The future of democracy in a swath of Africa has come under the spotlight as voters in the Republic of the Congo went to the polls on Sunday to decide whether to amend the constitution to allow the increasingly autocratic president, Denis Sassou Nguesso, to run for a third term in office.
The outcome of Sunday’s referendum is being watched closely across the region because other leaders whose commitment to democracy has been questioned, notably Paul Kagame in Rwanda and Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo, appear to want to follow Mr Sassou Nguesso’s lead.
As a restive younger generation struggles to find work as African economies slow, observers fear that some countries might be moving into a “post-constitutional” era — where democratic reforms introduced following the cold war are sidelined for personal gain.
Under western influence, two-term limits and multi-party politics were introduced in many African countries, helping bring an end to a dark period of dictatorship where strongmen such as Mobutu Sese Seko in what is now the DRC pillaged their nations during decades-long tenures in power.
But this adherence to democratic principles has waned as presidents have found, through a combination of bullying, buying support and standing up to international donors that they can perpetuate their time in office.
“They’re doing it because they can is the long and the short of it,” said Bernard Tabaire, a Uganda-based regional commentator, of the presidents’ attempts to change constitutions.
“While each country is unique, they are the dominant political figure in the country and there’s a large proportion of the population who thinks the president has saved the country from ruin, so they’re willing to look the other way.
“There’s also a sense of narcissism,” Mr Tabaire added. “They think they’re the only one who can do the right thing for their countries.”
Few leaders therefore appear to be paying attention to US President Barack Obama, who said in July during an African tour that the continent’s democratic progress was “at risk” from leaders who tried “to change the rules” to cling to power.
Mr Obama’s words ring a little hollow, analysts say, given the US and others remain close to Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, running for his fifth term next year.
Phil Clark, an Africa expert at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said that in recent months leaders had resisted donors’ attempts to “push the Nigeria example”, referring to that country’s smooth transition of power after incumbent Goodluck Jonathan was defeated in the March general election.
“They have called the donors’ bluff,” he said. “They tell the donors ‘you see us as the stable pair of hands. We don’t believe that you want to see us gone’ and they’re getting away with it.”
Meanwhile, China, now the dominant foreign investor in many African countries, has a policy of rarely interfering in domestic politics, particularly when Chinese companies are trying to secure lucrative contracts.
The result is “a real struggle for the heart and soul of Africa’s future”, according to Christopher Fomunyoh, a Cameroonian who is the central and west Africa director for the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based group.
“On the one hand, you have autocrats and retrograde forces trying to push the continent back or keep it in the yoke of autocratic practices and rule,” he said. “On the other hand you have the younger generation . . . that have embraced democracy and democratic principles and practices and who want to see their countries governed differently.”
Filip Reyntjens, a central Africa expert at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, said the issue went much further than human rights. “If you cannot replace someone through the ballot box then the only option is violence, and that doesn’t result in long-term stability,” he said.
Burundi is considered the most egregious current example of this. It is still suffering the violent consequences of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision this year to persuade his country’s courts to allow him to run for a third term.
The decision triggered an attempted coup, but Mr Nkurunziza defeated it and was re-elected in July. Scores of people have died in related violence that has yet to end.
Analysts expect Mr Sassou Nguesso, who has ruled for all but five years since 1979, Mr Kagame in Rwanda and Mr Nkurunziza in Burundi to remain in power for some years but argue that Mr Kabila’s chances of success are slimmer due to a more developed political opposition and active civil society.
Even if they all succeed in the short term, the long-term prognosis is uncertain, Mr Tabaire says.
“The big elephant in the room is that we are going to have to move on at some point, and the longer these people hang around the harder it is to see what that change will look like.”