversies—— both presidents are currently coming to the end of their second constitutional terms in office, though the debate has taken very different trajectories in the two countries.

In Burundi, protests against Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term bid has seen at least nine people die, hundreds arrested and nearly 20,000 flee their homes and seek refuge in Rwanda. Analysts fear the instability could spark a return to civil war, which wracked the country from 1993 to 2005. Nkurunziza has dug in his heels and insisted he will run, even presenting his nomination papers to the electoral body Friday, in the June elections.

But across the border in Rwanda, the calls are getting louder that Paul Kagame should stay for a third term. Rwandan clerics petitioned Parliament this week asking lawmakers to amend the constitution to allow President Kagame to run for third term in 2017. 

Kagame himself says he doesn’t believe in changing the constitution in favour of a third term, but is “open to going or not going” depending on the interest and the future of the country.

In neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), President Joseph Kabila also had to make concessions to protestors in January, who took to the streets demonstrating against what seemed to be an attempt to postpone the scheduled 2016 election.

And last year, Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso was chased out of office as he attempted to fiddle with the constitution to allow him extend term limits, and possibly add 15 years to the 27 years he had already served as president.

The “wave of democratic change” that swept across Africa a quarter-century ago had activists demanding an opening of the political space, in the form of multiparty, competitive elections.

But today, the third term debate is the main arena of contestation in many African countries.

Praise the coastline

After nearly all African countries adopted constitutional amendments requiring term limits in the early 1990s, implementation has been mixed.

Still, there seems to be a trend on the kind of countries that have term limits in Africa, and stick to them, and those that don’t.

In the first place, the majority of countries in Africa that have successfully upheld term limits (without an attempt to fudge the constitution, as happened in Nigeria under Olusegun Obasanjo, Zambia under Frederick Chiluba, and Malawi under Bakili Muluzi) tend to be coastal - Ghana, Benin, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya; only Mali and Botswana are landlocked and have adhered to term limits.

It is probably because historically, seafaring countries tend to be more tolerant, open to change and building consensus across diverse groups, with the constant inflow of new ideas, exotic goods and immigrants.

In Mali’s case, its centrality in the Trans-Saharan trade routes gives it the same historical openness as coastal countries.

Landlocked - and “insular”?

The third term rollbacks also tend to emerge in landlocked countries, which historically tend to be more insular and have strong tradition of looking up to an authority figure.

Apart from the recent controversies in Rwanda, Burundi, and Burkina Faso; Uganda, Chad and Niger have also done away with term limits, Lesotho and Swaziland do not have any constitutional limits, Zimbabwe only set term limits in 2013. You could even include  “near-landlocked” DR Congo here, where Kabila is said to be mulling a third term bid.

Countries that have been through prolonged war, conflict or a painful struggle for independence tend to value stability. It is probably what accounts for the removal of term limits in countries like Algeria, Namibia, Guinea, Chad and Uganda, and also to the current debate in Rwanda and DR Congo.

The effect of geography seems to be mixed. Theoretically, a flat country is easier to travel over, and so, like in the case of coastal countries, favours the spread of people, ideas and consensus building.

Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Guinea are hilly, and are either embroiled in the third term debate or have discarded them outright.

Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Namibia are relatively flat, but against the theory, have also gone the way of throwing out term limits.

Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique have a varied terrain, but have adhered to term limits, while flat Bostwana and Zambia have upheld term limits.

Pastoralist culture

Perhaps there is something else there. Many of the countries that have discarded term limits tend to have a significant pastoralist culture. Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso are arid, flat countries of the Sahel that have pastoralism as the livelihood for the majority of people. This group also includes Sudan, which has no constitutional term limits.

Those who have completed the two-term cycle without shenanigans –Ghana, Benin, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa and Sierra Leone – do not have pastoralism, or pastoralist culture, as a salient factor in the political life of the country.

Pastoralist cultures are hardy and survivalist, the climate can be variable and even treacherous, and it would take too much time to ask everyone’s opinion before making a move. The most prudent thing is to identify a good leader and follow them.

For Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi’s case, although they are largely sedentary farmer societies, cattle-keeping historically performed an important social function as a signifier of wealth and status, and so the pastoralist values are entrenched.

It probably explains why some African cultures have a higher tolerance for the uncertainty of political transitions, and others don’t.


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