The popular protest trend set by the Arab Spring forced the departure of such strongmen as Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya in relatively quick succession. Those winds of change seemed as though headed for sub-Saharan countries but, alas, ran out of steam. Only momentarily. Now another African dictator who clearly overstayed his welcome departed in ignominy.
The fall of Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso – after four days of popular protests to resist his attempt to extend his 27-year reign – is the latest signal of a paradigm shift taking hold on the continent: Sub-Saharan Africans have had enough of perpetual presidencies and, like their northern counterparts who ushered in the so-call Arab Spring, will rise for greater rights and freedoms.
Remarkably, there’s even concurrent institutional change to bolster the manifest popular will. The African Union, which once acted like a dictators’ frat-club or support network, frowns upon constitutional change to extend presidential terms limits in its revised Charter.
Since the end of colonial rule in the 1960s, African dictators have resisted the will of their masses. Assuming haughty airs of infallibility and divine mandate, megalomaniacs on steroids across the continent competed for the top prize for human rights violations, abuse of power, pervasive corruption, gross ineptitude, nepotism and incompetence, a reign of terror and savagery and personalization of the state resources and affairs.
Post-independent African tyrants just love to linger around – and by any means necessary: Sixteen of the world’s top 30 longest-serving, nonroyal heads of state are African. Those leaders, comprising a third of Africa’s heads-of-state, have been in power for between 13 (in Cape Verde) and 39 years (in Cameroon).
The countries they lead – among them Zimbabwe, Sudan, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and the Gambia to name but a few – have in common a combination of at least two of the following: stolen or disputed elections, suppression of dissent and tampering with the constitution – be it to bar candidates deemed a threat or to eliminate restrictions on term limits.
Meanwhile, the cost to the people of these despots and their unsavory power-grabbing schemes is clear for all to see, as another dubious commonality between them countries is gross underdevelopment. Each typically ranks low on the Human Development Index, a measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standard of living – and almost all other governance, transparency and accountability and human rights indices.
Change on the continent has been in the offing for a while, however. Several attempts at constitutional changes have failed woefully. Erstwhile Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo’s attempt to alter the constitutional provision to allow for a third term candidacy was quashed by the Senate in 2006. In 2012, in the fresh aftermath of the Arab uprising, Senegal opposition forces relentlessly fought president Abdoulaye Wade’s bid for a third term. While they initially failed in their legal challenge (the judiciary was appointed by Wade), they ultimately succeeded in ousting him in the subsequent polls.
Even where they have seemingly succeeded in keeping power – notably in Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Djibouti, Uganda and Zimbabwe, with a combined total of 150 years among those leaders – there is more cause for optimism for greater democratization and accountability in the long run. Those term-limit-change proposals were met with vehement protests by an increasingly aware and rights-conscious populace. History tells us that we have not heard the last of such organic voices of change and resistance.
One hopes that our policymakers – at the White House, in Congress and at the State Department – do not make the misguided choice of standing by undemocratic leaders, who pose as allies in the “war on terror” even as they inflict their own reign of barbarism on their masses.
Sheriff Abba Drammeh of Raleigh is program associate at the Stone Center for Black History and Culture at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a Gambia native.