Two term limit? Not for us, West African presidents say, adding to Central Africa-led push-back

The president-for-life project in Africa seems to have become bolder, and is fighting back on the continent.

THE United Nations envoy was optimistic, as were some of the leaders attending the high-profile May 19 meeting - too much so as it  later turned out. 

In the wake of Burkina Faso’s president’s unceremonious ouster following his intention to run for a third term, would West African leaders bite and formally restrict themselves to only two bites of the cherry?

West African media were also reporting on the proposal as a done deal, with the communique expected to show that it had been made mandatory.

But when the one-day meeting in the Ghanaian capital of Accra ended late Tuesday afternoon, the official outcome on the proposal was a diplomatic “Not now, we’ll think about it later.” There was little doubt however of its rejection by the president’s summit of Ecowas, the 15-state body that represents regional interests.

Togo, which recently saw its president re-elected for a third term, and The Gambia, where president Yahya Jammeh has been in office since 1994 and is on a third mandate, are reported to have led the push-back.

International media outlets reported that some leaders had successfully argued that each country has a different political context, and it would therefore be illogical to have such a rule.

“This dissenting view (from Togo and the Gambia) became the majority view at the end of the day,” Ghana Foreign minister Hannah Tetteh told news agency Reuters, suggesting the opposition to a hot-potato issue had been high-pitched.

It was a bit surprising given the Ecowas is generally viewed as one of the more progressive regional blocs, it for example funds almost all its operations from member funding. This near-independence from donor cash also makes the outcome on the proposal significant, as the bloc can be seen as a “really” African organisation. 

It is also interesting in that most of the countries in the West African region, which had in recent years been one of the most volatile, already have a two-term limit, and the jilted proposal was only building on this.

The successful resisting of this led by only two minor players would thus suggest many other countries in the region are open to leaving themselves some wriggling space. The jury is still out on the intentions of Benin president Boni Yayi despite his protestations that he would not stand for another term. 

There had been regional moves towards limiting limits. In March Senegal president Macky Sall said he was keen on a referendum that would cut the length of a presidential term in the country to five years, from the current seven. 

“Have you ever seen presidents reduce their mandate? Well I’m going to do it,” Sall said. “We have to understand, in Africa too, that we are able to offer an example, and that power is not an end in itself,” he added.

Given Sall took over political leadership of the bloc this week, it will be interesting to see if he manages to keep the limit proposal alive.  

But coming on the back of events in Central Africa where Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo presidents have faced opposition to third terms, and Congo-Brazzaville leader Dennis Sassou-Nguesso is expected to seek a third term, it would appear to be a victory for leaders who argue that they should be judged on their record, not on their longevity.

The central African argument has also centred on the need for continued stability, suggesting that leaders are identifying this concern, rather than economic growth or just good governance, may resonate better with their voters.  

Last year former Mozambique president Joaquim Chissano, now a respected elder statesman and a winner of the elusive Mo Ibrahim governance award, controversially argued two terms were “not enough” for an African leader. He however qualified it by saying presidents should not stay “more than enough”, but it is notable his country is also a post-conflict country. 

In Rwanda, the argument for president Paul Kagame’s continued stay in office has hinged around the country being too fragile to withstand a transition.    

But leaders are struggling to frame their case, further complicating the picture.  Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza feels he has a divine right to rule, while Jammeh is on record pledging to uplift Gambian lives even it it took him “one billion years”. 

Sassou-Nguesso’s allies argue that the current constitution, passed only in 2002, has “had its day”.

All rode to power by force of arms. 

The numbers also suggest the term limit is under threat. Some nine countries in Africa have no provision for how long a leader can stay in power, while another 11 have all successfully seen term limits repealed, though most reversals here were overseen by veteran leaders who preceded the 1990s wave of pro-democracy constitutions.

In that era three countries—Nigeria, Zambia and Malawi tried to remove term limits and failed. 

But 13 other African countries have seen leaders leave power “on time”—at the end of their second term. Another 19 have been defeated in their first re-election bids.

But it appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy that the longer a president has stayed in power, the more likely he will stay even longer.

In that case, with 17 African leaders having been in power for  at least 10 years, and a raft of others pleading instability, it looks to be quite some time before the third term debate lies down to rest—startling given the majority of African countries now hold elections regularly.

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