Africa uneasy: Huge protest in Congo against Nguesso's bid to become president for life

“We have to understand, in Africa too, that we are able to offer an example, and that power is not an end in itself” - Senegal president Macky Sall.

THOUSANDS of people staged a mass demonstration in Congo’s capital Brazzaville to protest at plans by veteran ruler Denis Sassou Nguesso to try to extend his rule.

The Sunday rally was the biggest since Sassou Nguesso returned to power in 1997, an AFP journalist said, stretching for almost a kilometre along a main boulevard in the city centre.

“Sassou out!” echoed through Brazzaville’s central Boulevard des Armees as some protesters carried banners reading “Sassoufit”, a play on words that sounds like “that is enough” in French, the nation’s official language. 

The roughly two-hour demonstration ended without violence, though some local businesses closed up early fearing there might be trouble.

If a planned referendum is approved on changes to allow Sassou Nguesso to run again—dubbed a “constitutional coup” by the opposition—he would be eligible to contest elections next year and extend his total of three decades in power.

Under the country’s current constitution, he has already served the maximum two terms as president and is over the age limit of 70 to run for the nation’s top office.

Sassou Nguesso, a former rebel leader, on Tuesday announced the plans for a plebiscite on constitutional changes but gave no dates for the vote.

The 72-year-old president had previously convened a “national dialogue”, which came out “by a large majority” in favour of amending the constitution to remove the term and age limits.

Congo’s turn for revolution

The changes would effectively pave the way for him to stand for a third term in 2016.

During the demo, one of the leaders of the opposition Union for Congolese Democracy (UDC) told the crowd the nation’s people would need to decide how to respond to the president’s manoeuvres.

“When president Sassou Nguesso announces the date of the referendum, we will put out an appeal to the people,” said Andre Okombi Salissa.

“After Niger, Egypt, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, now it is Congo’s turn,” he added, referring to democracy movements that have met varying degrees of success across the African continent in recent years.

Sassou Nguesso was president from 1979 until 1992. He then served as opposition leader and returned to power at the end of a brief civil war in 1997 in which his rebel forces ousted president Pascal Lissouba.

He was elected president in 2002, then again in 2009, prompting cries of fraud from his foes.

“The time of change is upon us because we have already had more than 30 years with the same leader,” said Mathias Dzon, a leader from opposition group Frocad. 

Central African blues

There seems to be a shift against term limits among Africa’s incumbent political classes, with Central Africa being the epicentre of this pushback, and few external protests against what critics dub as attempts by leaders to becomes “presidents for life” have succeeded.

Term limits have mostly survived because of internal reform or when reaffirmed by leaders who don’t want to cling to power.

In Burundi, the country has descended into violence after President Pierre Nkurunziza pushed ahead with his decision to stand for what the opposition and civil society said was an illegal third term.

A coup bid to stop Nkurunziza failed, and in the crisis that has followed nearly 180,000 Burundians have fled as refugees to neighbouring countries, and most of the progress the country had made since its deadly civil war ended in 2005 has been wiped out.

In neighbouring Rwanda, both houses of Parliament voted by nearly 100% to approve a referendum that is set to extend President Paul Kagame’s rule when his second seven-year term ends in 2017.

A committee set out to seek national views said it found only 10 people opposed to the third term, and an opposition petition in court couldn’t find a lawyer.

Rwanda has become a star example in many areas, overcoming the 1994 genocide in which nearly one million people, most of them Tutsi, were killed and that preceded a power take-over by Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels led by Kagame.

Supporters of the third term say Kagame has done an exemplary job, he is still relatively young, and the country will be well-served if he stayed on and “finished the good job”.

By contrast, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, seven parties belonging to the ruling coalition two weeks ago called on President Joseph Kabila to respect the nation’s constitution and nominate a candidate to run as his successor, adding to a growing number of voices urging him to abide by the charter’s term limits.

The so-called G7 group called on Kabila to identify someone from within the coalition to contest next year’s presidential elections, saying doubts have been raised over his intention to stand down.

Alone in the region, at the start of September, the transitional government in the Central African Republic (CAR) adopted a new constitution that would limit future presidents to two terms in office as the country seeks to end more than a year of sectarian violence.

Reformed general

Elsewhere on the continent, in Mauritania, despite President Ould Abdel Aziz having come to power through a coup in 2008 and winning re-election in a ballot boycotted by the opposition last year, the ex-general has said he had no intention of modifying the Constitution to remain in power after the end of his second mandate in June 2019.

“I never thought of changing the Constitution”, he told reporters in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital in March. The country’s law stipulates non-renewable two presidential mandates of five years.

In other countries, the two-term limit, while being upheld, is also being tightened up.

Liberia is set to put to a referendum a proposal to cut the presidential tenure from six to four years as part of a package of constitutional reforms. A national constitutional conference recently voted by a majority to back the shortened limit.

Macky Sall cuts term

In March, Senegal president Macky Sall said he was proposing a referendum that would cut his presidential term from seven to five years.

“I was elected for seven years (but) next year, I will propose the organisation of a referendum for the reduction of my mandate,” he told a news conference with foreign media in Dakar.

“Have you ever seen presidents reduce their mandate? Well I’m going to do it,” Sall told the meeting, making good on a pledge which formed part of his election campaign in 2012.

“We have to understand, in Africa too, that we are able to offer an example, and that power is not an end in itself,” he added.

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