By Beneth A. Tibaijuka
At independence in the 1960s, almost all African countries did not think of term limits of their leaders – presidents or prime ministers and took it for granted that they would work for the benefit of their countries since they did not belong to any other country as was the case for colonialists. It was assumed that after a “repressive period of leadership of colonialists”, the African leaders coming in would indeed lead (guide and direct), be pro-people, down-to-earth democratic and aim at getting the communities out of poverty through all inclusive initiatives; but not to take advantage of their ignorance to stay in power as long as they want. However, this was not to be.
In many post-independent African countries leaders became intolerant to opposition, arresting or killing opponents. Some national armies took advantage of the autocratic regimes and staged coup d’états. The 1970s and 1980s saw many African countries ruled by military governments in even more autocratic styles than their predecessors, resulting in all the killings and destructions that took the countries back to the pre-colonial statuses. Following the end of the Cold War, African countries started experiencing changes of government through revolutionary movements, which forced the fall of the autocratic governments, which in some cases, were being supported by undemocratic but wealthy regimes around the world. This also changed governance as a result of the end of the Cold War.
In the early 2000s, many African countries re-wrote their constitutions and adopted presidential term limits. The adoption was aimed at transiting from authoritarian personal rule to democratic and pluralistic governance, change of leadership – from one leader to another to rejuvenate national institutions with new ideas and probably new people so as to get rid of ethnicity and patronage. Term limits were envisaged also to ensure internal checks and balances to get rid of corruption, which was and continues to eat-up many of the regimes as political parties are immature and are greatly compromised and, therefore, cannot hold their leaders accountable, leave alone changing them through national or party polls as can be done in some developed countries where there are no term limits (many African leaders seeking for removal of term limits use developed countries which have no term limits as examples that people can elect new leaders where they feel dissatisfied).
Importance of term limits
Out of 48 African countries that wrote new constitutions, 33 contained provisions for term limits. What is important to note is that at the time of writing the new constitutions, incumbent presidents did not oppose inclusion of term limits. The efforts to remove term limits come later when the leaders realise they may have to lose all the privileges as time is not on their side. Yet most regimes can never give their citizens the chance to freely vote out a leader so they need constitutional restrictions to help them. A number of Afro-barometer survey results from 34 African countries showed that large majorities of Africans support the idea of imposing a two-term limit on presidential power and this is even true in those countries that have never had term limits and those that have removed them in the past 15 years.
This is a major disconnect between African leaders and their citizens and is an indicator that referenda conducted under the watchful eye of the bosses may indeed not yield the true picture, underlining the lingering legacy of big-man rule and fragility of African democracies. Experience has shown that African presidents who overstay in power become dictators, oppress the Opposition and may end up destroying their country.
As a result of long stay in power and, therefore patronage, many ruling party supporters become untouchables, corrupt and contestation for power is usually in violent conditions where change is sometimes orchestrated by the gun. Term limits can contribute to region rotation of presidency, alleviating the danger of groups feeling permanently politically marginalised. Because incumbent presidents have advantages during elections, they can hardly be defeated through elections. They appoint officials of electoral commissions, use the security forces and other national resources.
Opponents of term limits
Despite the above glaring benefits of term limits, many African presidents are pushing for removal of term limits to stay in power. They talk of need to complete their programmes and that there is no credible successor to move the programmes forward. They push for constitutional amendments through parliaments, which they influence to approve or through referenda where the population vote without sensitisation and voter education. In most cases, the opposition is not given chance to tell the electorate alternative reasons. Opponents of term limits fear the loss of connections and privileges. They claim change of presidents disrupts development programmes.
Removal of term limits
Many populations welcomed the introduction of term-limits in their national constitutions but within the last 10 or so years, incumbent presidents have attacked the provision seeking removal so as to stay in power for as long as they are still alive. With all the consequences, some presidents have succeeded in removing term limits while some have failed. Presidents of two countries failed to amend constitutions and remove term limits while seven long-serving presidents amended them, stood and won the subsequent third term elections, albeit having asked to be elected for their last time during their second term campaigns.
Why did some presidents fail to amend term limits?
1 Level of popular dissatisfaction with the leader in their countries, the strength of civil society and the level of media independence;
2 Inability of the incumbent to suppress increasing opposition;
3 The size of parliamentary majority of the ruling party and the coherence of the members;
4 International pressure;
5 Availability of retirement benefits for the president.
What should be done to retain term limits?
What is gratifying is that the numbers of African presidents who have not pushed for amendment of constitutions to remove term limits are the majority and will continue to be reference points of good governance and observance of the constitutions and country laws. Citizens, civil society organisations and the international community should increase pressure on African leaders to ensure they respect their constitutions and where there are term limits, not to push for removal but to play their part and live others to continue. Programmes have no term limits and no single leader can finish them.
The African leaders themselves should not use the excuse that they are doing well and have been asked to stay. Do they want to hand over when they are doing badly? It is good to hand over power when you have done well as a challenge to your successor. Staying in power under the excuse that you are doing well is like saying “because a student has passed exams very well, he or she should, therefore, remain in that class”. Many of the presidents who hand over power after their term expire are usually good performers and good leaders who respect “terms and conditions”. And yet, some leaders want to be called the only-ones; others want to be called saviours.
It makes me feel like quoting the saying, “The problem of Africa are leaders who don’t want to leave power.”
East African Community
Incidentally, where are the East African presidents on this issue of third term? Some presidents in the East African Community member states have done away with term limits. Although they claim citizens are free to vote them out of office, everyone knows that for this to happen, there is need for God’s intervention. In ECOWAS, for example, those opposed to term limits during the ECOWASsummit argued that countries have different political history and that restricting presidents to two terms might not work for others. At least the ECOWAS members were honest.
What about the presidents of the East Africa region?
The author (PhD) is an agro-project specialist.