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Can presidential term limits succeed in Africa?

By Vision Reporter

Added 28th May 2015 02:37 PM

A Rwandan opposition political party has initiated a move to lift presidential term limits.

Can presidential term limits succeed in Africa?

A Rwandan opposition political party has initiated a move to lift presidential term limits.

By David Mukholi

A Rwandan opposition political party has initiated a move to lift presidential term limits. This comes a week after a proposal restricting West African presidents to two terms in office was temporarily put on hold.

Presented on May 18th at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) summit in Accra, Ghana, the proposal was aimed at creating a uniform presidential tenure across the region. But the heads of state agreed to postpone the discussion opting to allow further consultation.

Not all West African countries have term limits and so imposing them might require constitutional amendments in respective countries. Besides, the changes would probably also necessitate referenda in some cases.

The Rwanda bid also comes days after neigbouring Burundi’s ruling party’s move to have its president run for another term provoked protests.

Term limits have become a big political issue on the African continent. There are two sides to it. One, it allows the continuity of government programmes and a president who is performing well. The other side is a president becoming a dictator, oppressing the opposition and destroying the country.

Burundi was recently plunged into a political crisis after President Pierre Nkurunziza accepted CNDD-FDD’s decision to field him as a candidate in the June election.

In response, the opposition accused him of flouting the constitutional two-term restriction. The Burundi constitution stipulates: “The President of the Republic is elected by universal direct suffrage for a mandate of five years renewable one time.”

Burundi’s ruling party’s move to have its president run for another term provoked protests

Nkurunziza argues he has only been elected once by universal adult suffrage so he is going for a second term. But the opposition thinks differently. It contends his election by Parliament during the transition period was the first and the second was in 2010 when he was elected by universal adult suffrage.

Before Burundi, in Burkina Faso, President Blaisé Compaore’s attempt to amend the constitution to get another term was defeated by protesters, last year. He was forced to step down and flee into exile. Leaders of the two Congos – Brazzaville and Kinshasa are also contemplating lifting term limits.

In Rwanda, an opposition political party (SDP) this week initiated the move to lift term limits ahead of the 2017 general. If endorsed by Parliament and voted for in a referendum the Constitution will be amended to remove the restrict.  

Uganda scrapped term limits in 2005 but the opposition wants them reinstated.

Those opposed to term limits during the ECOWAS summit argued that countries have different political history so restricting presidents to two terms might not work for some. Previously, Africa had no term-limit provisions, which is now being used by the West, among others as a measure of democracy.

After the autocratic regimes that ruled Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, the urgency for limit term became necessary when a wind of democracy blew across the continent. Partly this was prompted by fears that elected leaders would also turn into autocrats with longevity.

It was also a move to ensure that leadership changed from one party to another and also an individual to another especially in cases where ethnicity is a big concern.

Because African political parties had not matured in form and democratic credentials they failed to envisage mechanism for internal checks. They rushed for term limits without considering that leaders can be changed through national or party polls like it is in most European countries, which don’t have term restrictions.

For instance, Britain has no term limits but political parties can end a Prime Minister’s term when he or she is deemed a liability to the party or the country. Also in the 1990s when most African countries re-wrote their constitutions they tended to look at the American Constitution in regard to term limits.

Uganda scrapped term limits in 2005 but the opposition wants them reinstated

Some of the individuals involved in the constitution-making had studied and lived in the US and so put up passionate arguments. Besides, it happened at a time when America was emerging as a lone superpower following the demise of the Soviet Union marking the start of its overbearing influence in a unipolar world.

There were also strong undertones contending that since Africans can’t manage power it was prudent to limit them lest they abuse it. In addition, there were also views that Africans were not competent enough to vote out a leader so they needed constitutional restrictions to help them. Africa also didn’t realise that term limits target individuals but do not end a political party’s perpetuity, which might not bring the desired change.

In South Africa there have been changes but several black people don’t see remarkable improvement in the quality of their living conditions under the ANC reign. The same is the case in Tanzania where CCM is dominant and has consistently changed leadership but the opposition accuses it of corruption, autocracy and failing to develop the country. If term limits are good then the above make a good case for term limits to apply to political parties.

The point is, in an open term situation voters retain the power to reward or punish the president. If he has done a good job he gets another term. And if there is nothing he is voted out. But in a case of term limits a successful president could be prematurely replaced.

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Can presidential term limits succeed in Africa?

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