Term limits in central Africa: utility or artifact?

There is significant talk going on this year about presidential term limits, in particular around the approaching poll seasons in DRC, Congo-Brazzaville, Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. All five countries prescribe universal and direct elections. While Uganda is the only state without clearcut term limits, it has five-year terms like Burundi and DRC. Congo-Brazzaville and Rwanda have seven-year terms. Here is a quick round-up on where these five countries in the middle of the African continent stand:

Burundi: The next presidential elections have just been rescheduled from late June 2015 to mid-July 2015 as violent protest followed the nomination of Pierre Nkurunziza by his party CNDD-FDD. Nkurunziza is completing two terms of five years and is constitutionally barred from running again. There has been controversy both over the interpretation of the constitution and the Arusha accord but also over the question whether the electoral result shall judge over Nkurunziza’s legitimacy. While a mysterious failed coup attempt has resulted in a media crackdown, observers agree the president may still come out first in the polls given his approval outside the capital Bujumbura, epicentre of large-scale demonstrations (constitutional § 96).

Congo-Brazzaville: The next presidential elections will take place in 2016. Observers are suggesting the incumbent president Denis Sassou-Nguesso may launch an attempt to modify the constitution in order to run for a third mandate of seven years which he currently cannot. The political opposition in Brazzaville is considered to be weak and power highly centralised within Sassou’s PCT party, the president himself cumulating almost 30 years at the helm of the state in his two incumbencies (constitutional § 57).

DRC: The next presidential elections are supposed to be held in late 2016, but the current electoral calendar is under strain for logistic and financial reasons. Political tension has been increasing with opposition and other groups fearing various attempts to amend the constitution or delay the ballot. Joseph Kabila is technically not allowed to stand for office for a third mandate of five years and has remained silent concerning his succession. (constitutional § 70 & 220).

Uganda: The next presidential election are supposed to be held in 2016. Uganda does not have a constitutional term limit (although the full and the abridged constitution of 1995 are somewhat confusing i this regard) and president Yoweri Museveni is likely to bid for another mandate. He is the incumbent since 1986, under his aegis Uganda has recovered from previous conflict and become an influential regional power. However, criticism against Museveni has been on the rise and he may, for the first time, need to confront an intra-party competition as former prime minister Amama Mbabazi declared his intentions (constitutional § 103 & 105).

Rwanda: The next presidential election are supposed to be held in 2017. President Paul Kagame has repeatedly stated he will step down after having served his two constitutional mandates of seven years from 2004 to 2017. A recent petition, however, has assembled over two million Rwandans calling for a constitutional amendment to allow him to run again. While this petition has been endorsed by Kagame’s RPF party and some of its coalition partners, the incumbent is yet to comment on this. (constitutional § 101).

The standard broad-brush Western Africa expert would surely find good reasons to argue for each of the five countries needing alternation, in order to ‘democratise’. Indeed, Sassou-Nguesso is widely perceived as an autocrat ‘a la Françafrique era’ and Museveni as a guerilla liberator turned heavy-handed monarch. Kagame is as much praised for kick-starting Rwanda’s development as for controlling opposition and media. Kabila is accused of being unable to revamp the vast DRC and becoming increasingly authoritarian, while Nkurunziza has lost most credit since he declared his intent to remain president against all odds.

African voices of dissent tend to tighten our pre-supposed opinions, and there is a constant current of more or less massive criticism against all five presidential protagonists. It is necessary to listen to them in order to understand the political stakes of a country. But overestimating them too much also obscures our understanding. However, this is neither an endorsement for any of the incumbents nor for their opponents. It is up to their respective people to find decisions and agreements on how government is organised and assigned. Then, as I argued elsewhere, context radically matters – so this piece will not provide ay indications as to where a government ought to change or not (this is not for me to judge anyways…). But, food for thought, here is to the devil’s advocate paragraph on the five presidents:

Nkurunziza, despite the ongoing political crisis in Burundi, enjoys – for whatever reasons (maybe including the fact he distributes t-shirts and food upcountry) very high levels of popularity in Burundi. His CNDD-FDD party has succeeded in amalgamating public support with both coercive and non-coercive strategies.

Kagame, beyond the criticism he faced as to Rwanda’s influence in eastern Congo and due to accusations of  repression, has an outstanding record in various economic and social indicators. Not least because he embodies the liberation from genocide, his approval rates are beyond the majority of the population.

Kabila, although often equated to standstill and bad governance, has shown remarkable resilience as a young head of state and diplomatic talent when he managed to co-broker the end of the second Congo war in 2003. While parts of the popular discontent target him, much of it is directed at the whole political class.

Museveni, even if his reign has known decreasing growth rates and increasing corruption levels, still maintains a very functioning public system in Uganda. His record as a ‘stabilising factor’ in east and central Africa has made him an appreciated strategic ally to various Western powers.

Sassou-Nguesso, while his track record includes a civil war and coup attempts, has navigated Brazzaville to relative calm and a decent economic performance (obviously thanks to oil etc.), and – at least attempted to – turn his country from a single-party to a multi-party system in the early 1990s.

The two-term dogma has a few flaws. First, the colonial past (and present) should remind us that it is first and foremost the citizens of a country that should judge over legitimacy and a country’s respective judiciary that should do so in regards to legality of electoral matters. Africans in social media have a point when they refer to the fact that, for instance, the US are likely to remain governed by a two-family-dynasty alternation for around three decades and countries like Germany or the UK do not even have term limits for their heads of government (and extraordinarily lengthy tenures at times). Second, and more contextually, the actual political and social stakes are not about whether any country is governed for a certain number of years by a certain person. Alternation is, in the long run, always good for a political system and it eventually happens anyways since no one is immortal. But in the short run, to be good it also implies that a successor will be at least as good as the incumbent. Hypothetically, a head of state and/or government who governs a country better for 30 years than one who governs a country worse for 3 years is the better choice. Empirics generally invalidate this arguments, but exceptions confirm the rule. This is to say, instead of focusing blindly on term limits and the neoliberal dogma of Western-style elections, governance should be in the focus, and that not only in rhetoric terms.

This is not to argue that term limits make no sense at all. Obviously, they have been included into constitutions for some reason. Two unrelated examples: In the DRC, Mobutu ruled for over 30 years and the result has not been overwhelming in the end. Now the country has term limits. In Germany, the Nazis usurped the Weimar republic’s institutions sort of within constitutional leeway. Now the country has a five percent threshold for parliamentary elections. This list could include dozens of examples of incremental learning of political systems and term limits is but one very specific example that emerged in many different contexts. But it is important, in central Africa as elsewhere, to avoid formalism and emphasise substance when debating about contest and competition for political office, about popular legitimacy and representation, and institutions and government at large.

3 Responses to “Term limits in central Africa: utility or artifact?”
  1. Richard Zink says:

    Ziemlich gut. Mir fällt auf dass die Diskussion immer nur um zwei Mandate geht, selten um die Qualität des Wahlprozesses, derWählerlisten, Wahlbeteiligung und Transparenz.

    Von meinem iPad gesendet


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  1. […] central Africa, numerous incumbent leaders have tried or will likely try to extend their rule beyond constitutionally-allowed term limits. But even if alternating power is good for democracy in the long run, does it always lead to better […]

  2. […] “Term limits in central Africa: utility or artifact?” by Christoph Vogel […]

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