Term Limits and Democratic Consolidation in Sub-Saharan Africa

Should African leaders not be concerning themselves with deepening democratic institutionalisation instead of consolidating their hold on state power? What could be done to reinforce democratic consolidation and stem a concerning wave of democratic reversal sweeping across the continent?

As President Thomas Beni Yayi of Benin stepped down in March 2016 after serving his second and final term of office, other leaders in Africa chose to extend presidential term limits in order to stay in power. Paradoxically, some of his fellow incumbent presidents across sub Saharan Africa sought to secure their continued stay in office by tinkering with constitutions to abort the two term presidential limits for the highest office, defeating the need for constitutionally stipulated leadership alternation.

Presidents Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, Dennis Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville and Paul Kagame of Rwanda have gone the common road of unlimited presidential incumbency associated with “big man politics” in Africa. There exists a generation of the old guard of political leaders who have been in power for over two decades, for example Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, 36 years, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Angola, 36 years, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe, 35 years, Paul Biya, Cameroon, 32 years and Yoweri Museveni, Uganda for 29 years.

Three other leaders served even longer terms, among them Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, 44 years, Muammar Gaddafi, Libya, 42 years and Omar Bongo Ondimba, Gabon for 41 years. There are fears that other leaders like Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may follow suit.

Evidently a pervasive culture of politics where unlimited incumbency is becoming the norm rather than the exception is emerging as political leaders resort to controversial national referendums to legitimise unlimited terms of office. These referendums, just like regular shallow symbolic elections whose outcomes are generally disputed are becoming a key feature of long political incumbency in these flawed democracies. Many observers of African politics are increasingly concerned with whether democracy could ever flourish in Africa.

An emerging pattern of failed or political unwillingness to allow intra-political party, intrastate and government leadership renewal is becoming a fast spreading challenge for democratic consolidation across the continent. Failed democratic consolidation manifested through intrastate democratisation conflicts in countries such as Burundi, Zimbabwe and lately Kenya and Ivory Coast raise serious questions as to whether African leaders are ready to implement concerted efforts towards creating a democratic culture.

 Democratic Consolidation

Democratic consolidation entails taking measures to avoid democratic erosion or breakdown while fostering democratic deepening through complete institutionalisation of democratic norms, values and practices towards political democratic maturity. In deepening democracy, political leaders should practice total fidelity to the exercise of power through constitutions and rule of law which limits whimsical arbitrary manipulation of power to promote individual interest at the expense of broader societal good. Democratic constitutionalism also entails the protection of minorities and the weak from tyrannical majoritarianism and coercive domination.

Democratic consolidation envisages a society upon which social relations amongst ordinary people and their leaders are governed and mediated through legitimate institutions of political governance. The whimsical resort to holding referendums to legitimise unlimited incumbency through coerced and cowed majorities brazenly undermines confidence in democratic institutions. It portrays an impression of a continental leadership that is not interested in upholding tenets of democratic rule where they contradict the personal interests of the powerful incumbent political elites.

A Concerning Pattern

Although the selection of political leaders through universal suffrage in constitutional, regular elections is now a norm everywhere in the continent, a concerning political pattern characterised by disputed elections, curtailed leadership alternation or renewal is emerging as a serious problem for democratic consolidation. Even the most authoritarian regimes now hold elections, however flawed.

Since the 2000s very few African leaders have bowed out of office without seeking to amend their constitutions in a bid to extend their mandate beyond the two-term limit. Intra-political party, government and state leadership renewal and or alternation have become a huge challenge for many African countries such as Equatorial Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Burundi, to name a few.

As much as personalist “presidentialism” is a challenge for office bearers within the state, it is evidently becoming a common problem for office holders within opposition political formations and civil society as well, as leaders in these institutions simply replicate what is happening within the state. Accordingly, there is

Accordingly, there is need to invest in a broader consensus to protect democratic institutions beyond arbitrary initiatives by elites, whether they are from the state, opposition formations and non-government organizations. Such a process is contingent on active and informed citizenship. As already mentioned earlier, since 2007, countries such as Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast, Burundi, Uganda and the DRC were plunged into serious political power struggles emanating from the unwillingness by the incumbent presidents to allow leadership change or succession. Other political leaders simply expunged constitutional term-limits from their constitutions to allow themselves to contest elections without limit; while others ensured that they contested and won every election they held, in spite of complaints from the opposition and civil society.

Rwanda, like Congo-Brazzaville represents a unique situation as the constitutional term limit close was reversed through a referendum favouring the incumbent to continue in office. But even then, such conduct subjects societal democratic aspirations to the tyranny of the majority and the powerful. It further undermines democratic rule with respect to protecting the interests and rights of the minority as well as polarising society.

Parasitical networks of economic and political cartels and protégés corruptly feeding off the centre of power further complicates the tendency towards unrestricted political incumbency. These self-preserving webs of acolytes strive to retain their privileged status with the establishment through sycophantic cheerleading and hero-worship. They urge ruling elites to continue in power, falsely telling them they are popular even where the evidence points to the contrary. In many of such cases, the ultimate consequences of democratic regression are violent electoral competition and socio-economic meltdown.

