Some people say African countries, or leaders rather, seem to have their own type of customizable democracy, something akin to a buffet where customers add different items as they go along the table. Democracy in Africa is too often prone to whimsical changes designed to allow Presidents to continue their stays in office. In the past African leaders have tried to influence the democratic process in their countries by changing the constitution to either extend the length of the term of office or increase the number of terms of offices they can run for.
Historically, attempts by those African leaders that try to prolong their presidencies have produced different results. Some leaders have been unsuccessful in their attempts: In 2007 Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria tried unsuccessfully to run for a third term; Frederick Chiluba of Zambia suffered a similar fate as Obasanjo in his attempt to run an additional third term. After a 6-year trial he was recently acquitted of charges of stealing half a million dollars of state money when he was President, despite being found guilty by a British court of stealing tens of millions of dollars. Those who failed to gain an additional term are, however, fewer than those succeeded.
On August 4, 2009, Nigeriens went to the polls to vote on a referendum on whether to allow President Mamadou Tandja to extend his term for three more years. The Nigerien Electoral Commissioner declared that 92.5% of the votes were in favor of referendum. During the campaign leading to the voting day the opposition had called for a boycott of the referendum. After the declaration of results the opposition described the referendum results as “concocted” and said that “President Tandja was no longer the head of state” but rather “the author of a coup.” The opposition, itself, has also come under criticism for taking the easy way out by failing to stand up against the hijacking of the constitutional process; some Nigeriens believe that the opposition has not fulfilled its promise to stop the referendum.
By successfully altering his country’s democratic status quo in Niger, 71-year old Tandja has joined a circle of African leaders that have managed to extend their terms in office through one means or another. Some of these leaders are: Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, Idriss Deby of Chad, Sam Nujoma of Namibia, Paul Biya of Cameroon and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. During U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Ghana, he stressed the need for Africa to develop strong institutions rather than rely on strongmen.
With many African Presidents having unlimited powers over many non-governmental institutions that should otherwise act as checks on the executive, it is hard to see how future disruptions in the democratic process can be prevented. It is only through legislations that empower these institutions that real democracy can be enhanced. But with the legislature in many African countries strongly tied to the executive, another hurdle in the path of democracy arises…