Saturday, November 8, 2014

Strongmen in Africa: Burkina Faso and Others

                  By Tazoacha Asonganyi 
Tazoacha  Asonganyi
Africa is weighed down by regimes of “strongmen.” They are virtually all over the continent, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. They are characterized by the centralization of power in the hands of one man who, alone, decides on the fate of all state institutions and activities. In general, such state institutions are weak, and play all types of games in the interest of the strongman. 
           Strongmen use all types of ruses to maintain their power: they organize regular, cosmetic elections; are the guarantors of the “independence” of the judicial power in the place of the constitution; ensure that judiciaries are prone to using technicalities not substance to judge “political” conflicts; have absolute control over the legislature which exists only to rubber stamp laws they propose to protect their power; proclaim themselves guarantors of “peace and stability”; make corruption a strong weapon of control; and organize periodic  meetings/dialogues/tripartite/consultations with the “opposition.”
          Following the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the tensions that developed between the opposition and the strongmen led to the organization of a tripartite conference in Cameroon in 1991 and of an “Inclusive dialogue” followed later by the meeting of the “college of the wise” in Burkina Faso. In Cameroon, although the tripartite recommended 5-year presidential terms, the constitution that was later adopted had article 6(2) which limited presidential terms to 7 years renewable once. In Faso, presidential terms were limited to five years renewable once. This was virtually the same story for most other countries in Africa. However, the strongmen accepted the changes only as a strategy of survival. As their second terms were running out, the articles of the constitutions started being amended from one country to the other, to allow the strongmen to continue to reign in perpetuity.
        When the strongman in Cameroon announced his intention to amend article 6(2) of the constitution, there were popular, uncoordinated uprisings of protest. The strongman turned his repressive machinery full cycle and used a willing army to pound the angry youths to submission. Once there was calm, he hurried the bill to the national assembly and it was voted “overwhelmingly.” And so he is cruising into his third 7-year term, past his 32 years at the helm of the state.
         The Faso strongman was not that lucky because his opposition and civil society are more organized and focused. As he was toying with the effort to effect the change before his second term runs out in 2015, he invited his opposition for consultations for “political reforms,” which failed because the opposition refused to accept any meddling with article 37 which provided for the term limits. The opposition also opposed the creation of a senate which the strongman wanted to put in place and use for his designs. So he started dabbling with the idea of organizing a referendum for the “sovereign people” to decide. When he discovered that the opposition had worked hard to convince the “sovereign people” about the wisdom of their refusal of the change, he turned to bribery and corruption to get the required proportion of parliamentarians who would support the change. What happened on the day parliament had to meet to adopt the bill is now history!
       Following the “independence” of African countries in the ‘60s, constitutionalism was adopted as the form of government for the management of society. The constitutions created institution that were weak and malleable, and reserved overwhelming power to strongmen who would capture the presidency and barricade themselves in it, using all forms of repression. Constitutionalism as the soul of the modern state was fought for and gained with the blood of millions in struggles that spanned centuries. The English Magna Carta of 1215, the American Revolution of 1776, and the French Revolution of 1789, all culminated in constitutionalism and law with enormous sacrifice of human life and effort. Constitutionalism has therefore become a sacred culture of humanity.  There is no doubt that our failure to acknowledge and share in the historical consciousness that constitutionalism represents, is the principal cause of the serious problems constitutionalism is causing to Africa. Strongmen are allowed to prevent the taking of the bold, giant steps that Africa is supposed to take, to emerge from backwardness and international ridicule.
       Africans have to recognize that a double heritage – a dualism - dwells in their breasts: the pre-colonial and post-colonial heritages; the traditional African cultures and the colonial/neocolonial cultures overlaid on it. Who can count the millions of people Africa has also lost to be where it is today: in slavery, in colonialism, in neocolonialism? The two heritages both belong to Africa, as of right. As aptly stated by Franz Fanon, each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it. Some Africans argue for the establishment of “the African way,” usually comprehending it to be a rejection of our colonial/neocolonial heritage. I argue that this is wrong, and that the mission of the African intellectual of this generation is to synthesis the good in our two heritages, and produce working constitutions that represent our own commitment to the ideal of human dignity protected through law; to produce constitutions that end the habit of concentrating state power in one centre, in one man, that manipulates the sovereign people at his whim.
      It is people who incarnate institutions that are usually weak, not the immaterial walls or immaterial texts on pieces of paper that delimit them. The strongman of Cameroon succeeded because parliamentarians and the opposition are weak and powerless. The strongman of Nigeria failed because parliamentarians and the opposition were strong. The Faso strongman failed because the opposition was strong. There will still be many successes and failures of strongmen in Africa, so long as the culture of strongmen continues to endure.    
      The people of Faso should ensure that another strongman does not climb to the ramp to bring back their revolution to square one, because the same weapons that the disgraced strongman used during the last 27 years, will still be available to any other strongman. We need to end the culture of strongmen in Africa, once and for all!

No comments: