By Paul Ndiho
In the 1990’s, many African countries embraced presidential term limits and building institutions as a transition to democracy. But in recent years, term limits and institutions are under attack from incumbent presidents seeking to prolong their tenure.
In his farewell speech, In July 2015, former U.S. President Barack Obama, while speaking to a large audience at the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa hailed Africa’s extraordinary progress, noting that such growth can only be sustained through continued development and democracy for all.
“When I first came to Sub-Saharan Africa as president, I said that Africa doesn’t need strong men, it needs strong institutions.”
Obama’s words did not come as a surprise. Why? Because Africa is at a new crossroads in its institution building process. Constitutional engineering to remove or circumvent presidential term limits and undermining institutions by some leaders is alarming.
For example, in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi, incumbent presidents have exploited ambiguities in the law to extend their terms as head of state — while simultaneously undermining their nation’s constitution.
Equatorial Guinea’s President, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has held power for 39 years, since August 1979. At 76 years-old, he is still going strong, winning a fifth seven-year term in 2016.
Earlier this month Cameroonian President, Paul Biya, was sworn in after winning 71 percent of the vote in the October election, extending his 36-year-rule. At 85 years old, Biya is the oldest leader in sub-Saharan Africa, and the victory cements his place as one of Africa’s longest-serving rulers. In 2008, the Cameroonian Parliament voted to change the constitution, to remove term-limits, so President Biya would be eligible to extend his time in office.
In December 2017, Uganda’s Parliament voted to lift the age limit for the presidency, setting the stage for the nation’s long-time leader Yoweri Museveni to rule indefinitely. Museveni had pushed to change the constitution in 2005, to abolish the term limits.
Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, won his last election in 2017, with nearly 100 percent of the vote, securing a third term in office. Kagame’s re-election came after a constitutional amendment which ended a two-term limit allowing him to possibly remain in power until 2034.
Across the border in Burundi, voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitution, extending the presidential term from five to seven years, potentially allowing President Pierre Nkurunziza to seek two more terms, beginning in 2020.
Political analysts argue that perhaps Barack Obama was right when he said that Democracy in Africa is threatened when presidents do not stand aside at the end of their constitutional term limits.
“I have to be honest with you—I don’t understand this. I am in my second term. Under our constitution, I cannot run again. There’s still so much I want to get done to keep America moving forward. But the law is the law, and no one is above it, not even presidents.”
On a positive note, not all of Africa is dealing with the strongmen syndrome. Other countries are rebranding and building stronger institutions. Leaders are elected through an open and transparent process.
New Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahamed is proposing and pushing through reforms. In a historic move, the prime minister swore in the country’s first female President, Supreme Court Judge and named ten female ministers to his cabinet, which is now split equally between men and women.
Opposition leader Julius Maada Bio was sworn in as president of Sierra Leone in April, replacing incumbent President Ernest Bai Koroma who abided by the country’s constitution and stepped down as head-of-state.
In January 2018, George Weah, a former international football star was sworn in as President of Liberia following incumbent president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who stepped down at the end of her second constitutionally allowable term.
And in 2016, Senegalese citizens voted in a referendum to reduce the presidential term limit from a seven year term to a five-year term, in stark contrast to many of Africa’s leaders who have successfully amended their nation’s constitutions.