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Term Limits in Africa: Will President-For-Life Become a Thing of the Past?


FILE - Tanzania's President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. Headquarters, Sept. 29, 2015.

FILE - Tanzania's President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. Headquarters, Sept. 29, 2015.

Tanzania’s general elections are fast approaching on October 25. The country’s current president, Jakaya Kikwete, is stepping down after two terms, clearing the way for a successor. But Tanzania has a long history of presidents observing term limits, while so many other African countries do not.

Unlike many African leaders, Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete has decided to step down after serving two terms in office.

“Since 1992, the return to multi-party democracy in Tanzania, presidents have served for two terms of five years each, and then stepped down, so it’s really not a surprise that President Kikwete is stepping down now,” Adjoa Anyimadu, a research associate of the Africa program at Chatham House explained.

But Tanzania is considered the exception and not the rule in Africa, when it comes to leaders respecting their mandates. Recent violence in Burundi, after President Pierre Nkurunziza launched his bid for a third term, and Burkina Faso, where the 27-year rule of President Blaise Compaore ended after mass protests forced him out last year, underscores this point. Rwanda’s high court recently ruled that President Paul Kagame could run for a third term.

In the Republic of Congo, President Denis Sassou Nguesso has proposed a constitutional amendment to abolish the upper age limit of 70 for presidential candidates. He is 72. And in the DRC, it’s still unclear what President Joseph Kabila’s next move will be.

Central Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, Thierry Vircoulon said that the state is not institutionalized in central African countries, leading to regimes of ‘strong men.’

“The lack of strong institutions is the reason why you have a strong man. So strong men are not going to build up strong institutions, strong men are going to build weak institutions in order to remain in power,” Vircoulon said. “And so that is what has been happening in Congo-Brazzaville, in Congo-Kinshasa, etcetera, etcetera.”

Vircoulon said that the debate about the two-term mandate overshadows the bigger point. Do leaders who want to prolong their mandates deserve to stay? With Burundi, he said people seem to be more concerned about the legality of Nkurunziza’s third term instead of what he did or did not accomplish in office.

But Dr. John Mbaku, an economics professor at Weber State University, believes that leaders who disobey term limits are sending a poor message to citizens. “If the highest political official in the country is manipulating the constitution to stay in power indefinitely, what does that say about the ordinary person who is being forced to obey a traffic rule?” Mbaku said.

Peace agreements to end conflict often include wording that limits leaders to two terms. And this may not always be the best approach, according to Steve McDonald of the Woodrow Wilson Center, who said that the international community needs to stop insisting upon these provisions.

“As long as it’s done in a legal and constitutional manner that is accepted by the courts, I don’t think we have the right to intervene in the sovereignty of a nation,” he said.

Associate professor of government at American University, Adrienne LeBas, agreed that the international community should not be insisting on term limits at the expense of a country’s stability. But even so, she said that Africans themselves generally support term limits. “Well, I don’t agree with the idea that term limits are something that is entirely a Western plot. There is wild support for it across the continent,” she said.

And as a result, rulers may now be more likely to at least go through the motions of constitutional obedience, versus the old days when the “ruler for life” mentality prevailed.

“And I think the fact that we’re talking about it in places like Congo, Rwanda — these are not paragons of democracy, and yet those rulers are being forced to jump through hoops,” LeBas added. “Even in Burkina Faso, in order to run for a third term, Compaore had to go about changing the constitution.

So there may be small reasons for hope, but as of now, it remains to be seen whether tomorrow’s African leaders plan on stepping aside once their time in office is over.

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