14 August 2015

Africa's Dark History, Not the West, Imposed Term Limits for Presidents

Photo: MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti
Joseph Kabila lors du meeting électoral qu'il a tenu à Goma, au Nord-Kivu, le 14 novembre 2011.

The current crop of African Presidents appear obsessed with the extension or abolition of Presidential term limits.

In recent times this curse can be traced to Nigerian General Olusegun Obasanjo who by the end of his second term had caught the bug insisting the constitution be amended to allow him a further term in office. Nigerians had already learnt their lesson and said No Thank You and the General went home.

He seems to have passed on the bug to retired President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal who was similarly rejected.

The most dramatic rejection of attempts of extending presidential term limits took place in Burkina Faso. Blaise Compaore served as President for over 24 years. He served his terms in full but the sting of power hunger ran deep. With the help of a parliament which he controlled, he attempted to have the Constitution amended to allow him yet another term in office.

The events that followed looked like a scene out of an action movie. The people of Burkina Faso rose in unison setting buildings on fire and when they trained their eyes on the Presidential Palace, the so-called great Blaise Compaore took to his heels and fled.

One would think that this vivid lesson would deter other African Presidents from the quest for prolonging their stay in office. Not so.


The bug has stung Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo and President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi.

The Constitution of Burundi and the Arusha Peace Accord categorically state that the President of Burundi shall serve for two terms and no more.

The defiant president had his way in an election boycotted by the opposition. However, a dark cloud of uncertainty hangs over Burundi whose past tragic history is littered with blood and tears.

After the 1994 genocide, Rwanda rose from the ashes to become a fairly stable country. One of its pillars was the Constitution that created two Presidential terms of seven years each. President Paul Kagame is credited with bringing stability to Rwanda and is on his final term and the curse is now upon Rwanda. His supporters have clamoured for a referendum to amend the Constitution to allow him a further term in office.

Their reason? He is the only one who can guarantee the stability of the country. However, there are murmurs of dissent.


The jury is still out but Rwanda seems determined to amend the Constitution to extend the term limits and Kagame himself appears to be on board with the idea.

There is a developing school of thought among African legal scholars which is now questioning the concept of term limits as an imposition of the West upon Africans.

They point out that the West hardly practices term limits and give examples of the prolonged stay in office by Tony Blair (Britain), Angela Merkel (Germany) and Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel). They praise President Museveni of Uganda and President Mugabe of Zimbabwe for rejecting term limits. These scholars use the tired argument that it is for the people to make their choice.

We come from a dark history where sitting Presidents have used the instruments of state to manipulate elections to ensure their perpetual stay in office. Opposition parties have been routinely banned, their leaders have been jailed, killed or exiled. It is this dark history not the West which persuaded us to have term limits in our Constitutions and we are not out of the woods yet.

Kenya was lucky to have President Mwai Kibaki for whom the question of an extension did not arise at all. A precedent has therefore been set and there is no turning back for us. In this we borrowed heavily from our neighbour Tanzania where the trend set ever since Mwalimu Julius Nyerere left office has become part of the constitutional culture of Tanzania .

History teaches us that where there is an alternative the human race will as much as possible avoid violence and upheaval. Term limits provide an avenue for peaceful change of leadership.

For Africa there is no other choice. Term limits are the choice.

Mr Kitonga, an advocate, chaired the Committee of Experts of the Constitution of Kenya 2010

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