Africa's Third Term Power Grabs: Prelude to War

Posted: Feb 10, 2016 12:01 AM
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In late December 2015, Rwandan President Paul Kagame confirmed that he will seek a third presidential term. In doing so, Kagame became the latest member of sub-Saharan Africa's "Third Term President Club."

If this notional "club" sounds like a joke, it is not. The "Club" represents the near-permanent retention of personal and near-authoritarian political power.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where tribal rivalries can quickly escalate into savage civil wars, the club is a threat to peace. The Great Congo War (1998-2003) killed somewhere between three and five million people. If Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila seeks a third term, that horror may well reignite. Unfortunately, it appears Kabila is dead set on seeking a constitution breaking third term.

As African authoritarian leaders go, Rwanda's Kagame has an upside. He is an economic modernizer who cracks down on corrupt practices. However, like other members of the third term club, Kagame is bidding to amend the Rwandan constitution so he can succeed himself.

This is legality as cover. Kagame has the woof and warp of a president for life. In several hard corners on our planet, presidents who are not term-limited have a tendency to remain presidents for life, which is another way of saying dictator. Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe is an example.

Burundi, bordering on Rwanda and Congo, may be providing a bloody sneak preview of Congo's club-caused collapse.

In April 2015, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would seek a third term. His decision violated the 2005 Arusha peace agreement that ended Burundi's 12-year long civil war -- a war that resulted in an estimated 300,000 deaths. A substantial plurality of Burundi's citizens erupted in anger. But last July, Nkurunziza held a referendum ratifying a constitutional amendment allowing him to seek and hold a third term.

However, turmoil and violence continue to afflict Burundi.

The Republic of Congo (Brazzaville is the capital -- don't confuse it with the far larger Congo) went through a similar charade. In October 2015, the Republic of Congo amended its constitution so the current president, Denis Sassou Nguesso, could succeed himself. So far, resistance is vocal. There has been little violence.

That will not be the case in the Congo if Kabila seeks a third term.

For two years, Congolese opposition leaders have argued that Kabila intends to contravene constitutional limitations by delaying preparations for the November 2016 national elections. The Congolese have a word for this calculated delay: "glissement" -- meaning sliding or slippage. As 2016 began, members of the opposition Citizen Front 2016 political movement warned that Kabila will risk another civil war to remain in power.

Congo has made great strides since 2003. U.N. peacekeepers have received due criticism for their failures, but they have also had their successes. At the moment, the Congo is something of a partial peacekeeping success. Kabila's constitution-smashing power grab would dash that.

What would The next great Congo War look like? No one really knows. The war may not be quite Congo-wide, but analysts expect that several provinces would fall into pro- and anti-Kabila camps. Tribal conflicts are guaranteed.

The peacekeeping operation, the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo could act as a brake on Kabila's ambition.

Many U.N. military contingents are quite professional, especially those serving with the Intervention Brigade tasked with eliminating rogue militias. If Kabila undermines the partial peacekeeping success, though UN forces are not supposed to take sides, he runs the risk of making MONUSCO a highly capable and well-armed adversary, if not quite an enemy.