President Barack Obama’s strong views on African leaders seeking to scrap term limits have put Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo on the US political radar.
“No one should be president for life,” said President Obama, addressing the African Union at their headquarters in Addis Ababa on July 28.
The US president said Africa’s democratic progress is at risk from leaders who refuse to leave. On Burundi, the US said the best option after the controversial re-election of President Pierre Nkurunziza would be power sharing.
The US has also expressed strong reservations over plans by DRC President Joseph Kabila to continue ruling after his term expires in November 2016.
“When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife as we’ve seen in Burundi,” President Obama said. “But if a leader thinks they’re the only person who can hold their nation together, then that leader has failed to truly build their country.”
He reiterated his famous dictum that Africa does not need strongmen, but strong institutions.
Although AU Commission chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has issued bold statements against President Nkurunziza’s third term, the body’s Peace and Security Council has been less direct in its engagement with Burundi.
According to Yolande Bouka, a senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies for Central Africa and the Great Lakes, the AU has enough power to suspend Burundi.
The problem is that the AU relies on Burundian troops in its fight against Al Shabaab in Somalia, she added.
“The Burundi elections are likely to set the tone for some of the elections to come in the EAC,” said Dr Bouka.
“While countries like Kenya and Tanzania have established clear patterns of power rotation, Rwanda and Uganda display authoritarian tendencies.
“Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has already started cracking down on his opponents in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections.”
Presidents Kagame and Nkurunziza were not at the meeting.
President Obama singled out former South African leader Nelson Mandela for transferring power peacefully.
According to Ben Sihanya, a professor of international law at the University of Nairobi, the US has the power to put pressure on regional leaders bent on extending their rule, by cutting off bilateral assistance and engaging with their development partners in Europe and with the International Monetary Fund.
“America is still a significant player in the politics and economies of the region,” said Dr Sihanya. “Pressure from the US could be the best thing because these leaders are flouting their constitutions.”
Ethiopia is also facing scrutiny; President Obama told Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn that Ethiopia cannot unleash its full potential if it unfairly jails journalists and prevents legitimate opposition groups from participating in the campaign process.
“Democracy is not just formal elections,” he said. “When journalists are put behind bars for doing their jobs, or activists are threatened as governments crack down on civil society, then you may have democracy in name, but not in substance.”