African experience with presidential term limits

Dar es Salaam. It goes without saying that former Prime Minister Joseph Warioba is the single public figure whose analysis of the motivation behind the push to undo presidential term limits in the country has attracted the admiration of many for it is based on concrete realities that can be related to experience from some African countries.

Speaking during a recent forum to mark the 20th anniversary since the passing of Tanzania’s founding president Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the former Prime Minister pulled no punches in pinpointing where the pressure for constitutional change to remove or change term limits might come from and whose interests the exercise would aim to serve.

“Whenever there are changes (of removal of term limits in the Constitution), know that it is the highest leader who is power-hungry and so wants to remain in power,” the former Attorney General remarked in what seems to be the most honest, direct and strongest argument so far over bids to have term limits removed. It is an argument against a plan to lead Tanzania in a different trajectory it used to follow.

Lacking term limit

Based on an analysis by the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, leaders in five African countries have put aside or changed term limits since 2015, bringing the number of countries lacking term limits to 18. In contrast, 21 African countries – including Tanzania – have continued to uphold presidential term limits and an additional 15 now have such limits in the books.

The analysis shows that of the 21 African countries that have upheld term limits, the executive officeholders have been in power for four years, on average. In Tanzania’s case, the president stays in power for five years with a possibility for re-election to a second term. The average time in power for the 10 African leaders who have evaded term limits, in contrast, is 22 years.

Eight of the 10 countries where term limits have been undone are in Central Africa. The Horn of Africa has the highest concentration of countries without term limits. Southern and West Africa have made the greatest strides in adhering to term limits. While fragile, term limit statutes are now in place for most of the countries in North Africa. In East Africa, only Kenya and Tanzania uphold term limits. With the debate to undo the limit gathering pace in the latter, only Kenya will remain if changes will be made in Tanzania.

Given the current debate on the removal of the term limits is reminiscent of what has happened in other countries where the limit was removed from the statute books, many in the country fear that Tanzania might be heading towards the same direction. This is so despite President John Magufuli and other senior party and government officials ruling out the possibility.

Just like what happened in other countries, however, there is a growing clamouring from individuals citizens and junior ruling party and government officials wanting the term limits scrapped of the constitution, saying, in contrast to Mr Warioba’s argument, they do so in the interests of no one but their country. Indeed, there has been an attempt by those in government to distance themselves from those who call for the constitutional amendment to allow the seating presidents extend their rule beyond the five-year two-term limits.

These attempts notwithstanding, experience from across the continent shows that all the movements to scrap term limits off the respective countries’ constitutions started as innocently gradual as is the case now in Tanzania, with the beneficiaries of the change pretending to be against them but later giving-in in the name of public interests. It is the script that has been so often followed throughout history that it is hard to be ignored. Examples are aplenty.

The lesson is to start early

Andrew Green, writing in World Politics Review, says that “the first lesson in removing term limits is to start early.” This is the lesson he says Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni applied. Before Ugandan Parliament approved a constitutional change that allowed Museveni to run for the unprecedented sixth term, the former army rebel famously promised that his 2001 presidential campaign, his second after Uganda returned to electoral democracy in 1996, would also be his last.

But before his term was even halfway over, a movement was initiated among the National Resistance Movement (NRM) members to lift the two-term limit established in the 1995 constitution. The effort was formalized during the 2003 party leadership retreat. President Museveni too in the beginning denied orchestrating the movement but took no steps to quash it. Instead, as Green points out in his analysis, he proclaimed himself captive to the will of the people. If Ugandans were intent on drafting him, he maintained, how could he refuse?

The December 19, 2015 decision by Rwanda to approve a referendum to amend the country’s constitution to permit the current president, Paul Kagame, to remain in office for a third seven-year term beginning in 2017, to be followed by two possible five-year terms, was in contrast to what Mr Kagame promised that he would step down in that year. But again, how could he do it if a ‘resounding 98 per cent’ of voters in a referendum ‘wanted’ him to remain? The people, then, ‘forced’ him to stay.

In May 2018, Burundians overwhelmingly approved a new constitution that ushered in changes that could let President Pierre Nkurunziza stay in power to 2034. Although President Nkurunziza said he would step down in 2020 and not seek another term in office, many doubt his seriousness to honour the promise especially after he violated the 2005-Arusha Accords. The Accords, which ended Burundi’s civil war, recognised that the conflict stemmed from a “struggle by the political class to accede to and/or remain in power.” It enshrined term limits as a mechanism to ensure equal opportunity to serve in government.

These are but few cases from neighbouring countries that are Tanzania’s colleagues in the East African Community (EAC). Although it can arguably be said that the circumstances in the countries differ with those in Tanzania still they can be helpful to make sense of what is likely to in the country in future.

Term limit removals and instability

But undoing term limit is dangerous and have had serious repercussions elsewhere. The analysis by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, for example, warn against removing term limit, saying the practice may endanger the particular country’s political stability. It notes that a third of the 18 countries that have undone term limit is currently facing armed conflict. In contrast, just two of the 21 countries with term limits are in conflict.

In the same vein, an assessment by the Kofi Anan Foundation has pointed out that initiatives to change or sidestep presidential term limits are often presented as a response to popular demand, yet tend to be deeply polarizing. Several recent instances have led to significant unrest and even violence and help to make this point vivid. Notable examples are Burkina Faso in 2014, where an initiative to allow the President to run for a third term led to his fall, and Burundi in 2015, where a military coup failed but strong opposition continued against the President’s third bid, launched after a favourable ruling by the Supreme Court.

Whether or not Tanzania’s government plans to undo the term limit, analysts have pointed out that the issue needs to be approached as a matter of maintaining confidence in a country’s electoral process and political system. The focus, as the Kofi Anan Foundation’s analysis shows, should be on the process by which term limits might be amended or interpreted.