If the AU and ECOWAS reject coups as unconstitutional changes of government, shouldn’t the same apply to third terms?
Developments over recent months in Côte d'Ivoire point to a likely rise in tensions around the presidential polls scheduled for 31 October. Events in early August marked by protests, violence and death confirm this and are reminiscent of the 2000 and 2010/2011 post-election crises.
To prevent instability, regional bodies such as the African Union (AU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) should act against opportunistic constitutional amendments or interpretations aimed at prolonging presidential mandates.
The first protests erupted in response to former president Laurent Gbagbo's name being removed from the voters roll. Young supporters of Gbagbo's Popular Ivorian Front (FPI) protested in front of the electoral commission's offices. More protests followed in Abidjan and other parts of the country against President Alassane Ouattara's decision to run for a controversial third term.
On 5 March Ouattara, 78, had announced that he wouldn't run for a third term, and wanted to 'transfer power to a young generation.' The ruling Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) nominated prime minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly as its candidate. But he died on 8 July, and RHDP cadres almost unanimously called for Ouattara to stand for a third term.
The AU should take earlier action against opportunistic constitutional amendments or interpretations
Ouattara then made an about-turn and declared he would contest the October presidential elections. The RHDP says his candidacy will preserve peace and stability in the country. Although the constitution sets a two-term limit for the president, the RHDP claims that Ouattara can run for a third term under the new constitution, passed on 8 November 2016.
It argues that Ouattara's second term began under the Second Republic, governed by the 2000 constitution, whereas this new term would be under the Third Republic, as per the November 2016 constitution. By that logic, Ouattara could remain in power until 2030.
The opposition has dismissed the argument as spurious. It says a third term for Ouattara is unconstitutional and would go against the letter and spirit of the constitution, as well as the democratic principle of change in power.
Many African leaders have amended their constitutions to remove a prohibition on a third term. Some have succeeded, while others such as former Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaoré failed and lost power.
Supporters of Condé and Ouattara claim the new constitution resets the counter for presidential terms
More recently, Guinea's President Alpha Condé, aged 82 - in a tense political climate marked by protests and violence - organised a constitutional referendum to allow him to run for a third term. Condé has since been nominated by the ruling Rally of the Guinean People as its candidate for Guinea's presidential election, also set for October.
Condé's supporters rely on the same argument as those of Ouattara, claiming that the new constitution resets the counter for presidential terms to zero. Former Burundian president, the late Pierre Nkurunziza, used similar reasoning to legalise and legitimise his candidacy for the 2015 presidential election.
The virus of 'a third term at all costs' poses a serious risk to democratic norms and practices in Africa, especially when heads of state use subterfuge to torpedo or interpret constitutions contrary to the principle of a (peaceful) change of power. The risk is instability and the institutional tango that results from the abuse of power by those who refuse to vacate their offices.
At an ECOWAS meeting on Mali's military takeover, Guinea-Bissau's President Umaro Sissoco Embaló reportedly stated that while Mali's military coup should be condemned, third terms should also be deemed coups and be rejected.
The RHDP is adamant that Ouattara's candidacy will preserve peace and stability in the country
The RHDP likely chose Ouattara to replace Gon Coulibaly after another political heavyweight, former president Henri Konan Bédié, 86, was nominated as the Democratic Party of Côte d'Ivoire's (PDCI) presidential candidate. The RHDP seemingly believes only Ouattara has the stature to compete against Bédié or another candidate that a coalition of opposition parties could support in a possible second round of voting.
In a recent interview, Bédié said the opposition had made an electoral deal that would see them backing a single candidate in a second round against the RHDP, should that scenario play out. This agreement includes Bédié's PDCI and Gbagbo's FPI, and movements led by former prime minister and national assembly speaker Guillaume Soro and former minister and youth leader Charles Blé Goudé.
Gbagbo and Blé Goudé have both been acquitted of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court and want to return to Côte d'Ivoire. The government says it's reviewing their passport applications. Former first lady Simone Gbagbo has urged Ouattara to allow Gbagbo back, saying that keeping him away from his native land wouldn't further peace and reconciliation.
Meanwhile Gbagbo, Blé Goudé and Soro have each been sentenced by Ivorian courts to 20 years in prison for various crimes. All three have thus been removed from the voters roll, with the obvious implication that they cannot contest the October 2020 polls. None of this bodes well for the country's stability as elections approach.
The Ivorian political class must agree on certain rules, and commit to respecting them for the preservation of peace in the country. They also need to work towards true reconciliation so that future generations don't inherit a fractured society.
Regional bodies such as ECOWAS and the AU should work harder to ensure that constitutions aren't tampered with to the detriment of democracy. If these bodies reject unconstitutional changes of government, the same should apply to opportunistic constitutional amendments or interpretations.
Mohamed M Diatta, Researcher, PSC Report, ISS Addis Ababa
This article was first published in the ISS' PSC Report.