By: Malika Dia
“With full consideration, the question in posed in simple terms, should we or should we not make changes to the current constitution of our nation.” – Denis Sassou Nguesso, president of the Republic of the Congo.
Starting October 18th all the way to the 31st, Internet, cellular and instant messaging services were disabled in the Congolese nation. Not so coincidentally, the current president of the Republic of the Congo Mr. Nguesso was in the process of altering the constitution in order to further prolong his presidency. He has been in power since 1997 and this modification would grant him the right to run again in 2016. If he were to win, he would keep the presidency until 2031 or for 34 years (from 1997). Granted, the change in the constitution was publicized as a way to modernize infrastructure and governmental procedures but it is safe to assume that his main motive was to remain in power for as long as possible.
Sassou Nguesso announced on October 27th that 72.5% of Congolese citizens participated in the vote for this referendum. In addition the minster of interior affairs Raymond Mboulou claimed that the ballots showed 93-96% of votes in favor of this change to the constitution. That being said, journalists, citizens and oppositionists of the referendum recall the voting stands being mostly empty and state that very few people made the effort to go off and vote. The opposition states that “announcing a rate of participation of over 72% is scandalous… the results have most definitely been falsified.” Pascal Tsaty Mabiala, one of the heads of the opposition, claims that the rate of participation in the vote could not have exceeded 10%.
In the Republic of the Congo, 70% of the population is under 25 years old and would have mostly known Sassou Nguesso as president. He took control of the nation in 1997 using armed forces during the Congolese civil war and his plan is now seemingly to increase the age limit and mandate limit instilled in the constitution. Before that, he had been head of state from 1979 to 1992 before being defeated that year in a presidential election. In all, if we were to take into account his presidency from 1972-1992, Sassou Nguesso has been in power already for 38 years. Apart from the opposition and a few brave voices from a mostly silenced population, not much has come from the citizens about this topic. That being said, there was very little ability for contact with all mobile and Internet services being limited and the government proclaiming a ban on public gatherings and protests.
This pattern of hogging power that Sassou Nguesso has exemplified has repeated itself in a number of countries in Africa; quasi dictatorship and blatant corruption remain major problems in some of these nations. Seven nations currently have non-royal heads of state that have been in power for over 25 years. For example Teodoro Obiang Mbasogo is one of the world’s longest serving leaders and has been in power in Equatorial Guinea for 35 years. He began with seemingly well-founded intents in 1972 after overthrowing his uncle whom was responsible for national genocide as well as murders within his own family. That being said, he has refused to step down despite having exceeded the maximum number of years allowed for presidency that is included in the Guinean constitution. Robert Mugabe is another example of an even more radical dictatorship. The 91-year-old man has been the head of state in Zimbabwe since February of 1987 and the only president since Zimbabwe gained its independence. He began as a schoolteacher but was quickly fascinated by nationalist politics in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe.) He was a primary founder of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union and rose up the ranks due to his immense popularity and the efficiency of his party. From there he was elected president under a free Zimbabwe and even elected chairman of the African Union in 2015. Despite Western condemnation and comparisons to Hitler (one of which was made by himself) Mugabe has in the past sworn he would not step down.
(Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe President and Chairman of the African Union)
Theories have been suggested as to why these patterns of prolonged presidency have occurred in African states as well as in other areas heavily impacted by European colonization. Conclusions have been drawn to the lack of effective internal structures and institutions ensuing the often-abrupt liberation of these nations from colonists. Insufficient time and experience as well as the pressure to quickly rebuild a nation have lead to abuses of power from opportunists who managed to seize the presidency in claims of attempting to efficiently reconstruct national peace.
Another factor to keep in mind is the original intent of the dictators. Many of them were liberationists, freeing their people from the wretchedness of colonialism. Men like Mugabe have effectively maintained their status as national heroes because they were driving forces in achieving independence. He, and many others, intelligently continue to fuel hatred for the west, and thus support from the people who have seen the impacts of neo-colonialism and the often hypocritical actions taken by Western countries in regard to the well-being of Africans. They keep citizens under their favor by turning the attention to Western hypocrisy instead of internal issues. In turn, some of these autocratic rulers believe that they are fully deserving of their life long decisions. They concoct the meritocracy that has them as the rightful rulers of their respective nations. In addition, the often sudden gain of power fuels a paranoid, narcissistic awareness of self that plays out in rash/uncooperative decision-making and obsession with keeping power.
The citizens of these autocratic African nations have the wounds of colonialism and the issues that ensued burned clearly in their minds. For example, Zimbabwe gained its independence from Britain a mere 36 years ago (1980.) Just 18 years ago (1997) the Republic of the Congo had broken out into a full-blown civil war. Citizens of many of these nations have recent conflicts in vivid memory are in search for stability. They have seen the destruction that could occur from a revolution or a change in regime. Many would rather live under a strict, often corrupt, autocracy than to have to survive another war or conflict. It can be understood that many refrain form protesting, choosing the lesser of two evils.
Still, it would be foolish to disregard the moments in which Africans fought for a political system that was less corrupt and prone to autocracy. The Arab Spring is a prime example of demonstrations that ultimately escalated to the removal of a leader from their position. The riots broke out in late 2010, beginning in Tunisia and spreading all through the Arab League. By 2012, leaders had been removed from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. More recently, in October of 2014, Burkina Faso had a revolution sparked by the previous president, Blaise Compaore when he announced that he was going to make changes to the constitution. His intention in doing so was for him to run for the presidency for the 5th time and remain in power. Throughout that month, riots and protests broke out in the nation; pressure was so high that Blaise Compaore ultimately had to leave office and an interim head of state was instituted until the elections the following year.
(The Arab Spring in Tunisia)
In addition to recognizing the fact that Africans are willing to oppose a government that has taken advantage of them, we must remember that perhaps Western ideals of an ultimate government are not perfectly applicable or right for other nations. As mentioned above, colonialism greatly affected the way in which many African governments were put in place, and patterns have created themselves in particular countries. Even so, there are African nations that have well functioning democracies/political systems. Botswana for example, has been extremely successful in maintaining its constitutional democracy, and elections have been smoothly run every five years since the country’s independence.
With all of this in mind, nations have turned to the Republic of the Congo and await with anxiety for the events to unfold. Still, the international community has remained almost too quiet. France proclaimed it was in support of consensual constitutional evolutions but has not made clear statements as to whether Sassou Nguesso’s alterations to the constitution were included in that category. The African Union, the United States and the European Union seem to also be in accord with the French statement. The opposition and Congolese citizens alike have remained uneasy but relatively quiet. With a history of coups and warfare, many would rather seek peace under a dictator than democracy after another war. As for what is to happen to Sassou Nguesso and his pattern of prolonged presidency, only time will tell.