Presidential term limits in Africa
by Daniel Vencovsky

Presidential term limits in Africa


In the early 1990s, “it was hoped that the introduction of new constitutions with a two-term limit on power would consign the ‘big man’ syndrome of African politics to history.”1 The political culture on the continent has changed considerably since the end of the Cold War.2 However, the attraction of power remains a strong motivating factor for many leaders. Indeed, recent years have witnessed a number of heads of state attempting to extend their tenure beyond the constitutionally permitted number of terms, or maintain power via a back-door strategy of hand-picking a docile successor and remaining in the powerful post of the chairman of the country’s dominant political party. In analysing this issue, this article proceeds in four stages.

Firstly, consideration is given to the importance of term limits. This article contends that timely and responsible departure from power is a central feature of a democratic polity and constitutes an integral component of responsible leadership. Secondly, this article asks, now that leaders are increasingly expected to heed these constitutional provisions, what strategies do they employ to stay in power? This paper offers an overview of modes of African leaders’ departure from power since the early 1990s, and deals in detail with leaders who left at the end of their constitutionally sanctioned tenure, those who extended their tenure by amending the constitution, and those who sought to amend the constitution without success. In addition, cases when leaders sought to prolong their grip on power via the ‘successor strategy’ are considered. Thirdly, attention is devoted to factors that contributed to the success or failure of presidential endeavours to extend their hold on power. And lastly, the implications of Africa’s current record regarding presidential term limits are addressed.

The Importance of Term Limits

Presidential term limits, most often two terms, are a common feature of democratic constitutions adopted in Africa in the 1990s. Thirty-three of the 48 new constitutions contained such provisions, at least for some time. However, not all politicians subscribe to the importance of a two-term presidency. Across Africa, proponents of additional presidential terms have

Term limits offer a periodic guarantee of personal change and thus enhance the possibility of change of party in government. This is significant, as power alteration is an important feature of a democratic polity.

Côte d’Ivoire’s constitution does not contain a two-term only presidential term limit provision. It argued that a third term, when achieved via a legal constitutional amendment and an election, is a perfectly legitimate development that reflects people’s will to re-elect the incumbent. Moreover, third-term advocates have proposed a range of country-specific arguments. They often speak of the fear of instability, in particular in cases of absence of a clear successor, or of the need to complete or sustain reforms. Critics of these claims retort that presidents may be motivated by more selfish considerations, such as vanity and hunger for power, fear of prosecution for corruption or human rights abuses and the lack of opportunities for retired presidents. It has also been suggested that tenure extensions may be spurred by the anxiety of the neo-patrimonial network3 that fears the loss of connections and privileges.

The most-often cited reason for the adoption of term limits in the early 1990s was to “prevent arbitrary and violent rule often associated with lifelong presidencies from recurring”.4 In the case of Nigeria, it has been suggested that the term limits can contribute to the zonal rotation of the presidency among the country’s three main geo-ethnic-political zones, thus alleviating the danger of one of the groups feeling permanently politically marginalised.5

In fledgling democracies, the main importance of term limits stems from its positive impact on power alternation which, in turn, contributes to democratic consolidation. In Africa, elections are heavily burdened by advantages that incumbents have at their disposal, and these make electoral change more difficult than in established democracies. “If the incumbent has a tight grip on the electoral system (perhaps including the appointments of the electoral commission); has access to slush funds for the party campaign; can determine the date of the election; can have opponents disqualified or harassed by the legal system; controls much of the media and has the advantage of exposure and familiarity before the general public, all can be turned to personal advan-tage.”6

Client list networks that incumbents develop during their tenure can also secure additional votes. It comes as no surprise that incumbents have an extremely high re-election rate. even a hand-picked successor tends to fare significantly worse in elections than the incum-bent.7 Term limits offer a periodic guarantee of personal change, and thus enhance the possibility of change of party in government. This is significant, as power alter-nation is an important feature of a democratic polity. Prolonged time in office allows for greater centralisation and personalisation of power, and deeper entrench-ment of informal patronage networks. Prolonged tenure also creates an accountability deficit that allows for an increase in corruption. It has also been suggested that power alternation is important for the consolidation of democracy. While in life-presidencies power transitions are orchestrated by the gun, by increasing the likeli-hood of change, term limits also increase the chance that power contestation will take place in a non-violent manner. Indeed, the two-turnover test (power peacefully changes hands twice) has become a definitional feature of a functioning democracy.8

Overview of Term Tenures

In spite of constitutional term limits, many leaders have not resisted the call of power and sought to extend their tenure beyond two terms in office. As Table 1 indicates, since the early 1990s, 18 African presidents completed two terms in office. eight presidents stood down without seeking a constitutional amendment to remain in office, while 10 attempted such an amend-ment and the majority (seven) were successful. All seven presidents won the subsequent elections. Leaders that failed to secure a constitutional amendment to remain in office resorted to an indirect strategy: they hand-picked a successor candidate hoping that, once he became president, they would be able to control him via their political parties. All these scenarios are considered in turn in subsequent paragraphs.

