Africa’s constitutional democracies: The case of a dissolving picture

Monday March 12 2018

Then President Mwai Kibaki during the

Then President Mwai Kibaki during the promulgation of the Kenya Constitution in 2010. Between 1990 and 2017, 48 constitutions were made in Africa. AFP PHOTO | TONY KARUMBA 

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On December 10 1989, besieged by popular protests and a mutiny by unpaid soldiers, President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin called a sovereign national conference and abandoned the one-party politics he had pursued since 1974.

Two years later, the Beninese voted Kerekou out, replacing him with Nicephore Soglo, a former World Bank technocrat.

By 1993, Gabon, Congo, Mali, Niger, Togo, Zaire and Chad had convened national conferences to rewrite their constitutions, and adopt multiparty democracy.

A new era of freedom had dawned in Africa. In the four years from 1990, 29 countries held multiparty elections.

Incumbents lost elections in 13 of them: Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe, Benin, Zambia, Mali, Congo Brazzaville, Madagascar, Niger, Lesotho, Burundi, Central African Republic, South Africa and Sierra Leone.

In the previous 30 years, only Aden Abdullah Daar of Somalia, of the 25 presidents who had lost power in Africa, had lost through an election.


Political change used to be violent and often lethal. Between 1960 and 1990, Africa had 64 successful coup d’états and 114 attempts.

Twenty-three presidents and prime ministers had been assassinated. Forty-four states had experienced either a coup or an attempt. There was, on average, one successful coup every five to six months.

Since 1990, there have been 67 attempts but only 30 successful coup d’états, an average of one per year. Coups are relatively bloodless. Only three presidents and prime ministers have been killed. Coup plotters used to suspend constitutions. Now they leave them intact.

Coup makers never yielded peacefully. Now coup-makers yield to popular resistance and diplomatic hostility. Observe how quickly Mali’s Moussa Sanogo in 2012 and Burkina Faso’s Gilbert Diendéré in 2015 were forced out.

In November 2017, the Zimbabwean army forced Robert Mugabe out of power but rejected claims that theirs was a coup d’état.

Wave of constitution-making

The 1990 transitions also ushered in a wave of constitution-making. Between 1960 and 1990, over 130 constitutions were over-thrown in Africa.

Since then, Africa makes constitutions at the rate of two a year. In the 27 years between 1990 and 2017, 48 constitutions were made, falsifying the old sobriquet that “Africa was the graveyard of constitutions.”

Countries that didn’t draft new constitutions, like Tanzania, made extensive changes to their old ones.

And yet, looking back from 2018, something is amiss. Elections are regularly held and ran by commissions that are, on paper, powerful and independent. Yet fewer incumbents lose elections.

Violence in elections is more frequent as recent examples in Cote D’Ivoire, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Ethiopia, Chad and Zambia show.

Though 36 incumbents have lost elections since 1990, the picture darkens on close inspection. Incumbent turnover was highest between 1990 and 2000.Since then they have been unusually resilient. 

Take a random year, 2016. Eighteen presidential elections were held that year. Incumbents were re-elected in 11; new ones in six and one election postponed, in the DRC. Incumbents lost only in Ghana and Sao Tome.

Presidential term

Term-limits on the tenure of presidents were introduced in the 1990s but since 2000 nearly 20 presidents have either scrapped them outright or had courts read them out of the constitution.

Even so, a 2016 Afrobarometer Survey of 34 African countries found that 75 per cent of the public still supports term-limits.

Evidently, the new constitutions have not consolidated Africa’s fragile democracies. Popular faith in democracy remains reasonably high but dissatisfaction with elected leaders has risen.

A 2017 Afrobarometer survey of 36 countries found that 61 per cent of the public had more faith in local chiefs than politicians. The gap between what the transitions promised and what democracy has delivered now tempts leaders and citizens alike to flirt with autocracy.

Strongmen are now Africa’s most admired leaders: Nigeria’s Mohammed Buhari; Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and the late Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia.

This dalliance with dictators may explain why so many army men get elected into office.

As The Economist recently noted, of the 90 presidents and prime ministers elected in Africa since 1989, 45 per cent are military men, that is army ex-officers or former rebels. Civilian presidents in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, for example, regularly recruit officers into civilian jobs.

Independent courts

Constitutions, bills of rights and independent courts promised a new era of the rule of law but constitutions, rights and courts are routinely ignored.

Over the past two decades, parliaments have become independent but MPs have turned into parasitic rogues, much like presidents grasping and hungry for extravagant adoration and high salaries. Their avarice has undermined oversight, freeing presidents to ignore the public good.

Though some constitutions, such as the 2010 Constitution of Kenya, have devolved power to sub-national units, local leaders have proved as predatory and addicted to hefty allowances and foreign junkets.

Judicial spine

Like parliaments, judiciaries are autonomous. Yet, in too many countries judges still kowtow to presidents, especially in election disputes.

The loud gasp heard around the continent when the Kenya Supreme Court first nullified and then ordered a repeat of last year’s presidential election shows how rare judicial spine is.

When petitions are filed — as in Uganda, Zambia, Gabon, and Ghana — judges usually find evidence of fraud and illegality. Still, they the uphold the results, mostly with the shambolic formula that “irregularities have not affected the result.”

In some places — Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland — corruption and incompetence persist, undermining the courts.

The emerging picture isn’t a pretty one. Democracy and constitutionalism may have come to Africa to stay but they must survive greater stress tests before they are fully bedded-in.