In a democracy, is it justifiable to restrict the number of terms for heads of states? This is a key question that periodically rises to the forefront in a majority of Sub-Saharan Africa's rising democracies.
This discussion started at different moments in different countries, but arises mostly around the time its incumbents are about to enter their second (and last) term in office.
The debate over whether one should limit the mandates of head of states is currently under way with heated fervor in countries such as Burkina Faso, Burundi and both Congos (Congo-Kinshasa and Congo-Brazzaville).
This is also a debate that continues, to varying extents, in several countries across the continent - from Benin, Rwanda and Nigeria - and could very well start soon in others, such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, where these heads of states will soon be approaching the end of their last terms.
Limiting presidential mandates is imperative if Africa's “new” democracies wish to transition into “fully-established” ones. It is important to have a clear and honest discussion over whether term limits can actually hinder or safeguard democracy, because any vagueness or uncertainty here can stir tensions and rouse frustration among many African populations.
Furthermore, it is crucial that these discussions are held not only during elections times, but also - and especially - between election periods when discussions often arise around amending constitutions to extend mandates.
While this paper presents arguments in favor of fixed terms, it also explores both sides of the debate to ensure a more balanced and critical examination of the issue.
Against term limits
A violation of people's sovereignty
One of the most commonly advanced arguments against the term limitation is that it prevents people from re-electing the same person repeatedly, should they desire. This, proponents argue, goes against the principle of people's sovereignty - a principle central to democracy - which stipulates that a government is created and sustained by its people's consent. However, insinuating that the people's sovereignty in a democracy should be paramount to everything else, is not only specious, but also akin to a form of trickery. It must be remembered that in (nearly) all the constitutions of today's democracies (at least those equipped with written constitutions) there are (in one form or another) limits imposed to the power of the people.
These limits come, for instance, from the so-called “sacred provisions” - those non-revisable terms that are included in most constitutions of contemporary representative democracies (unless the constitution is changed). It is the case for provisions relating to “the secularity of the State and the territorial integrity”, which are found in the constitutions of most of Africa's new democracies, such as Benin and Guinea. It is the same case with provisions relating to “the republican form of the government”, contained in the French 1958 constitution, or to “the separation of powers and the direct, secret and universal vote” provided for by the Brazilian constitution. In fact, “… geography, history, tradition, culture, level of development… (political history, in short the specific context of each people) should be taken into account…” while deciding on setting term limits or not.
Ensure the quality of elections instead of limiting terms
Another common argument against term limitations is that the quality of elections should be prioritized over concerns related to fixed mandates.
Proponents here argue that ensuring transparency, integrity, and inclusivity in elections ensures the voices of the people are faithfully heard and is therefore paramount to concerns over limitless re-elections. While there is certainly a vital need to improve the quality of elections in Africa, in this particular debate the argument is overstated. Indeed, the possibility of manipulating elections is not the only reason for which one chooses to limit the presidential mandates. There are many others, some of which are outlined in the following section.
“Business to finish” or “preservation of stability and peace”
The “preservation of stability and order” and the need “to finish what was started” are other reasons advanced against the limitation of presidential mandates. How can one think that the stability, order and development of one country hinges on the efforts of just one person (and not by a political party for example)? And that they should therefore be rightfully maintained in power at all costs? As J.J. Rousseau said, “If this man has suddenly perished, his empire will remain scattered and without connection, as an oak dissolves and falls in a lot of ashes, after fire consumed it.” Actually this argument contains the germs of its own contradictions. A society that could depend so wholly on a single individual for its stability is the best evidence of the fundamental instability of that country to begin with.
Moreover, if in Africa one compares the many countries where the leaders deliberately relinquished power with those countries where they remained until their death (or were chased out of power) the difference speaks for itself (see Rousseau's quote above).
By way of illustration, the situation in countries like Cameroon (transitioning from Ahidjo to Biya), Ghana, Senegal (namely moving from Senghor to Diouf), post-1990 Benin, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa, the list goes on… is, on the one hand, particularly different from the situation in countries such as Cote d'Ivoire, Togo, Gabon, DRC, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia.
Even if it is not a general rule, transitions in countries where presidents willfully relinquish power are often more peaceful than in countries where presidents died or are chased out.
