Term-limit blues?

Controversy over presidential term-limits is a recurring theme in sub-Saharan Africa.  And nowhere is this more so at the moment than in the African Great Lakes region, which comprises Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania.

When two terms are not enough…

In Burundi, in mid-May President Jean-Pierre Nkurunziza narrowly survived a coup attempt by a section of the armed forces, triggered by large-scale protests against his desire to stand for a third term in apparent violation of the constitution. Protests are continuing. Nkurunziza has insisted that, if he wins the presidential election currently scheduled for June (it might yet be delayed), it would actually be his second term, on the grounds that his first term was not based on a popular vote – he was indirectly elected by the National Assembly and Senate in 2005. The country’s Constitutional Court, which many view as not independent of the executive, backed this argument.

In the DRC, President Joseph Kabila is still weighing up his options but may yet try for a third term in elections scheduled for 2016. To do so he will either have to get the constitution amended – or, like Nkurunziza, look for some way around its two-term limit. In January 2015, following massive street protests, he abandoned an attempt to get a new census approved that many suspected would be used as an alibi to postpone the elections and so buy him more time in office.

Western donors are urging both Nkurunziza and Kabila to honour the two-term limit in the country’s constitution.

Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, won a second term in office in the 2010 elections. He has since said that, while he is not looking for a third term in 2017, he could be convinced. If he decides to stand, the constitution will have to be amended. Western donors would find this extremely awkward, but in his favour is the fact that Kagame still has plenty of political credit with the international community to spend.

Meanwhile, in Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni is serving his fourth term in office and all the indications are that he will stand for a fifth in 2016. His decision has caused considerable turmoil within the ruling party and he has indicated that he will not stand again in 2021. The two-term limit was originally removed from the Ugandan constitution in 2005. Western donors were displeased; the UK, froze or reallocated some of its aid for a time.

The exception to the rule…

Elections are also due in Tanzania later this year. Here, the two-term limit in the constitution has never caused much controversy and has become institutionalised within the ruling party, which uses it to regulate relations between factions. President Jakaya Kikwete will not be making a last-ditch attempt to stand for a third time. Western donors praise Tanzania as a stable African democracy, although it remains to be seen how the ruling party would respond if it faced a really strong opposition challenge.

Term-limits are popular but are often under threat…

Following the arrival of multi-party politics in the 1990s, presidential term limits were introduced in a large number of African countries to act as a brake on the power of incumbent leaders. Yet over the intervening decades, they have frequently been overturned.

Since the end of the colonial period, the continent has had a tradition of personalised rule by ‘Big Men’. Power and resources have tended to collect around these figures – sometimes exclusively, entrenching dictatorships (‘life presidents’), but sometimes on behalf of a coalition of factions, which can create some space for succession processes within ruling parties.

The idea of term-limits appears to be popular amongst ordinary Africans, However, many African leaders clearly continue to find them uncongenial and want to scrap them. One African scholar has concluded that “the culture of personal rule refuses to die”.

Concluding thoughts…

There have been some ‘good news’ stories from sub-Saharan Africa on term-limits. Local civil society groups in some countries been remarkably effective in their defence. An attempt to overturn a constitutional term-limit by President Blaise Compaore last year led ultimately to his downfall in Burkina Faso. But earlier this month, West African leaders rejected a proposal to create a ‘no third term’ rule for the whole region (they previously agreed a ‘no military coups’ rule).

Elections are often accompanied by political violence in sub-Saharan Africa. None of the five countries in the African Great Lakes region has yet seen an incumbent president (or ruling party) defeated in an election.

As controversy over term-limits continues, Western donors are acutely aware that the region has been convulsed by genocide, civil wars, inter-state conflict and flawed democratic transitions over the last 20 years or so and that this epoch of violence and exploitation has not yet drawn to an end.

Donors are currently taking a tough stance on Burundi; the EU and Belgium (the ex-colonial power) have both frozen funding for the June elections. There could be more difficult judgements to make as DRC and Rwanda go through their own election seasons over the next two years.

Great Lakes 4

Further reading

Commons Briefing Paper 06/51, “The African Great Lakes region: an end to conflict?” (October 2006)

All Party Parliamentary Group on the African Great Lakes region’s website

Congo Siasa blog

International Crisis Group’s Central Africa webpage

Jon Lunn