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Africa: From Military Coups to Constitutional Coups


Constitutional coup is an attempt to review or amend the provisions of a national constitution by an incumbent leader with the ulterior motive of capitalizing on such amendments to achieve tenure elongation.

Former President Obasanjo, a beneficiary of military coup, plotted a constitution coup

The outcome of Rwanda’s constitutional referendum held on December 18, 2015, was one of the boldest affirmations that Africa has become afflicted with a new virus – constitutional coup making.  Official results of the referendum showed that 98 per cent of Rwandans ‘wanted’ a constitutional change to permit Paul Kagame, 58, to run for a third term of seven years at the end of his current tenure in 2017.   

The country’s newly amended constitution which reduced a term from seven years to five years will come into effect when Kagame’s third term tenure of seven years will come to an end, enabling him to run for another two terms of 5-years each under the amended constitution. Essentially, the Rwandan strongman’s constitutional coup makes it possible for him to rule until 2034 – or longer if he is able to engineer another constitutional coup after that.

Until the ‘third wave’ of democracy in Africa which started with the National Conference in Benin in 1990, the continent was a playground for autocratic life presidents and military adventurists who usurped power under the veneer of little messiahs. Whereas enlightened dictatorship arguably helped some countries such as Chile under Augusto Pinochet, South Korea under Park Chung-Hee and China under Deng Xiaoping to develop economically Africa’s dictators succeeded only in further under-developing their countries both politically and economically. 

Today most of the countries in the continent are in a democratizing mode. Military coups have become passé.  Constitutional coups appear to be the new cool. Simply put, a constitutional coup is an attempt to review or amend the provisions of a national constitution by an incumbent leader with the ulterior motive of capitalizing on such amendments to achieve tenure elongation.

There are a number of observations:

The author, Jideofor Adibe

One, across the continent liberal or Western democracy is being universalized, usually with term limits. However the continent’s liberal democracy project faces resistance from two forces: adventurist soldiers who nurse a nostalgia for the period when the military was the shortest route to power in Africa and civilian beneficiaries of this ‘third wave’ of democracy who nurse a nostalgia for the period of one party dictatorships and life presidencies that prevailed in most parts of the continent from independence until the end of the Cold War.  

Since the early 1990s, at least 24 presidents in sub-Saharan Africa initiated moves to stay in office beyond the constitutionally allowed two terms. For instance in 2001 president Lansana Conte of Guinea organized a referendum that scrapped term limits. Similarly, in 2005, President Idris Deby of Chad held a referendum to delete Article 61 (2) of his country’s constitution which restricted presidents to two successive terms. Mamadou Tandja of Niger abolished term limits through a referendum even though Article 49 of the Nigerien constitution expressly forbade such a procedure.  

In Burkina Faso, President Blaise Compaoré, who had already served two terms argued in 2005 that the term limit restriction in Article 37 of the country’s constitution could not apply retroactively to him. He won tenure elongation for another two terms but was still not content. In 2014   he tried to abolish term limits altogether. The move led to riots and street upheavals which forced him out of office and into exile. Meanwhile some military adventurists led by Gen. Gilbert Diendere tried to cash in on the situation by toppling the country’s interim government. 

The coup was fiercely resisted both by the local populace and the regional organisations – the ECOWAS and the African Union. In Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade in 2012 argued that the term limits in his country’s constitution could not apply retroactively to his first term in office. He won the case in court and ran for a third term – but lost.  Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza who violently resisted months of popular discontent eventually got his third term in office but at a bloody cost.  In Nigeria Obasanjo was believed to have plotted for tenure elongation as his tenure was to expire in 2007. It failed.  

Similarly, one of Jonathan’s first initiatives after winning the 2011 presidential election was to push the idea of a single six-year term. The move was abandoned after it was roundly condemned as an attempt at tenure elongation. In several of the countries that tried tenure elongation, especially where the ruling party is factionalized, attempts at tenure elongation often led to violence. 

However while several incumbents plotted constitutional coups, in  countries like  Benin, Cape Verde, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe and Tanzania leaders respected themselves and the country’s constitution and stepped down honourably after exhausting their two-term limits.

Two, the trend towards constitutional coups illustrates the tension between democratic consolidation and democratic reversal in the continent.  For instance, when Compaoré sought to amend the constitution in a bid to elongate his tenure in Burkina Faso, it led to days’ of mass street protests and popular uprisings which eventually forced him out of power. Similarly popular protests helped to foil the 2015 coup in that country. 

All these are indications of growth in democratic consciousness and preference for liberal democracy – as imperfect as it is in the continent – over life presidencies and military dictatorships. Also with the number of attempted military coups in the continent (about 26 in the last five years) and the number of attempted constitutional coups (about 24 since the 1990s), one could argue that  the  possibility of democratic reversal remains real in the continent even amid democratic consolidation.

Three, another inference from the trend towards constitutional coups is that authoritarian impulses remain very strong in the continent. This is often a key feature in  newly  democratizing countries and the manifestations of this include  disobedience of court orders, manipulating court  rulings, commoditizing justice and criticisms of democracy  by government officials as an imported Western doctrine that has to ‘be adapted to African culture and realities’. 

I recently had a discussion with a retired army officer on what Nigerians now call ‘Dasukigate’. My position was that under the separation of power doctrine that undergirds democracy, only a competent court of law can pronounce any one guilty or not, and if a court decides that the accused should be granted bail,  it must be honoured no matter the gravity of the allegation  against  the person. The officer was vehemently opposed to any form of bail for Dasuki, saying he was convinced that Dasuki would jump bail if it was granted to him. 

When I asked why any evidence that he would jump bail was not given to prosecuting attorney to help persuade the judge against granting him bail, he began a lengthy lecture on how corrupt our judiciary could be. When I asked why we should bother to send anyone to court if court orders could not be respected, he accused me of being “brainwashed” by the West. For him, “democracy must be adapted to our culture.” He was not able to convince me on how such adaptation should be done in this circumstance except to insist that “we must be realistic”.  Essentially therefore our putative democracy sits uncomfortably with a certain nostalgia for our authoritarian past.

Four, constitutional coups is a continuation of the sit tight syndrome for which African leaders were infamous for. As our democracy matures, we must also begin to ask ourselves tough questions: Why do some leaders refuse to leave office at the expiration of their tenure? Why is the character of our politics anarchic?  Why is there a pervasive fear that the ethnic/regional group that captures state power will use such power to privilege its in-group or disadvantage the others? Why is our politics a do-or-die affair?  As we strive to earnestly answer some of these probing questions, we will quickly realize why African leaders who do what is taken for granted elsewhere such as accepting defeat in an election or handing over power at the expiration of their tenures are rightly seen as heroes. 

Email: pcjadibe@yahoo.com, Twitter: @JideoforAdibe


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