The other argument put forth - the one that professes that leaders need time to finish their ongoing projects - is quite ill founded. Simply put, in a democracy why should the duration and number of presidential terms be determined by how many campaign promises they meet or projects they complete? What would this mean in relation to the “Principle of the Continuity of the State" - a code stipulating that even if with rotations in leaders, it is the State who continues to carry through on project, and not a particular individual. Imagine what it would mean for a country's development if leaders could only initiate projects they were guaranteed to finish during the course of their mandate(s)? This is a highly unrealistic and dangerous prospect at best. A country can hardly aspire to great ambitions and great achievements if every project must be completed within the limits of their leader's mandate(s). This is simply not feasible.
In favor of the limitation of presidential terms
It contributes to improving the virtue of those in power
Imposing term limitations can actually be beneficial for those in power, because it places a degree of responsibility and pressure on them to actually produce tangible results. Going into their mandate, a president will be more focused at the onset when they know their tenure is limited. Knowing one has a definite period for accomplishing key tasks can be a safeguard or moderating mechanism to stifle misuses or abuses of power by those ruling a country (i.e. a President and his followers).
The fear of being accountable for their mismanagements may explain why a majority of African presidents refuse to step down.
Power contains the germs of its own degeneration
When a person gets a taste, even just a small taste of power, it often rapidly expands into an unquenchable thirst for more. As John Adams rightly said, “power has a natural tendency to increase because human passions are insatiable”5. It has been commonly said that “power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Consequently, the longer an individual or a group of politicians stay in power, the more they accumulate power and the more they tend to misuse/abuse it, heightening the risks that this group becomes corrupted. This is definitely not a desirable outcome in any country that professes to be “democratic”.
Experience further pleads in favor of the limitation of presidential terms
James Madison, the 19th century America political theorist, once said that experience is a “…guide which one ought to always follow each time one has the opportunity to do so”. This is a particularly relevant quote in regards to the discussion on presidential terms. Africa's new democracies should be learning from the experiences of its ‘guides' whenever possible - in this case those guides being the world's more established democracies. In more than 90% of established democracies, ones that have presidential (or semi-presidential) systems (such as the US or France), they have imposed term limitations. Instances where there is no formal limitation on presidential mandate are unusual, making them exceptions rather than the rule and should thus be evoked with precaution.
For post-independent countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, examples of presidents who held onto power “for life” teach us that we must be cautious when it comes to maintaining the same person in power indefinitely. Indeed, it is fair to say that in almost all the Sub-Saharan African countries, there is no clear advantage to having the same person in power for too long. When this is the case (just look at the DRC, Togo or Gabon as examples), there have been no developments, no nation-building, no substantial improvements in the social sectors or citizens' individual wellbeing. Of course, no one can say in a Manichean way that absolutely everything was bad during these periods, but experience has proven time and again that unrestricted, limitless terms provide little, if any, benefit to anyone other than the leader and his affiliates.
Despite all this, what if you are still not convinced?
If, despite all the above-mentioned arguments, there is still uncertainty over whether limiting presidential terms is necessary in Africa, it may be helpful to consider the following aspects:
Prudence should be taken in societies with pronounced social, ethnic and religious cleavages and where citizens cast votes along these lines. In such cases, when one group controls the State it can mean that entire geographical areas and ethnic groups are and/or feel completely excluded from power. It is even more so if, in addition, one lives in a context where power is everything and this power exerts control over business and job opportunities manifesting itself as a form of clientelism. This problem manifests in the exclusion or marginalization of groups who may then resort to violent tactics in an effort to assert themselves and regain some sense of power.
The need for a regular change in head of state has even become the trend globally. Take China for example, which is hardly known to be a champion of pluralist democracy. Here they have long known the importance of changing their leaders, even if there may be other issues to do with how those leaders actually govern. But the point being that rotating heads of states is vital, and in Africa it recently pushed the African Union (which was not traditionally a fervent defender of limitation of tenure in power) to include in its 2007 Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance a key stipulation in article 23 that notes “any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments which is an infringement on the principal of democratic change of government ….” is part of unconstitutional change of government. Now that it has been formalized by the AU, it is up to leaders, citizens and civil society to ensure it is abided to.
Ensuring presidential limits is no doubt an integral part of ensuring a well-functioning, accountable and effective government. As this paper has outlined, while there may be arguments to the contrary, these points are ill-founded. Experience and history has proven this time and again.
Imposing term restrictions is not about violating the people's consent, nor is it about prioritizing quality elections or providing more time for the completion of projects. It is about making leaders responsible and answerable to their people. Africa's young and fragile democracies will hardly reach the shores of established and consolidated democracies without specific measures in place - measures such as mandate restrictions - which will help ensure power is carefully managed and the voice of the people still counts.
Mathias Hounkpe is OSIWA's Political Governance Program Manager. Follow Mathias on Twitter: @Coffi_12