IN a meeting in New York recently with Central African Republic President Faustin Archange Touadéra, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the country had turned a corner following democratic elections, and welcomed the leader’s resolve to “address the root causes of the country’s crisis in an inclusive spirit.”
At the start of 2015, those words would have sounded delusional. But CAR surprised.
Last year it chose the “wrong” time to trim how much time a Big Man or Big Woman (although these are very rare in Africa) can spend in the presidency.
It was a time when from Burundi, Rwanda, Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa), and fatefully for Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso, leaders were amending agreements, constitutions, or softening the political ground to allow them run for third, fourth, and more terms.
In August 2015, war-wracked CAR’s transitional government adopted a new constitution that restricts future presidents to two five year terms.
CONFRONTING ITS FEARS
For a country bleeding from sectarian violence and torn apart by chronic instability, freezing development and visiting wanton misery upon its 4.8 million population, the constitution – largely acclaimed as progressive by pro-democracy voices -also came with a raft of changes in the power dynamics of the country.
It established a senate, increasing the layers of checks and balances while dealing a blow to the perennial African big man syndrome.
Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet, chairman of the National Transitional Council had to appeal to the population to approve the constitution.
A referendum was held on December 13-14 2015, with 93% of the voters giving a nod to the supreme law of the land and clearing the way for parliamentary and presidential elections.
The new basic law ushered in the sixth republic since independence from France in 1960, and marked the 13th political regime in a country notorious for its chronic instability.
Whether the new constitutional dispensation opens a window of lasting change for the impoverished former French colony, is a test only time can tell.
The December 13-14 election went off surprisingly smoothly, only marred by skirmishes that claimed the lives of at least five people and injured 20 following violence in the Muslim-majority PK-5 district of Bangui. But given the scale of mass slaughter of recent years, that was a mercifully low toll.
In recent years, division has grown over the place of term limits in Africa. They are marketed by proponents of democracy as a guard against abusive leaders who could ruin their nations if allowed to ruled long. Its opponents say it is “foreign idea from the west”, that places too much value on the form, instead of substance, of democracy and sends home early good leaders who can still do great things for their countries.
In the past Zambia, Malawi and Nigeria, attempted to amend their constitutions to accommodate presidents hungry for another term in office but the moves were nipped in the bud.
The story is different for half of African countries where over the years leaders successfully muscled through similar amendments including in Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, Togo, Tunisia (although the 2014 Constitution reinstated term limits) and Uganda.
Drenched in conflict, CAR would have walked away from it all. That it chose the constitution it did was as much a *hack of faith, as it was an act of great political courage.
*A hack: a clever solution to a tricky problem.