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The Year Africa's Strongmen Embraced the 'Constitutional Coup'

In 2015, keeping power by force went out of fashion for some East and Central African leaders, who instead found ways to stay at the top legally -- but not without a fierce opposition.
Rwandan president Paul Kagame at the United Nations in September 2015. Photo by Andrew Gombert / EPA

36 people died in Kinshasa in January during demonstrations sparked by perceived attempts by President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to stay in power after his second and final term. A few months later and just across the border, protesters took to the streets of Bujumbura in April when Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza announced plans to seek a constitutionally tenuous third term in office.


President Denis Sassou Nguesso's security forces in the Republic of Congo used deadly force against demonstrators in Brazzaville and put opposition leaders under house arrest in October, when they expressed disagreement with a constitutional referendum to allow the leader to run for a third term. And while mass street demonstrations were noticeably absent in Kigali, Rwanda's parliament and judiciary successfully cleared several legal hurdles this year to enable President Paul Kagame to run again after his second, seven-year term comes to an end in 2017.

It was rare that a week went by without discussion related to these East and Central African leaders' efforts to seek a third term in office. All four leaders have been accused of human rights abuses during their tenures, with some of the loudest allegations related to crackdowns against opponents and protesters who pushed back against the maneuvers to extend presidential mandates beyond existing term limits.

Despite the controversies, the leaders kept their titles and remained at the top. This made 2015 the year that the region's strongmen found ways to legally cling to power. Using a term recently coined by Human Rights Watch, it was the year of the "constitutional coup."

"Military coups are no longer de rigueur," HRW deputy director Anneke Van Woudenberg and researcher Ida Sawyer wrote in Foreign Policy in November, noting that the shift was partially caused by the African Union's decision not to recognize administrations that achieve power by force. "Instead, African leaders who are unwilling to abide by term limits, or unfavorable election results, prefer to simply change the laws and constitutions that stand in their way."


Related: Burundi Is 'Going to Hell,' Says US Ambassador to United Nations

Constitutional changes and legal judgments helped pave the way for these presidents to pursue lifelong leadership. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC, it was a proposed amendment that would have postponed the 2016 elections until a nationwide census was completed — a move critics believed would let Kabila sidestep constitutional term limits and stay in power for several more years.

After the deadly protests in January, the proposal was revoked. But in the months since, the government has detained protesters and opposition members in an attempt to silence peaceful activists, according to a December report from Human Rights Watch. It's still unclear what Kabila will do.

Next door in Congo,  Sassou Nguesso used a constitutional referendum to lift both the age and term limits that would have made him ineligible. The changes passed with 92 percent voting in favor — although the opposition accused the regime of lying about voter turnout — and the president is expected to move forward and call elections by spring of 2016. Experts say he is unlikely to step down willingly; he has after all been president since 1997, and before that from 1979 to 1992. Sassou Nguesso has not groomed a successor who would protect the president from international criminal cases and look after the assets his family has secured during its reign, according to Stanford University fellow Brett Logan Carter.


"Sassou Nguesso doesn't want to risk this," Carter said ahead of the referendum vote, noting the leader has likely become more fearful after seeing fellow African strongmen like Libya's Muammar Qaddafi and Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaoré fall from power. "There is no one else for Sassou Nguesso to transfer power to, so in a way he's been forced into this position."

Most recently, Rwanda held a constitutional referendum of its own on December 18, giving the public the right to chose whether to change the constitutional term limits. The country's parliament and judiciary had already lifted several hurdles to allow President Kagame to extend his rule, and the referendum was seen as the final step. According to official results, 98 percent voted in favor of the changes that, in theory, will allow the leader to serve another seven-year term, followed by two five-year terms. In other words, he could be in power until 2034.

Earlier this year as the parliament and judiciary began to clear the way for these changes, University of Buffalo political science professor r Reverien Mfizi -- a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide -- explained that all those legal steps were part of an attempt to give the process a sense of legitimacy.

The constitutional changes have been framed, Mfizi said, as a normal process of Rwandans deciding for themselves whether or not Kagame gets to seek another round as head of state. All of this occurred without any public protest — in fact, the government has frequently referenced a nationwide poll showing an overwhelming majority was for Kagame running again.


"Kagame is a very smart, very thoughtful leader. I don't always agree with him, but you have to admire how clever he is," Mfizi said. "What's missing from that story is it's virtually impossible to oppose the regime."

But arguably, the highest-profile power grab this year with the deadliest and most destabilizing effects came from Nkurunziza in Burundi. Almost eight months after the leader announced third-term plans, pushing demonstrators out into the streets to protest the move, the country has been engulfed in continued political instability and violence.

Nkurunziza pursued a new term despite a clearly outlined two-term limit in the constitution, which was established in 2005 as part of the Arusha peace agreement that ended the country's decade-long civil war. The constitutional court cleared the former rebel leader to run, saying he had been appointed to his first term in 2005, not democratically elected.

Protests quickly turned violent as police cracked down on demonstrators, while opponents and Nkurunziza supporters clashed with each other in the streets. As dozens were killed and tens of thousands fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries including Rwanda, Tanzania, and the DRC, Nkurunziza pushed on with his reelection campaign — even as regional and international organizations and governments called on him to step aside. He ultimately claimed victory at the polls in July, and the crisis shifted to politically motivated violence, disappearances, and assassinations on both sides.


A Burundian protester during an anti-government demonstration in the capital Bujumbura, on June 3, 2015. Protesters said they were disappointed that East African leaders didn't ask President Pierre Nkurunziza to give up his bid for a third term. Photo by Dai Kurokawa / EPA

The situation has hit a critical point in recent weeks. To date, at least 300 people have reportedly been killed and more than 200,000 have fled the country since the violence began in April. On December 11, armed assailants waged a series of seemingly coordinated attacks on three military bases. Gunfire rang through the capital all day as security forces clashed with the fighters, and the next day 87 bodies were found on the streets of Bujumbura. In the day after the attack, a report from the International Federation for Human Rights found 300 young, unarmed civilians had disappeared, 154 of whom have since turned up dead. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein became just the latest to stress the looming risk of all-out conflict, stating that Burundi was on "the very cusp of civil war."

In response, the African Union took a major step and approved the deployment of 5,000 peacekeepers to be sent to the country. Known as the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi, the plan is backed by the United Nations Security Council, while the Burundian government has said it would not allow foreign troops to enter its borders.

"If the situation continues, the African Union and international community cannot sit by and watch genocide, if it is going to develop into that," said Erastus Mwencha, the deputy chairman of the African Union Commission.


The international community now awaits formal notice from Burundi and for the AU to decide whether it will send troops anyway, even if the Bujumbura authorities do not approve. Meanwhile, how Nkurunziza responds internally will be key. For months, observers have cited the leader's perceived will to get a third term at all costs.

"Is there somewhere in the Bible where leaders are called on to massacre their people?"

A lot of the discussion surrounding Nkurunziza's political ambitions has centered around his belief that he has risen to power by God's will. The born-again Christian leader has stuck to the divine narrative particularly hard in recent months, even thanking God for winning the July elections and saying God would take care of the country's rebels.

His fellow strongman on Burundi's northern border, Rwanda's Kagame, has questioned both Nkurunziza's power grab and his belief in God. In a November speech, Kagame said Burundi should learn from the experience of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, while calling out the government's failure to stop the internal violence.

"Burundi's leaders pride themselves on being men of God, some are even pastors," Kagame said. "But in what God do they believe?… Is there somewhere in the Bible where leaders are called on to massacre their people?"