Africa: Why Keeping to Presidential Term Limits is Important for Peace

10 October 2019

Niamey — Since the 1990s, Africa has made notable strides in achieving democratic and peaceful transitions of power in government. According to the Africa Forum, a network of former African heads of state, more than 40 leaders have left office democratically and peacefully during this period.

Seven of them have been awarded the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. According to recent research by Afrobarometer, a majority of the continent's citizens support term limits. And a majority of African Union (AU) member states say they support constitutionalism and the rule of law.

But unfortunately political space is shrinking in other countries, and a considerable number of leaders across the continent have extended their time in office by either altering or eliminating constitutional term limits.

The Washington-based National Democratic Institute, together with the Africa Forum, the Kofi Annan Foundation and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa , have therefore launched a program entitled the Constitutional Term Limits Initiative , which aims to support presidential term limits across sub-Saharan Africa through high-level advocacy and citizen mobilization.

The initiative was officially launched in Niamey, the capital of Niger, at a conference from October 2 to 4. Participants included a number of Ibrahim laureates as well as former heads of state who left office peacefully. They included former presidents Amos Sawyer of Liberia, Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria and Nicéphore Soglo of Benin, who were joined by the senior African Union (AU) Commission official, Calixte Mbari.

For Calixte Mbari, Africa has the best laws you can find in the world on issues of good governance and democracy, contained in the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. There are still challenges of implementation in some countries, he said, but expressed optimism that these could be overcome.

He said the charter prohibits, among others, any kind of military takeover, any constitutional change to extend a stay in office after the expiration of a term limit, or the repeated postponement of elections, as happened in recent years in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Contrary to what Africans might think, he added, the AU mounts pressure on governments which do not abide by the charter, but – unlike NGOs – does not do so publicly.

President Sawyer, for his part, saidhe believes changing a constitutional provision as important as a presidential term limit should not be done by only a simple majority vote in parliament, but should require a referendum. Citing the example of Liberia, he said changing the country's constitution requires both a two-thirds majority vote in parliament as well as a referendum after a least a year's notice of the proposed change.

This, he said, gives citizens the chance to take part in a decision directly, and the year's delay gives them time to think over the issue. Every member on the panel at the conference in Niamey agreed with this. Sawyer said a constitution should be regarded not only as a contract between the president-elect and the citizenry but should reflect deeper moral values and be a document held in trust.

For President Jonathan, regional governmental blocs can play an important role at times of constitutional crisis. He cited the role that ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, has played in addressing such challenges in Burkina Faso and Gambia.

In Burkina Faso, after a popular revolt sent President Blaise Compaoré packing, Parliament was burnt down and the Speaker, his constitutional successor, had to flee, the regional body intervened quickly to save he country from chaos.

But Jonathan was of the view that term limits might need to vary, depending on the country. As a president who knows how expensive organising elections can be, he thinks two five-year terms, two four-year terms or three four-year terms all might be acceptable, depending on a country's resources.

For President Soglo, a bigger problem is that many African countries have yet to cut the umbilical cord with their former colonial masters, which he said still control economies and hence influence who stays in power and who goes. This is particularly the case in Francophone Africa, he added.

And across the continent, despite the end of the Cold War the exercise of political power is still under the influence of the world's super powers, which use it to promote their countries' interests. To him, regional blocs could form a formidable force to challenge the status quo if they come together. He said this would take commitment, since democracy is usually a slow process, but he is optimistic that it can be done.

The meeting, formally titled the "Constitutional Term Limits Summit", was hosted by the National Democratic Institute, a non-partisan NGO based in Washington, D.C., in partnership with the Africa Forum, a network of former heads of state, the Open Society Initiative for West Africa and the Kofi Annan Foundation. AllAfrica is the official media partner of the summit, and its presence is courtesy of the hosts.

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