President John Magufuli has once again proved how “un-African” he can be as a politician when he poured cold water on what political analysts say are behind-the-scenes mental games aimed at luring him into the trap of changing the constitution to scrap the two-term limit.
As unheard of as it sounds and as unfathomable as it naturally is in the Tanzanian context, the idea that began as a mere rumour had been gathering momentum across the country with political pundits recently warning that a plot had already been hatched.
The proof of how serious the matter had become is in Dr Magufuli’s remarks this week during his tour of Tanga Region, where he vowed to respect the constitution, and step down once his tenure ends.
He said despite some people calling on him to continue for 20 more years, he would not be interested, but would carry out his duties and pass on the baton when his time is up, as prescribed in the constitution.
“It’s impossible. I will respect the constitution,” President Magufuli told a public rally in Tanga. “I have sworn to defend the constitution ... I shall play my part and pass on the leadership reins to the next president when the time comes.”
By denying what to many of his peers across the country would have been a golden opportunity to hang on to power, President Magufuli has once more broken ranks with the dictates of what the natural order in a continent cursed with a greedy leadership.
The Tanzanian leader has every reason to justify a three-term presidency: He came in as a projects person whose desire for results is undisputed even in the various quarters of the opposition that does not necessarily agree with some of his methods. He can, therefore, easily argue that he needs to complete the many multi-billion dollar mega projects he started since assuming power, projects not all of which will no doubt not come to full fruition in a decade.
As a matter of fact, those pushing for the third term in Tanzania, just like elsewhere in Africa, are using this cliche of an excuse -- that the President needs more time to accomplish what he has started.
In dismissing this school of thought, Dr Magufuli suggested that leadership is a re-lay, he gets the stick, runs with as fast as he can to cover as much ground as he can before passing the baton to the next person. That way, one preserves the energy needed in that office, the institution of presidency, to stay effective.
“This is a tough job... It is a risky job, but one that I must accomplish,” he said, but quickly pointing out that he speed to finish is aimed at meeting the 10-year target and ensuring that he hands over power after running his course well.
In June, former President Ali Hassan Mwinyi made a surprising statement to the effect that he wished the two-term limit scrapped to pave the way for an extended rule by Dr Magufuli.
“If it wasn’t for term limits, I would have suggested that Magufuli should be our president for eternity,” Mr Mwinyi is quoted by the media as having told a cheering crowd in Dar es Salaam at the time.
Last month a CCM cadre, Mr Lawrence Mabawa told a press conference he would embark on a countrywide campaign to lobby for support in his calling President Magufuli to stay beyond the two-term limit.
And most recently, a lawmaker, Juma Nkamia, also joined the bandwagon in a WhatsApp post revealing that he would table a private motion in the National Assembly to push for the scrapping of the two-term limits.
Granted, it will be a tough road for those hoping to carry out this campaign. Tanzania is considered the exception and not the rule in Africa, when it comes to leaders respecting their mandates.
While in other countries where such moves have sailed through with little resistance, the costs of doing so in Tanzania may be too much to bear for the President and the ruling party, CCM.
Since the introduction of multi-party democracy in 1992, the country has a long history of presidents observing term limits, despite the fact that so many other African countries do not.
There is, therefore, generally an unwritten law among the majority Tanzanians that this reputation and legacy has to be protected -- which is why the calls for scrapping the two-term limit has caught many unawares.
In neighbouring Burundi where President Pierre Nkurunziza launched his bid for a third term two years ago, the people have known no peace; the same applies to the DR Congo the security situation has gone from bad to worse since President Joseph Kabila dilly-dallied in calling for elections amid fears he wanted to run for the term.
Mr Kabila has dragged his feet in facing the electorate at the ballot box because since taking power following the assassination of his father in 2001, he has won two elections. The constitution bars him from seeking a third term. So the best way for him to remain in power is to delay the election.
His other option is to lift the two-term presidential limit, but he might struggle to garner a two-thirds parliamentary majority to push through such an unpopular constitutional amendment.
And in Burkina Faso, the 27-year rule of President Blaise Compaore ended after mass protests forced him out last year, which also underscores the growing frustration over machinations to change the constitution for selfish reasons.
But elsewhere, the costs can be surprisingly so low.
Last Friday, Rwanda’s president of 17 years, Mr Paul Kagame, was re-elected by a whopping 98.6 per cent of votes for a third term (the result is not in question). The outcome concluded a process that began in 2015 when his party, the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, proposed a constitutional amendment to allow Mr Kagame to outstay the two-term limit. He easily saw that through.
And on August 5, Mauritania also voted in favour of a referendum to abolish the senate and change the national flag in what the West African county’s opposition says is just a bid by President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to bolster power and extend his mandate.
The referendum won 85 percent of the vote, the national electoral commission said on Sunday, though only a little over half of the population voted.
The West African head of state succeeded, joining the ranks of the 13 African heads of state who have successfully rolled back term limits.
Why are they doing this?
Term limits became common in Africa with the wave of democratisation that swept the continent in the 1990s. Most countries included them in their constitutions after pressure from America and African democracy activists. Today there is widespread support for them.
Afrobarometer, a polling firm, found that about three-quarters of people in 34 African countries said that presidential mandates should be restricted to two terms. Rwanda is an exception: nearly four million Rwandans signed a “spontaneous” petition to let Mr Kagame stay on, and only ten people openly opposed it.
Mr Kagame, feted by foreign donors and prominent world leaders, probably knew he could change the constitution without provoking a backlash from the international community. Interestingly, Mr Sassou-Nguesso made the same calculation. The Congolese president is seen by many, including France, the former colonial power, as a reliable partner, and the country is regarded as an island of stability in an otherwise troubled region. Moreover, the rising influence of China means that African presidents know the West’s leverage is weaker than it once was. They also know that its priorities have shifted: combating jihadism is today more important than promoting democracy.
Term limits tend to be respected where democracy is already well established. Weak institutions make it easier for presidents to do away with them. Mr Nkurunziza was helped by a pliant constitutional court. Mr Kagame counted on his rubber-stamp parliament.
And in many African countries where presidents have rolled back term limits the strongest institution is the army. Mr Kagame, Mr Nkurunziza and Mr Kabila are former rebel leaders who came to power through military victory; so too is the president of neighbouring Uganda, Mr Yoweri Museveni, who successfully abolished term limits in 2005.
Elsewhere on the continent, however, the picture is different: in Benin, Senegal and Nigeria recent attempts to sidestep term limits have failed.