Term-limit changes the biggest threat to democracy in Africa?

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Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (92) is famous for quirky responses when asked why he has stayed in power since 1980. Asked by journalists whether it isn’t time he said farewell to the people of Zimbabwe, he replied: ‘Why, where are they going?’

On a serious note, he also angrily told journalists who asked about his decades-long presidency: ‘Have you ever asked the Queen that question, or is it just for African leaders?’ According to Mugabe: ‘Only God who appointed me can remove me’.

As the oldest serving president in the world, Mugabe has become something of a caricature of a leader who clings to power at all costs, ignoring the principles of democratic change of power. Are African leaders being judged too harshly?

15 September is the United Nations’ (UN’s) International Day of Democracy. According to the UN, the essential elements of democracy are ‘the values of freedom, respect for human rights and the principle of holding periodic and genuine elections by universal suffrage’.


Development is more likely to take hold if people are given a real say in their own governance
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In his message for this year’s democracy day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says that the UN’s new agenda for sustainable development, adopted last year, makes it clear that what people want all over the world is food and shelter, education and health care and more economic opportunities. They want to live without fear and want to be able to trust their governments. ‘Human development is more likely to take hold if people are given a real say in their own governance, and a chance to share in the fruits of progress,’ says Ban.

Having a real say in who governs them is the driving force behind protesters who take to the streets against long-serving presidents; from Angola and Burundi to the Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe. In all of these places, people are fed up with their governments, but don’t see a democratic way out.

In Zimbabwe, things are quickly unravelling for Mugabe. The increasing thirst for change has pushed thousands of protesters into the streets of Zimbabwe’s big cities, risking a crack-down by the security forces.

The latest wave of protests was prompted by the economic meltdown and the inability of the government to pay salaries – the final straw for those who have suffered through years of hardship due to Mugabe’s policies. Elections have been marred by serious violence, especially those in 2008. No succession plan is in place either. This is already creating instability and fears from the international community of a violent transition should Mugabe pass away while in office.

The call for long-serving presidents such as Mugabe, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and others to step down is not driven by pressure from the international community, as some allege, but from African citizens who see how these leaders frustrate development and govern in the interests of a small elite.


In the last few months, democracy in Africa has suffered a number of blows
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In the last few months, democracy in Africa has suffered a number of blows with presidential elections in Chad, the Republic of Congo and Gabon being contested. The opposition in Zambia is also still rejecting the results of the 11 August elections in that country, despite a court ruling that dismissed its petition, without holding a hearing. The court ruled that the delay for addressing the opposition’s claims had expired.

Meanwhile, the extension of their term limits by several African leaders has eroded democratic gains. Term limits are a necessary bulwark against abuse of power, especially when electoral systems are weak.

A number of African countries have no term limits for presidents. These include Gabon, Togo, Uganda, Cameroon, Chad, the Gambia and Sudan. In others, presidents have only very recently agreed to such limits, often window-dressing while they plot to prolong their stay at the helm. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe agreed in 2013 that presidents should have two five-year terms, which would technically allow him to stay in power until 2023.

In Rwanda, two term limits of five years now start only from 2015, enabling President Paul Kagame to stay on until 2025. In the Republic of Congo, according to changes made at the end of last year, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso will in future serve up to three five-year terms. Sassou-Nguesso pushed through these changes thanks to a hastily organised referendum on 25 October 2015.

In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza’s insistence in 2015 to run for a third term, despite constitutional term limits, caused serious and ongoing conflict. Like in Zimbabwe, ordinary citizens are risking life and limb to oppose Nkurunziza’s long stay in power.


Term limits are a bulwark against abuse of power, especially when electoral systems are weak
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Burundi's instability is seen as an example of what can happen when leaders fail to stick to term limits. It is also considered a litmus test for continental institutions in dealing with the fallout from term extensions. So far, all efforts by the African Union (AU) have failed.

At the beginning of last year, African heads of state halted an initiative by the AU’s Peace and Security Council to send a 5 000-strong intervention force to deal with the instability that followed Nkurunziza’s election.

In addition, observers also fear serious violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) if presidential elections aren’t held in November, as the constitution requires. President Joseph Kabila should then step down after two terms in office.

Presidents make these constitutional changes because they believe, like Mugabe, that they should rule indefinitely. In countries with no term limits, elections are very often contested but through the abuse of incumbency, leaders manipulate the process and, like in Gabon, manage to stay on.

In many other parts of the world, presidents sometimes serve for life. However, often, the head of state is purely symbolic. In many European countries, like Britain, an executive prime minister runs things and is appointed through regular general elections. In this case, to reply to Mugabe, the Queen is little more than a figurehead.

Despite the serious threat to democracy posed by the extension of presidential term limits, as well as the manipulation of election results, several countries on the continent have recently managed to hold credible presidential elections that saw a democratic change of leadership.

These include Nigeria (March 2015) and Benin (March 2016). In Senegal (in 2012) and Burkina Faso (in 2014), attempts by leaders to extend their mandates were successfully thwarted.


Burundi was a litmus test for continental institutions in dealing with term extensions
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Africa has also adopted important instruments and agreements to promote democracy. This includes the African Peer Review Mechanism, which has faced serious challenges, but attempts are now being made to revive it.

After much campaigning by civil society, the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance came into existence in 2012. This was after the minimum of 15 AU member states ratified the charter.

The document has far-reaching provisions for promoting the rule of law, the respect for human rights and for holding democratic elections ‘to institutionalise legitimate authority of representative government as well as democratic changes of government’. It also binds signatories to best practices in the management of elections; and acknowledges that unconstitutional changes of government are ‘a threat to stability, peace, security and development’.

The Charter, for example describes the ‘amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments, which is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government’ as one of the ‘illegal means of accessing or maintaining power’.

Some have described the adoption of the Charter as ‘a new dawn for democracy and the rule of law in Africa’, though four years down the line, its implementation has been disappointing. If this is a true benchmark for African governance, adopted by AU member states, why have the AU and African leaders not spoken up about the leaders who change their constitutions to stay in power?

As the world marks International Day of Democracy, storm clouds are gathering and in several African countries, citizens will have little to celebrate.

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