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Opinion: How to stop Africa's democratic backsliding

Fifty years after the first wave of independence, most of Africa is still waiting to benefit from democracy. Rulers extending their terms in office certainly aren't helping matters any.

Nigeria's former president Olusegun Obasanjo speaks at the U.N. headquarters in Nairobi, Dec. 8, 2008. (Antony Njuguna/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Nigerians have a highly developed skill at sniffing out political chicanery, and they have identified a substantial threat to democracy as “third termism.”

In 2006, Nigeria's then-president Olusegun Obasanjo proposed a constitutional amendment that would have allowed him to run for an unprecedented third term of office. But citizen groups mobilized and resoundingly defeated the initiative.

Elsewhere in Africa, however, the insidious phenomenon of third terms — through which leaders extend their terms in office, sometimes indefinitely — continues little noticed and largely unchecked.

For example, last November, Algerian lawmakers approved the lifting of presidential term limits. Neighboring Niger followed suit this August, abolishing the two-term limit and allowing President Mamadou Tandja an extra three years without facing an election.

Now the respected news source “Africa Confidential” reports that the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, has created a secret commission to look into altering the constitution so as to lengthen presidential terms and lift the two-term cap.

Even Zimbabwe’s venerable former opposition leader and current prime minister, Morgan Tsvagirai, is reported to have removed a clause in his political party’s constitution restricting the party’s president from serving more than two terms.

Most of Africa has come a long way since the coup-ridden 1970s and '80s, when political change usually wore green camouflage and carried an AK-47. While there are notable exceptions, like Guinea where troops loyal to coup leader Captain Moussa Dadis Camara recently killed more than 150 anti-government protesters, overall today’s foes of democracy are decidedly more subtle than their predecessors.

In addition to constitutional amendments pushed through by tame parliaments, some African rulers are betting on good old-fashioned nepotism to sustain their dubious legacies. Recently, for example, the son of Gabon’s long-time strongman Omar Bongo, succeeded his father as president after winning an election marred by fraud and violence.