Term Limits Appear to Strengthen Nascent Democracies in Africa

Around the world democratically elected leaders from Venezuela (read more here) to Turkey (read more here) are subverting rule of law to install themselves as “rulers for life.” However, in Africa, there are signs that term limits on national leaders can strengthen democracy in countries that adopt them. Currently, a flurry of peaceful transfers of power is taking place in African nations where leaders are adhering to constitutionally mandated term limits with positive results.

When President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson observed existing Liberian term limits and stepped aside for newly-elected President George Weah, the western African nation experienced its first peaceful transfer of power in more than 70 years. Read more about Liberia as a potential democratic success story here. Term limits are still beneficial when control remains with the same party. Leaders who know that they themselves will not hold power indefinitely are more concerned with legacy and willing to embrace national reforms. Term limits even appear to benefit those nations where leaders refuse to cede authority voluntarily. In Burkina Faso mass protests, legitimized by constitutional term limits, thwarted the president’s attempt to retain power and he was ultimately driven from the country.

Widely incorporated during the final years of the last century, term limits are overwhelmingly popular in Africa. According to a survey conducted by Afrobarometer in 2015, three-quarters of Africans in 34 African countries approve of term limiting national leaders. Popular support among Africans for term limits is well-founded as African nations that are able to enforce term limits exhibit many of the common hallmarks of liberal democracy. Reporters without Borders observes in their 2018 Index that nations with term limits have significantly higher levels of press freedoms. Additionally, term limits tend to: promote greater national stability, enhance governmental institutions, decrease political violence and increase economic growth. Given the benefits term limits confer, it is not surprising that the populations of a number of African countries that got rid of them want them back. In 2002 Togo eliminated term limits but their citizens are demanding to reinstate them after 50 years of being ruled by the same family. Some countries that never had term limits are poised to adopt them. After years of violence and unrest, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who was elected earlier this year is committed to governmental reforms in Africa’s second most populous country. Chief among them are term limits. Prime Minister Abiy told Ethiopia’s state-run news agency, “Seizing power for a lifetime has come to a dead end in Ethiopia.”

Unfortunately, not enough nations in Africa constitutionally limit the terms of their national leaders and for those that do, enforcement of limits is mixed. The devastating impact of leaders for life provides the starkest evidence for the potential that term limits have to strengthen nascent democracies. In African countries where term limits are ignored or non-existent, human rights violations are rampant. This is the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo where President Joseph Kabila reached the end of his mandated term nearly two years ago but refuses to step down. This May in Burundi, a term limit repeal referendum marked by political violence against those who opposed the measure was adopted, clearing the way to install President Pierre Nkurunziza, who has dubbed himself “Supreme Eternal Guide,” in office for another 16 years. Overall, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), lifting term limits has “consolidated power in the presidency … and heightened the risk of greater violence and instability.” Nevertheless, lack of enforcement of term limits is all too common in Africa. According to an ACSS analysis fewer than 40 percent of African nations have adhered to constitutional term limits.

America’s first president gave the United States an extraordinary and uncommon gift for the time by stepping aside after serving two terms. This set a precedent that was not broken until the 1940s with the first years of America’s entry into World War II. In 1951, a two-year term limit for U.S. presidents was enshrined in the Constitution. Good governance in Africa is beset with challenges however term limits offer hope to young democracies. While only one tool of many in the democratic toolkit, it appears that term limits are a potent one.



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