In the last decade of the 20th century, African countries adopted presidential term limits as part of a wider set of constitutional rules that accompanied the transition from personal and authoritarian rule to democratic governance. While term limits are widely accepted by African states, they have come under increasing threat from incumbent presidents seeking to extend their tenures. Since the turn of the 21st Century, more than ten African leaders have tried to remove their country’s presidential term limits.
In 2015 Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would be running for a third term which sparked a failed military coup and mass protests that led to the deaths of many civilians. When President Nkurunziza came into power he removed the presidential term limits which raised questions. This was despite his previous claims that he was put in power by parliament rather than being voted in. His consequent actions reflect the opposite as has been the case in many African states. Also in 2015, Rwanda held a referendum which resulted in 98% voting for removal of presidential term limits. In a similar case in Congo 2015, President Denis Sassou Nguesso altered the constitution to run for another seven years in the 2016 election. Civil society protests that followed resulted in deaths of civilians and displacement of people. These cases are characteristic of general trends across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore, it is imperative the AU introduces presidential term limits on African countries given the conflict that has transpired. Earlier in 2014 in Burkina Faso the then President Blaise Compoare intended to run for another term unconstitutionally which was met with resistance resulting in his resignation.
Given the background, one questions the role of the African Union (AU) and its Regional Economic communities (RECs) as they are responsible to promote and safeguard democratic practices in the continent. How the AU has responded to these democratic challenges of third term bids has complicated the democratic development in Africa. The role of the AU by introducing presidential terms in Africa could go a long way to avert political instability on the continent. Bids by incumbents to run for a third term, regardless of whether the relevant constitution imposes term limits or not, has created an atmosphere of potential conflict in a number of African countries. In many instances the desire to stay power has outweighed the supposed benefits of leaving office.
Why term limits are important for African democracy
The consolidation of democracy in the continent largely depends on the transfer of power through constitutional means (i.e.) through elections and also incumbents stepping down at the end of their presidential tenure. Incumbents have stayed in power through unconventional means such as constitutional amendments as in the case of Republic of Congo, Togo, Equatorial Guinea to mention a few. Introducing term limits would increase the chance that power contestation takes place in non-violent manner. These cases clearly demonstrate why the AU and its RECs should take a more proactive role and take a strong stance against third term presidential bids. If left unchecked unrestricted term limits will be the next cause of war in Africa.
What the AU has done and What it needs to do
The way the AU handled the constitutional crises in Africa, particularly when it came to presidential terms raises many questions as to how the AU is dedicated to issues of peace and security in the continent. Many Scholars have pointed out how the role of RECs in conflict prevention and resolution issues leaves a lot to be desired. The AU needs to be more assertive in order to prevent constitution amendments which cause conflict. One possible avenue is a legal agreement among AU member states that limits presidential terms to two mandates. This could be done similarly to the Lomé Agreement of 2000, which condemns unconstitutional changes of government.
The AU’s authority continues to be undermined, it is the AU’s responsibility to set parameters in its legal framework on introducing presidential term limit. All in all, the role of the AU should be clearly defined which in this case could be through introducing presidential limits terms by making sure member states implement them and the AU enforces them.
Mr Tinashe Sithole is a post-graduate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg. He is passionate about African politics and his research interests include, peace and security, democracy and development in Africa.