Before its coup on 30 August 2023, Gabon underwent the ninth revision of its 1991 constitution. Article 9 was amended to shorten the presidential term from seven to five years, and single-round voting was reinstated. This enabled Ali Bongo to run for a third term. Many argued that the return to a first-past-the-post electoral system was engineered to help the president avoid a runoff with the increasingly fragmented opposition, which could not agree on a challenger.
The change was upheld despite strong opposition from civil society groups who believed that passing the revision through a bill rather than a referendum violated the country’s constitution. It framed a contentious pre-electoral political climate for Gabon’s 2023 presidential, parliamentary and legislative elections. This was compounded by last-minute rules requiring voters to ‘select their presidential and parliamentary candidate from the same political party’, internet shutdowns and a lack of observers.
The election outcome was marred by violence and allegations of rigging but was declared in favour of President Bongo. Amid the ensuing tension, Gabon’s army announced a coup, claiming that ‘the organisation of the elections [held on 26 August] did not meet the conditions for a transparent, credible and inclusive ballot’.
This is not the first recent instance where constitutional tampering before elections, often termed constitutional coups, has resulted in an unconstitutional change of government (UCG). The overthrow of Guinea’s Alpha Conde by Colonel Doumbouya was also preceded by heavily contested constitutional revision followed by a violently contested election that gave President Conde a third term in office.
Against ongoing efforts to stem the tide of Africa’s third wave of coups, it is crucial to establish whether constitutional manipulations have any bearing on the emergence of complex political transitions or UCGs.
Manifestations of constitutional coups
Analysis of constitutional modifications in Africa from 2002 to 2023 reveals that there were 24 attempts to amend constitutions to extend political power. Of these, 19 were successful. This amounts to one attempt a year over the last two decades of African Union (AU) existence, with an approximate success rate of 78%.
Modifications generally manifest in two ways. The first alters the duration of term limits by increasing or decreasing the number of years. In the April 2023 electoral modification in Gabon, the presidential term in office was shortened from seven to five years, but it was extended in Guinea (2020).
This constitutional change often precedes invocation of the principle of non-retroactivity of the new law to allow incumbents to contest for office. In so doing, they reset the clock of their stay in office and circumvent the spirit of their constitutions to extend their stay.
The second form is the complete removal of term or age limits to allow incumbents to perpetually contest elections. In most cases, this allows them to stay in office continuously with the support of compromised electoral institutions, heavy-handed security apparatus and an unbalanced political landscape.
Many have argued that, even if contested, such referendum-facilitated modifications raise questions rather than condemnations. However, these modifications are often orchestrated to serve the interests of the incumbent, thus hardly undergoing fair, free and transparent referenda. Neither do they uphold national interests as the prime objective – they go against the spirit of constitutionalism and amount to manipulations or coups frowned upon by the AU.
Article 23 (5) of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance refers to ‘any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments’ infringing on democratic change of government principles. According to Article 23, this constitutes an ‘illegal means of accessing or maintaining power’ and, therefore, ‘an unconstitutional change of government and shall draw appropriate sanctions by the Union’.
From constitutional meddling to military moves
A fundamental link between constitutional tampering and coups is the erosion of citizen confidence in democratic norms. When leaders exploit constitutions through third terms, multiple terms or the complete removal of term limits, they break the political consensus governing power alternation. In captured states, with electoral processes skewed in favour of incumbents, there is no guarantee of changing such leaders through established constitutional processes. This essentially undermines trust in the democratic process and fuels discontent, often culminating in widespread protests.
The search for alternative means of expressing discontent, usually through protests, pits the incumbent against citizens, often resulting in a violent crackdown on protesters and political activity. The resulting volatility or discontent, whether it leads to a state of emergency or renders the country ungovernable, opens the door for equally disgruntled elements of the military to interfere in politics. Accordingly, they blame the dethroned leader for mismanaging the country or the electoral processes over which they presided.
In Gabon, the perfect storm of issues reached a crescendo after the discredited electoral process was declared in favour of Bongo. In Guinea, the killing of 21 people during the unrest that followed the nation’s disputed elections defined the cocktail of issues that triggered the military takeover.
Establishing a direct cause-and-effect relationship between constitutional modifications and military coups is challenging. Therefore, the complexity of issues triggered by constitutional coups creates pathways by which any vulnerable political context is predisposed to interference by military actors.
Policy considerations for the PSC
To address coups in Africa, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) urgently needs to elevate constitutional manipulations to the severity level of military coups. In most instances, these actions provide the contextual backdrop, in conjunction with other factors, that encourages coup-makers to forcibly intervene in the political landscape.
Considering the prevalence of constitutional amendments and the ease with which they are manipulated, the PSC must call for the expedited completion of the ongoing process to develop AU constitutional amendment guidelines. This will serve as a blueprint for advancing and shaping progressive amendments.
Recognising the dangers of constitutional manipulations, any attempts flagged by regional and continental early warning structures should immediately prompt the PSC to act. It must trigger the use of the good offices of the chairperson or commissioner of peace and security, special envoys and members of the Panel of the Wise to address the issues with involved leaders.
Image: © Michele Cattani / AFP