Two Sides of the Debate

The issue of disputed elections, uni-lateral removal of constitutional term limits and their implications for democratic consolidation has triggered a polarising debate, with serious challenges for policy making and democracy promotion.

African leaders invoke political and cultural relativism cushioned with political entitlement pointing to the need for leaders in Africa to chart their socio-economic and political path. President Kagame has argued that his country should be left to chart its political trajectory based on its unique socio-historical experiences.

There are many leaders in Africa who share this view, amongst them president Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Unfortunately we can arguably claim that the democratic credentials of some of these leaders are proving to be fairly diminished if not controversial. Hence their posture towards a democracy informed by their societal peculiarities is problematic if not hopeless.

Against calls for African leaders to abide by democratic constitutionalism, a “nativist” narrative can be teased out of the views of political actors who find term limits to be an inconvenience to their national project. Such leaders posit that African countries should be left (by meddlesome Western powers) to chart their own socio-economic and political course, thus defining their way towards democratisation. Proponents of such a view further postulate that the same constituencies who instituted term limits have the right to internally agree to reverse the term limit closes. The argument is extended to imply that each nation in particular and the African

Proponents of such a view further postulate that the same constituencies who instituted term limits have the right to internally agree to reverse the term limit closes. The argument is extended to imply that each nation in particular and the African continent in general should be left to chart its own way in the world, based on their unique socio-historical exigencies. However given the multitude of intrastate democratisation conflicts provoked by leaders who refuse to relinquish political power, these views are weak efforts at shielding politicians from domestic and international accountability.

As much as nations and states are founded on context based socio-historical conditions, there cannot be one democracy for Africa and another for the rest of the world, good democracy for one country, a worse one or a best one for another. Democratic institutionalisation and consolidation should be based on a common universally shared yardstick of standards, norms and values otherwise it becomes difficult for leaders to take responsibility and be accountable.

Grim Consequences of Democratic Rollback

The tendency to alter constitutions at the instigation of office bearers is repeatedly occurring at alarming frequency with grim consequences. The recent record of reversal of constitutional limits to pave way for unfettered incumbency and the general longevity of political leaders in office is proving to be an albatross to democratic consolidation. Not only is it a threat to national and continental security and stability, it undermines

Not only is it a threat to national and continental security and stability, it undermines long term political predictability by tying national prospects on personalities as opposed to constitutions and political institutions. Such countries as Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Uganda raise fears of democratic rollback given the evident reversal of the gains of the previous decade.

There is a paradoxical pattern to the consequences of failed democratic consolidation characterised by preponderance between imminent violence, with the possibility of a domestic-regional nexus of insecurity and instability on one hand and coercive, oppressive political stability. Both cases subsist on the dilemmas of constitutional term limits and the politically corrosive failure to foster democratic consolidation.

It looks like leaders who stay too long in power become oppressive, are removed through violent means causing intrastate political conflicts, destabilising national socio-economic and democratic development. The cases of conflict in Libya under Muammar Gaddafi, Ivory Coast under Laurent Ggabo and Kenya under Mwai Kibaki are some of the cases indicative of the challenges of authoritarian incumbency and its conflictual consequences.

Although democracy is not a necessary condition for economic growth, it is generally agreed that it has a positive impact for sustainable economic growth. Undemocratic countries are susceptible to debilitating conflict undermining economic growth. Democratic consolidation would give impetus to growing international confidence in the continent, particularly in its fastest growing economies. Democratic deficits can only deflate such confidence, denying these countries international and domestic investment.

The Case for Democratic Consolidation

Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the fastest growing economies in the world. The current crop of leaders in Africa stands to reap the fruits of fast economic growth, political security and stability by institutionalising and deepening democracy. Democratic consolidation lays the strongest foundation for sustainable development for a continent currently exuding much potential, thus attracting global attention from investors, firing up the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship amongst citizens.

Political leaders should set precedents by upholding democratic values and norms, even when such norms contradict the individual interests of political elites. Leaders such as Beni Yayi, Joachim Chisano of Mozambique, Festus Mogae of Botswana and Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia represent a small crop of leaders who voluntarily stepped down in compliance with constitutional term limits. Political leaders should desist from the prevalent tendency to seek unlimited terms of office but rather uphold and reinforce leadership renewal. They should rally their citizens to uphold the sanctity of democratic constitutional rule, in order to foster a culture of politics firmly anchored in democratic rule.

Gideon has extensive experience working with civil society and political parties. His academic interests include a focus on  Conflict and  Security, Democracy and Governance. Sponsored by the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) he conducted policy research on youth and politics in Africa focusing on the main political parties in Ghana and Kenya.  Additionally, he has also conducted research on Elections and Democratic Transition in Zimbabwe and consults for several NGOs in Zimbabwe on issues of elections, governance and democracy. He is an awardee of the UPEACE doctoral grant, has published several articles on democratisation in Zimbabwe in the Africa Peace and Conflict Journal and regularly provides political analysis in the media. He holds a Masters in Development Studies with a specialisation in Governance and Democracy from the Institute of Social Studies(ISS), Netherlands, a BA from the Great Zimbabwe University, a Diploma in Education, University of Zimbabwe and is currently finalising his PhD at Rhodes University.

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