OBBO: African democrats: Going, going, gone

Saturday November 02 2019

Guinea's President Alpha Conde greets his supporters in Conakry on October 31, 2019. PHOTO | CELLOU BINANI / AFP)

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Guinea’s President Alpha Conde was a model opposition leader.
He was not the fire-breathing type. Soft-spoken, Conde spent a very long time in the opposition cold, turning up election after election to be cheated by the incumbent, but never giving up.

He ran against President Lansana Conte in the 1993 and 1998 presidential elections at the head of the Rally of the Guinean People, and lost his deposit.

He threw his hat in the ring again in the 2010 presidential election, and forced the vote into a second round decision. Then he won.

When he came to power, it seemed like he had marinated into a true democrat by decades of torment in the opposition. He was reformist, and not menacing.

But, as Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade, who spent even longer in the opposition before he also won the Big Chair in a second round vote in 2000 taught us, eternity in the political wilderness can sometimes harden the soul.

As Wade’s departure approached in 2012, at the ripe age of 86, he tried to fiddle the rules and get a third term. He was bundled out.


At that age, Wade not only had many grandchildren whom he could retire and play with, he had a gaggle of great grandchildren to choose from too.

Conde was re-elected in 2015, and his five-year term expires next year. Now 81, he has not only refused to rule out running again, but has gone one better—he asked his government to look into drafting a new constitution, with the possibility of making it possible for him to have another bite at the presidential apple.

Anti-Conde protests

In the past few weeks, the capital Conakry and other towns have erupted in protests, and Guinea’s prisons are filling up with opposition activists. Conde, has become thirsty for more too.

If he succeeds, Conde will become the 15th African leader in the past 20 years to finagle either a third term or presidency-for-life. Another almost equal number have tried, and been foiled.

It’s a lonely time to be an advocate of presidential term limits in Africa. There’s little good news.

The reality is that more term limits will fall. In the “second liberation” wave that followed the end of the Cold in the late 1980s and early 1990s, new political forces and parties formed, and were weak.

They sold and went along with term limits, in part to buy themselves legitimacy because it cast them as different from the old one-party African states and military dictatorships that were crumbling all round.

But the democrats and various types of liberators of that era, have since consolidated and established vested interests in the economic boom of the past 15 years in several African countries.

The second generation of party leaders, and even their children, are now of age and eager to inherit their parents’ kingdoms. The internal logic for passing the crown around, has collapsed.

There will still be the odd surprises. In Burundi, even some of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s critics, believe that he will keep his promise to step down in 2020.

Having plunged his country into a civil war with a third term power grab in 2015, that would be a political miracle. And even if it came to pass, it would only be a drop in the presidency-for-life ocean.

The author is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Twitter@cobbo3