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.