Editor's Note: This blog originally appeared in the Presidential Power blog.
As the electoral calendar has it, a critical mass of francophone African countries holds presidential elections every five years – next time in 2020, see interactive map below. The politics of these seven elections provides a good indicator of general democratic trends in French-speaking West and Central Africa. None of the seven countries has previously experienced a peaceful transfer of power from one elected president to the next.
Fragility of constitutional terms
The institutionalised transfer of executive power through elections has been a challenge in many countries in francophone Africa, and respect for presidential term limits a rare commodity, particularly in the central Africa region.
Niger is the only country among the seven voting next year where the incumbent president, Mahamadou Issoufou, is stepping down at the end of his second term after organizing the nomination of another candidate for his party well in advance of next year’s presidential poll. This is all the more remarkable as Niger has no tradition of orderly succession at the head of the executive. Rather, the country has experienced repeated military coups, most recently in 2010 against then-President Tandja who had forced through the removal of term limits to remain in power after the end of his second term. 2020 would be the first time that power peacefully transitions from one elected president to the next. At the opening of a summit on presidential term limits held in Niamey in October 2019, Issoufou stated that his strongest desire is “to transfer power in 2021 to a democratically elected successor.”
Côte d’Ivoire and especially Guinea are more iffy. There, incumbent presidents are also coming to the end of their second and last term according to the constitution under which they were elected. However, neither has yet taken steps to ensure an orderly transition of executive power. In Cote d’Ivoire where the adoption of a new constitution in 2016 arguably restarted the term limit counter, President Alassane Ouattara wields the menace of a third term as a means of influencing the candidate line-up. In November 2019, he declared his intention to run if other leaders of his generation do so, risking a repeat of the highly conflictual 2010 electoral competition that led to widespread violence [see previous blog post here]. In Guinea, President Alpha Condé in late December 2019 issued a draft constitution crafted in utter secrecy by a “technical committee,” following months of swirling rumors of his intentions to abolish term limits [see previous blog post here]. The new constitution, if adopted, would extend the duration of the presidential term to six year, “renewable once.” Though transitory provisions are silent on whether the incumbent president can run again under the new terms, observers see it as the main purpose of Condé’s move. The country has experienced significant election-related violence in the past and, according to the Fragile States Index, Guinea is more at risk of conflict than countries such as Haiti and Iraq. Controversy over an attempted circumvention of presidential term limits could lead to renewed deadly confrontations between security services and opponents to a new constitution that have already cost over 20 people their lives since October 2019.
Both Burkina Faso and CAR have presidents in their first term, eligible for reelection next year. Former President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso was ousted in a popular uprising in 2014 when he tried to amend the constitution to run again after 27 years in power. Like Issoufou of Niger, incumbent President Roch Marc Kaboré is likely to learn from his predecessor’s mistakes and refrain from attempting to circumvent term limits, should he be reelected next year. In CAR, President Faustin Touadéra could face off against ousted former autocratic President Bozizé who returned to Bangui late December 2019, just in time to register as a presidential candidate for next year’s poll. Presidential elections in 2020 in CAR would be challenging under any circumstances, as the country remains largely ungovernable. While it is unclear whether Bozizé will be allowed to run, his return is hardly a boost for stability in the country.
Finally, in Burundi and Togo, incumbent presidents are serving their third term in power. Though a new constitution was adopted in 2018 that arguably resets term limits, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza has repeatedly declared that he will not run again in 2020. His critics remain skeptical, however, pointing to the absence of an heir apparent two months to the submittal of candidacies for the May elections. Absent another ruling party candidate, they fear Nkurunziza could claim to bow to popular or party pressure to extend his stay in power. In Togo, President Faure Gnassingbé has no qualms about standing for a fourth term this coming February. Presidential term limits – removed by Gnassingbé’s father in 2002 – were reintroduced in May 2019 through a constitutional amendment. They are not retroactive, however. The same family has now ruled Togo for over 50 years.
Entrenching presidential term limits has proven challenging in many parts of francophone Africa. That has been particularly true in the central Africa region, but developments in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire prove that West Africa is not spared the practice of constitutional tinkering as a means to reset the term limit counter. In Senegal, President Macky Sall has similarly been coy about his intentions, answering “Ni oui, ni non” (“Neither yes nor no”) when asked directly whether he will run again for a third term in 2024 following a constitutional change in 2019. However, as Burkina Faso demonstrated in 2014, lack of respect for limits on presidential terms can mobilize overpowering opposition and force out a recalcitrant president. Less dramatically, former President Wade of Senegal was voted out of office in 2012 when he tried to run for a third term.
Of the seven countries discussed here, only Niger is decidedly on the path of transferring power through elections next year, as a president comes to the end of his constitutionally mandated two terms. Executive power still does not transfer easily in most parts of French speaking Africa. Even potentially well intentioned presidents struggle with the dilemma laid out by President Sall: “Si je dis que je ne serai pas candidat, les membres du gouvernement ne vont plus travailler, chacun va essayer de se positionner. Si je dis que je serai candidat, une vive polémique va s’ensuivre” (“If I say I’m not a candidate, no one in the cabinet will work anymore, everyone will try to position him/herself. If I say that I am a candidate, a major controversy will ensue”). Establishing an orderly process of designating an heir apparent (dauphin) remains a major challenge in nascent democracies across francophone Africa. In Niger, President Issoufou also had to manage internal tensions within the ruling party – his distinct advantage was that he started early and kept a tight rein on the process.