The international community has difficulty punishing leaders who undermine electoral power transitions through democratic channels. In August 2020, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was forced to resign at gunpoint during a military coup. Regional and global actors were quick to condemn this unconstitutional change in government. Earlier in 2020, both President Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire and President Alpha Condé of Guinea announced plans to run for a third term, even though their constitutions stipulate two-term limits. However, the international response to these unconstitutional intentions has been much less robust.
Ouattara was first elected as President in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010 which was followed by a bloody 5-month civil war when his opponent Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept defeat. In 2016, a referendum passed a new constitution which imposed term limits on the office of President. Similarly, Condé has been president since 2010, and in March of 2020, a referendum approved a new constitution for Guinea which set a two-term limit for President. Both presidents claim that the new constitutions reset the start of the two terms that they are allowed. Since March, thirty people have died during violent protests in Guinea. Ouattara said in March that he was not planning to run for a third term, but when his successor and leading candidate Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly died in July, he announced his candidacy, sparking demonstrations that left four dead in August.
In August 2020, Mali was suspended for the African Union and ECOWAS decision-making bodies. The United Nations, European Union, and United States joined in quickly and called for a return to constitutional order in Mali. Leaders of other African countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria, and Angola condemned the acts of the military in Mali as well. China and Turkey also denounced the coup. The reaction to this undemocratic action was swift and strong.
Conversely, the reaction to constitutional term limit violations in other West African countries has been weak. The domestic and regional actors have been vocal in denouncing their leaders’ actions, but the international community has been forceful. Moussa Toure, the communications director of Ivorian presidential candidate Guillaume Soro referred to Ouattara’s actions as “an organized state coup”. Ayisha Osori, the executive director of Open Society Initiative for West Africa, said that the decision is “terrible”. During the Guinean constitutional referendum in March 2020, international and regional organizations, including the AU, the International Francophone Organization, and ECOWAS, did not send monitors to the polls because the elections were already not free and fair. On October 8, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, released a statement about the threat to African democracies without naming any specific leader saying that the US will “closely monitor the actions of those who interfere with the democratic process and will not hesitate to consider consequences, including visa restrictions, for those responsible for the election-related violence.”
Why hasn’t the international community reacted to these unconstitutional changes in government with the same vigor with which they denounced Mali’s change of power? Both the subversion of term limits and the military coup have resulted in public outcry, violence, and a shift towards authoritarianism, so why is one form of backsliding worse than another?
According to Bermeo, democracies break down differently today than they have historically.
Mali experienced a classic coup d’état, meaning that the military illegally ousted a sitting executive. Coups were more common in the 1960s, but their frequency has dramatically decreased since then.
Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea are experiencing executive aggrandizement which occurs at a much slower pace and does not replace the executive. Executive aggrandizement entails a weakening of checks and balances on executive authority, an erosion of institutions and norms, and an undermining of opposition power. Even if Ouattara and Condé can legally run for a third term under their new constitutions, they are failing to uphold the norm of the two-term limit. Furthermore, incumbents are more likely to win reelection because of name recognition and additional resources, so by continuing to run, the opposition is put at a disadvantage.
Classic coups have declined markedly since the 20th century. Democratic norms have become more accepted in Africa over the past 30 years, making coups stand out more. It is easy to criticize an obviously undemocratic ascension to power. Citizens of democratic countries expect their leaders to decry such actions. The international condemnation of coups has contributed to their decline. When an executive makes a move to expand their power, such as undercutting media freedom or judicial autonomy, it does not create an immediate, visible change in society, so it is easier to evade international disapproval.
The lack of immediate change does not make Ouattara and Condé’s executive aggrandizement less dangerous. In fact, the lack of sudden action makes these actions more dangerous because they are difficult to censure. Ouattara and Condé’s third terms were approved by referendums and court decisions. It is difficult for any actor to rally against decisions which were made through seemingly democratic channels.
Executive aggrandizement is becoming increasingly common. Coups are likely to stay uncommon because of their negative optics and the normalization of elections, so where backsliding occurs, leaders will expand their power in undetectable ways. In West Africa, heads of state in their second terms will be looking to Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea and watching how they fare in running for a third term. In Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari was elected for his second term as President in 2019. There is a precedent for two-term presidents in Nigeria. Former President Olusegun Obansanjo attempted to serve a third term beginning in 2007, but after a media uproar, the National Assembly did not ratify the proposed bill. This could deter Buhari from attempting to hold onto power. He has stated that he will not seek a third term. Senegalese President Macky Sall is also in his second term, and he has not confirmed when asked that he will not run for president again in 2024. The head of the majority in Senegalese parliament, Aymirou Gningue, said that Sall has the right to run for a third term. Just like the wave of coups that occurred in West Africa in the 1960s and the wave of democratic transitions they experienced in the early 1990s, a wave of executive aggrandizement can occur in the region today. “If the pendulum begins to swing backward, copycat actions … (are) quite likely,” said Christopher Fomunyoh, a senior associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute in Washington. The international community and media must condemn unconstitutional third terms, otherwise surrounding undemocratic leaders will conclude that there is no punishment for using democratic means to reach undemocratic ends. The norms of peaceful power transitions and two-term executives may not be able to be built, and they could be eroded where they exist.
Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27(1): 5-19.