Presidents who cling to power face tough year

Things are not going well for some of Africa’s last dictators and long-term presidents, and if recent events are anything to go by, the world is losing patience.

President Robert Mugabe

President Robert Mugabe

Leaders who overstay their welcome are under the spotlight in 2016, and Robert Mugabe is not alone.

Last week the United States condemned the Rwandan president’s decision to stand for yet another election.

Spokesman John Kirby, said the US was “deeply disappointed that President Paul Kagame has announced his intention to run for a third term.”

Washington provides civil and military aid to the country and, in December, Kagame held a referendum, potentially granting him a mandate to stay until 2034.

Neighbouring Burundi has been left in low-scale civil war by Pierre Nkurunziza’s effort to remain in office even though he has served the constitutional 10 years.

Democratic elections are now more common than at any time in Africa’s history. Even Paul Biya of Cameroon who has ruled since 1982 has hinted he may be ready to go and there is talk on the streets of Luanda that the dos Santos era is drawing to a close. Angola has not had a change of president since 1979.

By contrast, Yoweri Museveni who took over Uganda in 1986 shows no sign of stepping down even though a recent poll across 35 Africa countries showed nearly 75 per cent thought the constitution should limit how long any person could serve at the top.

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who turns 92 in February, has held power since 1980 and his country, once only second to South Africa as a regional player, is among the poorest in the world.

In West Africa, regional grouping ECOWAS is trying to establish a binding rule on two terms, resisted by Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh who overthrew the previous regime in a coup 21 years ago.

For the US, Europe, even China, the problem of long-term leaders is nowhere more critical than the tiny state of Djibouti, perched at the entrance to the Red Sea and a safe port on the vital route to Suez.

Despite its strategic position, there had been scant concern over a country little bigger than Hwange National Park. Since independence from France in 1977, Djibouti has had only two presidents, current ruler Ismaîl Guelleh and his uncle.

And with a combination of fear and patronage that sometimes mirrors Zimbabwe, Guelleh uses the state media along with police, army and a militia to dominate politics.

But he was thrust into the media spotlight last year when he tried to charge a rival with terrorism.

Abdourahman Boreh, now external affairs spokesman for the opposition Union pour le Salut National, was vilified after calling on the president to abandon a third term in 2010. His property was overrun by state militia and he was convicted of inciting a grenade blast in the capital, Djibouti City, a charge he denies.

The state sentenced him in-absentia, then charged him with the same offence via a London court, only to founder when the judge discovered that crucial evidence against Mr Boreh had been falsified.

France has its largest African troop numbers in Djibouti and it is home to the only US military base on the continent. China, Japan and Russia are in the process of establishing a presence.

So when, on 19 December, police opened fire on protesters in the capital, Djibouti City, it left Guelleh’s allies with a problem.

Estimates of those killed range from nine to 37, and the US issued a muted response calling for dialogue and free elections, due later this year.

The government says the crowd was hijacked by an armed gang, and police had no option but to return fire. But he opposition has denied this and asked for independent verification of how many died, and reports of up to 100 injured.

It might have gone quiet, except that Mr Guelleh has announced he will seek a fourth term this year. And Mr Boreh, still in London, has given his people a voice.

Despite losing the terror case -– as happened with the Tsvangirai treason trial in 2004 – Djibouti went on to charge the opposition leader with corruption on a series of contracts to refurbish the all-important harbor.

But Boreh’s London lawyers convinced the court that the president himself had a hand in most of these deals, so his conduct should also be examined.

Juicy details emerged of nepotism, the first family’s wealth, their control of state and private business, a string of homes and up to 80 cars.

Back in Washington, members of Congress have raised concern that, for the very reason of Djibouti’s value in shipping and the war on terror, a free and fair vote is needed to choose a genuinely popular leader and stabalise the country. For now, Guelleh’s party controls all 65 seats in parliament.

Countries like Burundi, Zimbabwe or Djibouti stand out all the more because, in 2016, stubborn heads of state have become an oddity. South America got rid its generals who ruled for decades while, in Asia, Burma is catching up with more democratic neighbours, and even China has freedoms unheard of under Mao.

In Africa where coups and one-party states used to be the rule, Paul Kagame is under pressure, while Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir is wanted at The Hague.

Death and ongoing violence in Burundi has drawn global condemnation.

Others like DRC have rolled into dynasties. In 2001, when Laurent Kabila was killed by a bodyguard, his son Joseph simply took over. Critics from both the MDC and within ZANU-PF accuse Grace Mugabe of planning to do the same when her husband dies or retires.

In a swipe at such moves, Washington has said it is, “particularly concerned by changes that favor one individual over the principle of democratic transitions.”

But while landlocked Zimbabwe and Burundi — or the Gambia surrounded on three sides by a democratic Senegal — are of concern, Djibouti’s location puts it more in the category of Panama or the Cape Sea Route.

For Abdourahman Boreh, judgment in London is due early this year and, while respecting matters still before the court, Mr Boreh has spoken about the suffering back home.

“Here is one of the most strategic countries in the world,” he said, “essentially run by one man, with huge revenues from foreign armies and the port, yet the people lack running water.”

And, in a statement that could become a rallying cry for all countries where the world ignores abuse, Boreh said it was time to stop measuring Africa on a different scale.

“It’s called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because it apples to all humans. If you think Africans are not human, then have the courage to say so.

“Otherwise, we in Djibouti and across the continent deserve the same freedom as everyone else.”

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