Down but not out for the count: The besieged term limit in Africa is fighting back

Despite momentum swinging the other way, the debate is not over by a long shot, it seems.

A FEW weeks back the term limit in Africa looked to be out for the count - the victim of a barrage of bodyblows as incumbents either successfully muscled through additional terms, or set the stage for their staying put.

The most  stunning appeared  to have been landed from Rwanda, where lawmakers said that they could only find 10 people nationally who opposed suggested constitutional changes to allow president Paul Kagame to run for a third term in power when his current second lapses in 2017.

Having steadied the Rwandan ship following the genocide, Kagame went on to pick up a string of accolades for steering the dramatic rebuilding of the country, despite accusations of being authoritarian, he had looked set to ensure his legacy would be spoken of in revered tones had he handed the baton.

His neighbour, Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, in July pushed his way through the criticism into a third term in office, arguing that his first term was not by an election as he had been picked by parliament. He drew sympathy from African Union chair Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s only leader since 1980, who said leaders should be allowed to continue “if people want” as two terms could seem like two weeks.

Botswana’s Ian Khama also weighed in: “It doesn’t matter how you got there. At the end of the day, once you sit in the office and you assume all the functions and duties of that office, you are serving your term,” he said. “In my opinion, he (Nkurunziza) has served two terms”, Khama, whose country has term limits and who is serving his own second and last, said as he last month took over the rotating leadership of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The blows have kept coming. In the often obscure Republic of the Congo, president Denis Sassou-Nguesso last month sacked two ministers who opposed plans by the ruling party to change the constitution to allow him run for a third term next year.

In close by Democratic Republic of Congo, the opposition says it fears incumbent Joseph Kabila is planning to run for an illegal third term in elections set for late 2016.

While Kabila has yet to say if he will step down, protests in January claimed more than 30 lives in demonstrations against a law that provided for a census before the November 2016 vote, seeing it as a ploy to extend his term by at least two years. The law was eventually amended by parliament, but has done little to allay concerns of opponents, their sentiment being that it is only a tactical retreat.

Then there are those countries where term limits were long stamped out by veteran incumbents.

Sudan’s Omar al Bashir was in April re-elected with nearly 95% of the vote, extending his quarter-century rule, in an election boycotted by the main opposition parties.

Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni is up for re-election early 2016, having been in power since 1986, and only a major upset would see him leave office. In Ethiopia, where there is no term limit for the executive prime minister, the ruling party claimed 100% of the parliamentary seats.

And even regional bloc ECOWAS put forth a suggesting for limit caps, which was hastily shot down by Togo and The Gambia.

The momentum of the debate has seemed to be in favour of the “stability” proponents, both the intelligentsia and the ordinary voters, leading to US president Barack Obama to half-jokingly quip that while he felt he would also win a third term, “the law’s the law”.

“When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife, as we’ve seen in Burundi,” Obama said at the AU headquarters in late July.

But despite all arrayed before it, it would appear the term limit has not yet been completely knocked out, as it shows stirrings of something akin to a floored pugilist looking to clamber back up.

And it has come from both likely—and unlikely—sources. 

On Sunday, the transitional government in the Central African Republic adopted a new constitution that would limit future presidents to two terms in office as the country seeks to end more than a year of sectarian violence.

The new charter would cap the president’s mandate to five years that can only be renewed once and cannot be prolonged for any reason, and would create a new senate to help govern.

With Tanzania headed for tightly-contested elections next month, that incumbent Jakaya Kikwete would leave after the end of his second term mandate was never in doubt.

In Mauritania, despite President Ould Abdel Aziz having come to power through a coup in 2008 and winning re-election in a ballot boycotted by the opposition last year, the ex-general has said he had no intention of modifying the Constitution to remain in power after the end of his second mandate in June 2019.

“I never thought of changing the Constitution”, he told reporters in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital in March. The country’s law stipulates non-renewable two presidential mandates of five years.

Tightened up
In other countries, the two-term limit, while being upheld, is also being tightened up.

Liberia is set to put to a referendum a proposal to cut the presidential tenure from six to four years as part of a package of constitutional reforms. A national constitutional conference recently voted by a majority to back the shortened limit.

In March, Senegal president Macky Sall says he was proposing a referendum that would cut his presidential term from seven to five years.

“I was elected for seven years (but) next year, I will propose the organisation of a referendum for the reduction of my mandate,” he told a news conference with foreign media in Dakar.

“Have you ever seen presidents reduce their mandate? Well I’m going to do it,” Sall told the meeting, making good on a pledge which formed part of his election campaign in 2012.

“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. Under current law, elections are scheduled for 2019, but Sall wants them held two years earlier, although he has been non-committal on whether he would stand for a second term.

At the World Economic Forum in June, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and Ghana’s deputy president slammed leaders who broke term limits.

There is still life in the brigade seeking to limit presidential service, it seems.

And while having limit stipulation is different from observing them, the renewed movements around around the continent would suggest that it is a  debate that is far from over.

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