The question of how much time African presidents should get in office continues to be a contentious and divisive issue. On the one side, there are those who argue that blanketly limiting African presidents’ time in office is a “defeatist approach that escapes the major question of electoral justice,” while others consider that placing too much emphasis on term limits without any consideration for people’s aspirations is nothing short of performing a democratic dance to a foreign gallery. On the opposing side, there are those who insist that term limits are a sine qua non condition for the democratization of Africa. Those who support this view consider term limits as one of the key features of democracy. However, the group who insist on introducing presidential term limits on the continent make assumptions that these limits (or lack thereof) are the chief determinants of democracy or dictatorship. However, a closer look at the processes that led to the introduction or the removal of term limits in Africa indicates that these processes had more to do with stability rather than democracy per se. Here is the reason.
Africa is diverse in many ways, and from the outset, there was not going to be an easy panacea for the challenges of governance faced by African countries owing to this extreme diversity. The realities of these countries gaining their political independence varied widely; some went through bloody, protracted armed struggles; others achieved their independence through peaceful means; yet others were somewhere halfway in-between the two. The political cultures that emerged out of the embers of colonialism were bound to be different and complex.
To some of these countries, the political leaders who fought for political independence served for decades in office without any talk of presidential term limits, and that worked for them. In other countries, the change of guard at the top was characterized by endless cycles of coup leaders toppling one another. Few of these countries had functioning political parties, while the majority of them did not.
However, even with such varied backgrounds, when the so-called “third wave” of democracy came knocking on the continent, coupled with the demands to reform their economies, the majority of African countries opted for “competitive” multiparty politics, thereby introducing presidential term limits regardless of their contexts. By the 1990s, 49 out of the 55 constitutions of African countries included presidential term limits, and the military regimes of previous decades were replaced with regimes that claimed their legitimacy through dubious electoral processes – which left their countries more divided, – with the real legitimacy conferred on them by foreign powers.
Ironically, Western-centric metrics used to measure the health of democracy in Africa show no correlation between presidential term limits and democracy. In fact, the democracy index has countries that are very different as hybrid regimes, authoritarians or full democracy, regardless of whether they have term limits or not. This should not come as a surprise because term limits (or lack thereof) in Africa have never been a function of democracy. Even the countries which rushed to introduce them in the early 1990s did so not because those in power wanted to usher in democracy the way the West conceptualizes it. It was – and has always been – about stability, whether of the country or the ruling elite or the party in power. After all, it is impossible for any country to make any tangible progress without stability. Therefore, looking through the prism of stability, the rationale of adopting or removing term limits is easy to understand.
Consider Tanzania. In discussions touching on a wide range of issues in the country, the introduction of term limits for the presidency was put forward in 1983. These discussions were an internal party process that came as a response to another party guideline issued in 1981. These guidelines led to the 1984 Fourth Constitutional Amendment, which, among other things, introduced presidential term limits and set a maximum of two-term, five-year tenure for presidents.
However, when the rest of the continent was considering the introduction of term limits for their leaders in the early 1990s, Tanzania’s ruling party was considering the opposite. Some within the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) thought that it was high time they knocked off the two-term limits set for presidents; Tanzanians wanted the president at the time, Ali Hassan Mwinyi, to lead them beyond those two terms. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, who was instrumental in introducing presidential term limits in the country, categorically rejected any talk of removing term limits in his book titled Uongozi Wetu na Hatma ya Tanzania. However, his arguments had nothing to do with democracy or lack of it; he was more concerned about the party’s stability which he equated with the country’s stability.
Former President Benjamin Mkapa recounted his own challenges about term limits when the then President of Zanzibar, Dr Salmin Amour, was rumoured to seek more time in office by amending the constitution to remove term limits. In his memoir, “My Life, My Purpose: A Tanzanian President Remembers,” Mkapa writes of the rising political temperatures within the ruling party (the CCM). According to Mkapa, the tension created by this situation was only settled with Dr Amour himself saying that he had no intention of seeking another term in office beyond those prescribed in the constitution. However, this account differs from other sources at the time, some of which wrote that Dr Amour’s tenure-elongation attempt was thwarted by the party and not him voluntarily giving up.
In both these cases, the heated discussions were within the CCM. Presidential term limits were seen as guaranteeing the stability of the party and of the country by extension because they allowed for top leadership rotation within the CCM. There were no serious discussions about term limits beyond the CCM. Clearly, CCM leaders were concerned more with stability than they were with the liberal conception of democracy.
The only time the situation was different was during Magufuli’s time in office, especially at the tail end of his first term. The debates about him allegedly plotting his way to more time in office by removing the limits in the constitution intensified regardless of whatever denials he or some of the party’s and the government’s spokespersons issued. Unlike in the previous cases, this time around, the discussion was not within the CCM. It was the opposition that was obsessed with whether Magufuli would honour the constitution after his time in office. It is noteworthy that, in Magufuli’s time, the debate around term limits had incorporated the concept of democracy as understood in the liberal logic, something which was not the case in previous discussions about the same topic, which solely focused on stability.
Furthermore, in South Africa (which is regarded as a democracy even in the eyes of the foreign “gallery” despite its failure to structurally overcome apartheid), besides Nelson Mandela who opted to serve one five-year term in office, his next two successors in office never made it to the finish line of their second terms in office for reasons which had to do with the governing ANC’s internal strife. The changes at the helm of the government in that country had nothing to do with democracy or the aspirations of the people or term limits, even when these changes reinforced the impression that democracy was working.
Finally, although in other countries with dominant party-states like Namibia and Mozambique, there are presidential term limits, the reasons and the journey both countries travelled to arrive at that destination were not the same. This observation also applies to countries that removed term limits. Of course, there are extreme cases where the removal of presidential term limits is a matter of survival for the president and those around him as the “first family” runs everything, and any change at the helm spells real and present danger to them. In such a case, ruling a country is a family affair in a non-monarchical system. However, such a country shouldn’t be lumped up in the same basket as others where the removal of presidential term limits went through a legitimate, fair, and credible constitutional process. Indeed, while in both instances, stability is the major reason advanced for the removal of term limits, the difference lies in the extent to which this removal serves narrow (or broad) interests. In fact, the narrower the interests being defended, the most likely the rationale advanced to remove term limits (that is, stability) will be self-defeating.
Therefore, the adoption or removal of term limits has little to do with democracy per se. Focusing on democracy and personalities has coloured the debates about term limits on the continent, thus eclipsing the context of each country, which better informs whether term limits or their removal work or do not work in a given country.