Will US punish African presidents who change constitutions?

The United States is warning African leaders not to change their constitutions to eliminate two-term limits for heads of state.  It is not apparent that they are taking the warnings seriously.

Many African heads of state are subject to constitutional two-term limits, similar to the situation in the United States.  As they approach the end of their mandates, a number of leaders want to change their national constitutions to eliminate the two-term limit so that they can continue to run for election and remain in power indefinitely.

The former President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, asked the national legislature to change the constitution in October 2014. This triggered enormous street protests to the point where he had to flee into exile next door in the Côte d’Ivoire. This event sent a strong signal to other heads of state that it would be risky to try the same thing.

Nevertheless, other presidents, mainly in the French speaking countries, were not deterred.  The President of Burundi managed to run for a third term and win in mid-2015.  This caused major violence that continues to this day. 

Just this month of October 2015, President Denis Sassou-Nguesu of the Republic of Congo announced that there would be a referendum on October 25 to determine if the constitution could be changed to eliminate the two-term limit.  Some mass protests have taken place as a result.

President Kagame of the Republic of Rwanda has also arranged for a referendum to do the same thing in his country.

President Joseph Kabila announced a referendum in early 2015, but quickly desisted because of street protests.  Nevertheless, he has not stopped working to remain in power through various means.

All of these machinations by African heads of state to prolong their hold on power would normally not attract much international attention.  But at the highest levels of the United States Government, the African leaders have been warned not to engage in such actions. 

During his visit to Kenya and Ethiopia earlier this year, President Obama asked African leaders to refrain from modifying their constitutions for the benefit of their own power.  This was also the subject of remarks by Secretary of State Kerry during a visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in early 2015.  

At the current time, Special American Envoy to the Great Lakes region (Congo, Rwanda and Burundi) Ambassador Tom Pariello is making strong statements warning African leaders against efforts to modify their national constitutions. 

The question that we ask now is what punishment will the United States administer to those African leaders who disregard our strong advice.  If the African leaders go ahead with their plans to stay in power by modifying their constitutions, and the United States does nothing, then the Obama Administration’s credibility in Africa will certainly suffer.