West Africa’s Elderly Presidents Catch Tenure-Elongation Fever - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Togolese President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe inspects the Guard of Honor as he arrives at the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair in Bulawayo.
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The average age of an African president is 62, while the median age of Africa’s population is 19.5. That gap could now expand in West Africa.

By Eromo Egbejule

The last time someone outside the Eyadéma family was president of Togo, both John Coltrane and Che Guevara were alive. In January 1967, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, father — and immediate predecessor — of the incumbent president, came into power after executing Africa’s first coup. This February, Faure Gnassingbé, the current president, secured a fourth term, after the country’s parliament paved the way for him to run for five-year terms up to 2030 and granted him immunity for life from prosecution.

The irony? The constitutional amendment was made in the name of introducing term limits but clarified that it does “not affect the current or past term of the president, basically setting the clock back to zero,” explains Farida Nabourema, executive director of the Togolese Civil League, currently in exile because of her public criticism of the government. Her father was arrested and tortured in the ’70s and ’80s.

But Togo is not the only West African nation where presidents are plotting to stay in power indefinitely. For many years, this region has been a shining light of democracy relative to the rest of Africa. Sure, there were ruling families like the Eyadémas, but for the most part, the region has had regular elections, with term limits in several countries. West Africa tops the continent’s “freedom ratings” as per Freedom House, followed by Southern Africa, with dramatic gains over the past 25 years. Now, the region appears to be slipping back.

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Ivorian President and leader of the liberal party RDR (Rally of the Republicains) Alassane Ouattara speaks during an extraordinary congress of the RDR.

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Côte d’Ivoire’s septuagenarian president, Alassane Ouattara, had previously pledged to step down after two terms and not contest the polls this year but has now changed his mind. He seems set to go up against an opposition coalition led by former presidents Henri Konan Bédié, 85, and Laurent Gbagbo, 74. In Senegal, Macky Sall, who has been lauded for shortening presidential terms from seven to five years, has declined to answer directly whether he will run for a third term in 2024.

We will never be free if we refuse to fight.

Farida Nabourema, Togolese Civil League

And in Guinea, at least 30 people have been killed, dozens injured by bullets and hundreds of protestors arrested ahead of a referendum on Sunday. Should the referendum ratify the constitutional amendment, 81-year-old President Alpha Condé will be able to serve a third five-year term and possibly more.

“Modifying the constitution eight months before the end of the second and last term of office for the sole reason of staying in power, as Alpha Condé wants to do, is not ethically decent and would be a step backward for democracy and the rule of law,” says Cellou Dalein Diallo, former Guinean prime minister and leader of the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (FNDC), a coalition of civil society, trade unions and political parties.

Motorcyclist drive on March 2, 2010 in L

Motorcyclists drive in Lome past a billboard of Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbé.

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Elsewhere on the continent, human-rights violations under sit-tight autocrats were among the factors that led to the Arab Spring in North Africa. In that period, there were riots in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and Burkina Faso over tenure-elongation attempts. In Rwanda, Paul Kagame, who has been president since 2000, could remain in power until 2034, thanks to a controversial referendum in 2015 in which 98 percent of citizens voted for the 62-year-old to stay put. According to the UNDP, the average age of an African president is 62, while the median age of Africa’s population is 19.5 — the world’s largest age gap between the governed and their leaders.

West Africa has largely retained a different image. “West Africa has been the most progressive region in terms of leaders leaving at the end of their term,” says Nabourema. “Compared to East and Central Africa, West African leaders do not usually hold on to power, as a lot of progress has been made in these countries to strengthen institutions.”

But experts have also long warned that the gains in West Africa — which in the last century also witnessed coup after coup — were always fragile.

The leaders trying to hang on to power are offering a range of bizarre explanations. “I want my generation to understand our time is up, and we should all step aside,” Ouattara said at a November rally. “But if they decide to run, I’ll run too.” 

Sall also has blamed his unwillingness to comment definitively on stepping aside in 2024 on others. “If I say that I will not be a candidate, members of the government will no longer work; everyone will try to position themselves,” he said in January. “If I say that I will be a candidate, a lively controversy will ensue.” In October, an official who publicly said the constitution barring third terms was “locked” was fired within 24 hours, fueling speculations about Sall’s ambitions.

And in Africa’s largest nation, Nigeria, rumors are rife that second-term President Muhammadu Buhari might be planning to extend his administration’s expiration date too, despite a denial from the president. After all, Buhari’s first stint as head of government came through a palace coup on New Year’s Eve in 1985.

It isn’t as though other West African leaders in recent years haven’t tried to hang on to power. The playbook of changing the constitution just before elections for personal gain was one that Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo had sought to use back in 2006. But the ambitions of the former military head of state, elected president after the return of democracy in 1999, were thwarted by international pressure, civil society leaders and his own deputy.

Obasanjo had ironically been key to aiding democratic stability and peacekeeping operations in other African countries before his exit in 2007. And in 2017, when Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh, a sit-tight president for 21 years, refused to vacate office after losing elections, the West African political and economic grouping ECOWAS sent in troops that helped force him to quit.

Opposition and civil society in West African nations are forming coalitions, hoping that they can stun the ruling parties in their countries, just as the Nigerian civic movement did with Obasanjo. “I am convinced that the people of Guinea will triumph in this noble struggle against the presidency for life,” says Guinea’s Diallo.

Nabourema is more circumspect about the prospects of unseating incumbent leaders. “There is no certainty that we will attain freedom if we fight for it. But there is certainty that we will never be free if we refuse to fight,” she says.

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