The never ending presidential term limits debate

Rwanda President Paul Kagame. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • The debates and conversations about presidential term limits is that it is imposed by powerful Western countries to install their own style of democracy and governance in African countries.

Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame confirmed he will run again in 2024.

This kicked off another round of debates and conversations over the long road ahead for Africa in general and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, to turn a page on this chapter on the length of presidential terms.

In Kenya, a senator from the ruling coalition proposed extending presidential term limits from the current five to seven years.

Part of the problem has always been the starting point and proper context to the issue of presidential term limits in Africa.

The debates and conversations about presidential term limits is that it is imposed by powerful Western countries to install their own style of democracy and governance in African countries. However, this is far from fact.

Though African countries have never followed through on presidential terms but it is not something alien to the continent.

To be sure, colonial powers and their style of rule whether direct or indirect did not introduce term limits to those they installed to rule their colonies on their behalf.

Togo set presidential term limits as far back as 1963, Senegal did so in 1970.

There were other countries too like Mali, Tanzania, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

All these countries opted for presidential term limits before they came to be a prominent feature on the continent in the 1990s.

Clearly, the stories of these countries vary significantly. Some, like Togo have never witnessed a peaceful handover of power from one ruler to another.

Mali has travelled back and forth on the path of limiting the time of its presidents and is now ruled by the military. Setting presidential term limits did not prevent Liberia and Sierra Leone going through hell and back.

The reasons for the adoption of presidential term limits in these countries were not the same.

The regimes at the time of introducing such limits were not the same. As such, some of these countries have fared better than others, such as Senegal where voters sent packing two former presidents who changed the constitution to attempt staying for a third term.

In Tanzania, part of the reason the country has managed to limit the time of its presidents has been the party-based regime that has ruled the country since independence.

Some surveys have shown that voters in different countries on the continent want term limits for their presidents. This is where context is important.

African countries have travelled different paths throughout their lives as ‘independent’ countries.

On average, the continent has some of the longest ruling leaders in the world who are not monarchs, but this longevity in power has not been replicated in the levels of economic development and improving the lives of the ruled.

Critics of presidential term limits in Africa contend that these limits have proven more effective in countries where there has been substantial investment in strengthening state institutions.

Moreover, their success is often associated with the presence of either a dominant ruling party or a resilient civil society capable of withstanding the pressures that accompany the transition of power.

This implies that it takes time and sustained efforts to make things work. Part of the reason behind persistent doubts and fears about ‘presidents for life’ is that it feels like the past is the present.

Many of the independence leaders, although charismatic and highly effective in their roles as independence activists, did not always demonstrate the same level of effectiveness when they assumed positions of power.

Many countries experienced disastrous rules, with little or nothing to show for the longevity of their rulers in power.

The majority of the current ‘presidents for life’ have overseen terrible and frightening decline of their countries’ fortunes.

It is unlikely that there will ever come a time where African countries will adopt presidential term limits as a counterbalance to the excesses that may come with long term rulers because they will never be on the same path or level of political or economic development at the same time.

In a context where the use of force remains a significant factor in seizing and retaining power, it becomes evident that presidential term limits alone cannot provide a comprehensive solution for all African nations.

Nevertheless, when considering the practical implications, it becomes clear that having a predictable and certain process for the transfer of power is a more reliable approach. Leaving it all to chance is madness.