The presidential election in the Republic of Congo, which took place yesterday, and regarding which the results were not available at the time of publication of this article, will tell us much about the progress of democracy in the country, as well as our own western attitudes towards African democracy.
The pundits are confident that Angela Merkel will next year enter a fourth term as leader of one of the world’s great democracies. Shortly after that, David Cameron will voluntarily hand over his role as prime minister to whoever the British Conservative Party – as opposed to the British public – chooses. Two of Cameron’s three immediate predecessors served three terms. And, indeed, Lynton Crosby, the strategist credited with Cameron’s election successes, carried out exactly the same role for four-term Australian premier John Howard.
In Europe, the question of term limits for national leaders is never mentioned by voters. Where it is referred to at all, it is the stuff of rarefied discourse in academic common rooms. The priorities for electors are, as ever, the economy, public safety and security, healthcare, education and other staples.
In broad terms, the priorities of African voters are no different: why would they be? So when these voters are told by people in developed nations, often their former colonial masters, that they should not re-elect the same person more than once – regardless of any perceived public benefit that person or party may bring – this makes so little sense to them and appears so nakedly hypocritical that they suspect ulterior motives.
The democratic period here in Congo-Brazzaville was preceded by a Marxist one-party state and civil war, and began early this century. It has been one of consistent economic growth, increasingly successful healthcare, literacy rates that rank amongst Africa’s highest, and a tax-to-GDP ratio at the EU average. The Republic’s main cities, Brazzaville and Pointe Noire, are safe and public security is significantly better than in most neighbouring states.
The nation works constructively with the Bretton Woods institutions, has an inflation rate of around two per cent and a declining unemployment rate. It is an exemplary member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), the leading world body that works to assure transparency in the extractives sectors. The country is presently being punished as much as any other economy reliant on oil revenue, yet it is working hard to diversify.
It is far from perfect, of course. In terms of social policy and development, there is much work to do. The Congolese understand this. In their streets, bars, homes and workplaces people talk keenly about priorities and hopes; and about their aspirations for their children (the average age in the Congo is a fraction under 20).
In many ways, though, Congolese people want more of the same – only better. They do not seem blinkered or downtrodden. They are as quick with criticism of government and politicians as citizens across Europe – an evening spent watching television brings this home quite forcibly. The fundamental difference is that they understand how bad things could be. Only last week, they saw on their televisions the terrorist murders in neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire and gaze daily across the great Congo river at the much less well-off and unstable Democratic Republic of Congo. They believe that things will continue to progress in their own country, and for the largest part believe that the president who has delivered all of this change remains preferable to the unknown.
I prefer to think, however, that it is goodwill, and not hypocrisy that has led to this “third-term” disconnect. Many Europeans are passionate in wanting the best for those African states that we harmed at birth or later through neglect and brutal interventionism. In the 21st century, some of that passion translates into postcolonial guilt. But it is no less real for all that.
Yet here in Brazzaville, it feels very much like the European insistence on a two-term maximum ought to be a suggestion rather than a demand disguised as a moral imperative. If we truly wish to assist these proud sovereign states, Africans should never be expected to interpret our advice as orders.
The 2015 constitutional change that allowed Sassou Nguesso to stand again also brought in shorter presidencies, and passed to parliament the important power to appoint the re-instated post of prime minister. It reformed and gave significant new powers to the constitutional court. Additionally, it gave official status to the opposition, created a series of new national consultative bodies, beefed up human rights guarantees and introduced significant electoral reforms. It abolished the death penalty: no small feat. Yet these measures have been largely overlooked whilst we in the west remain fixated on the “third-term”.
It may be true that political term-limits foster strong institutions that act to check and balance governments and to prevent poor practice. Yet we in Europe have not reached consensus on that question ourselves, and therefore can hardly place it as the over-riding requirement of a nation’s progress. Moreover, Congo-B is a good example of a democratic African country whose people choose their leader freely but only for one more term, and even then on a strict basis of social and economic ‘deliverables’.
In this new, and dare one say even optimistic, era of African democracy the same laws of politics seem likely to apply eventually. So, for now, Denis Sassou Nguessou is as popular as the Congo’s progress under his leadership would seem to justify. And perhaps for now we should accept African third-termers as a historical conclusion of the lifetimes’ work of the actual individuals who brought their nations through the tough times we ourselves created in the early 1960s.
Given a choice between a hopelessly split, ineffectual and often self-serving opposition against a capable operator and leader who won his political spurs in the toughest of ways and is committed to building on the solid foundations that he has created, it wouldn’t be surprising if the people of the Republic of Congo look set to choose Denis Sassou Nguesso.