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Presidential Elections in Africa: A Threat to Constitutional Stability?

Eric Hirwa, MLaw is Co-Organizer of the Summer University of the Institute of Federalism at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

Free and fair elections are usually a sign of a healthy democracy where the rules set in the constitution are agreed, respected and ultimately built to last. For mature democratic states, it would be very difficult to change the rule of the game unless going through a long and complicated process of formal revision. In some cases, it even seems very unlikely. As an example, who would imagine a US president declaring his intention to run for a third mandate by changing the Amendment XXII of the US Constitution? Unfortunately, this scenario has happened recently in many African states.

A Negative Trend

Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo are just a few examples. These countries are in the process or have gone through constitutional changes in order to modify the presidential term limit. Similar attempts have been made in Senegal or in Burkina Faso. In the latter case, the former president had to backtrack and left the country after the uprising that followed his intention to run for a new mandate despite being in power for 27 years. Evidence suggests that this trend will likely continue in the near future considering how strong the personification of power in Africa still presents itself.

What Future for Constitutions in Africa?

This brings us to the question of constitutionalism in Africa. Since the 1990s, more than 50 countries have substantially modified their constitutions or written new ones[1]. More than the relative youthfulness of African constitutions, their weakness lies in the inability to limit executive powers or set democratic election systems. The temptation for the deciders to constantly amend the constitution represents a huge challenge for fractured societies divided by ethnic, religious or social groups and the results often leads to violence. Former French president Jacques Chirac once controversially stated that democracy is a luxury for Africa. The road is still long to prove this statement wrong. So far, elections and regime changes have brought more chaos than stability, yet the paradigm will likely shift once constitutional order is given the respect it deserves across the continent.

[1] Nabukenya Sauda, Why Do Constitutions in Africa Not Stand the Time? Lessons and Perspectives from Uganda, in: Law and Constitution in Africa, Vol. 26, p. 293.

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