Honourable Departures

Eight presidents left their office in an honourable fashion and stood down at the end of their constitutionally permitted terms in office without seeking a constitutional amendment. These included Mathieu Kerekou of Benin, Mascarenhas Monteiro of Cape Verde, Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, Alpha Konaré of Mali, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Miguel Trovoada of São Tomé e Príncipe, and Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania. In addition, Nelson Mandela was also hailed as a responsible leader for stepping down after one term in office. Rawlings and Moi, veterans of their countries’ politics, were both obliged by their post-Cold War constitutions to step down after two terms in office. Despite misgivings to the contrary, both of them resigned. Both Rawlings’ and Moi’s quest to maintain influence via the ‘successor route’ proved unsuccessful, as their designated successors (John Atta Mills and Uhuru Kenyatta) failed to be elected. In spite of Kenyatta’s electoral defeat, Moi has remained on good terms with the new government, which granted him immunity from prosecution on corruption charges. It has been noted that international pressure was one of the key factors in persuading Rawlings to step down. United opposition, increasingly independent media, change of popular attitudes and a vocal opposition from Kenyan churches, civil society groups and foreign aid donors’ pressure all reportedly played a role in Moi’s decision to leave office.10

Constitutional Amendments

Seven presidents, most of them long-serving leaders of their countries, secured constitutional amendments that allowed them to stand for a third term in office, and all seven won subsequent re-elections. These were presidents Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, Idriss Deby of Chad, Omar Bongo of Gabon, Lansana Conte of Guinea, Sam Nujoma of Namibia, Gnassingbe eyadema of Togo and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.

Many of the these leaders are veterans of African politics, and had been in power before the adoption of term-limiting constitutions in the 1990s. Their continued rule lays bare their lack of commitment to the new constitutions, as term limits were abolished as soon as they threatened to affect them. Gabon’s Omar Bongo is a case in point. He came to power in 1967, and he is the continent‘s longest-serving leader. He ruled in a one-party polity until 1991, when a new constitution introduced a multiparty system and a two-term limit. Following two terms in office under the new constitution, he secured an amendment that again abolished term limits. In a similar manner, Guinea’s Lansana Conte served as a military ruler, and then oversaw the transition to civilian rule and the introduction of a two-term provision in the early 1990s. In 2003, he won a referendum that removed term limits on the presidency. Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore first had the term limit scrapped, and later agreed to reinstate it. However, by a ruling of the Constitutional Court, the reinstated limit was only to apply for future elections, which made it inapplicable to his previous terms of office.

Museveni and Sam Nujoma . Despite a professed dislike of presidents for life and promises of ‘orderly leader-ship succession’ at the end of his second term in office, Uganda’s constitution was amended to allow Museveni to remain in office. Towards the end of Nujoma’s second term in office, a constitutional amendment was adopted to allow him to serve for another term. Following the conclusion of his third term, Nujoma has stayed very much within the political life of his country. His hand-picked successor and Namibia’s current president, Hifikepunye Pohamba, is not only ideologically very close to Nujoma (people used to joke they even look alike), but Nujoma retains considerable influence in the political life of the country as he remains the leader of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), the country’s dominant political party.11

Unsuccessful Attempts

Three countries experienced unsuccessful attempts to have their constitution changed to allow their presi-dent an additional term in office. All three countries then saw an attempt of the outgoing leaders to continue to exercise power by hand-picking a presumably obedient successor.

In Zambia, both the national constitution and the constitution of its ruling party – the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) – contain a term limit on their presidents. Frederick Chiluba’s quest for a third term faced stiff opposition from parts of the MMD, including a number of senior politicians, civil society, trade unions, student unions, women’s organisations, churches and lawyers, and widespread disapproval by the public, the extent of which was demonstrated by the wearing of green ribbons and car hooting and whistling campaigns. Chiluba had the advantage of having control over some of the media and the state’s law enforcement agencies. While succeeding in changing the MMD’s constitution, Chiluba failed to garner sufficient support for an amendment of the national constitution, and confirmed that he would stand down. However, unwilling to relinquish the reins of power, he resorted to an indirect strategy: he selected Levy Mwanawasa as the MMD presidential candidate. Mwanawasa was expected to be easily controlled by Chiluba via the MMD, with Chiluba intending to stay on as the party’s leader. Mwanawasa duly delivered an electoral victory, but subsequently broke free of Chiluba’s influence and ultimately turned against his old patron. eventually, he consented to lifting Chiluba’s immunity from prosecution on corruption charges.12

Malawi’s Bakili Muluzi also unsuccessfully campaigned for a constitutional amendment to allow him to run for a third term. A parliamentary bill to that effect was narrowly defeated. Subsequently, Muluzi attempted to put another two bills before the parliament. However, these met with a rising opposition and were withdrawn. Muluzi’s actions sparked a wide-ranging opposition from civil society, including lawyers and churches, traditional leaders, political parties and the media. Public disapproval was expressed by wearing purple ribbons and car hooting campaigns. There were attempts from the president to stifle the campaign, including an initial ban on demonstrations. Muluzi then followed Zambia’s example and nominated Bingu wa Mutharika, seen by many as a political lightweight and obedient successor, as his party’s presidential candidate and campaigned heavily on his behalf. After Mutharika’s inauguration as president, Muluzi was expected to continue to pull the strings from his post as the ruling party’s chairman.

However, it did not take long for Muluzi and Mutharika to fall out, with the official reason being Mutharika’s unhappiness with Muluzi’s resistance against his anti-corruption policies.13

In Nigeria, supporters of President Obasanjo attempted to push through a constitutional amendment that would allow him to serve for a third term. However, this met with a strong backlash from the media, the public, the international community, and even Obasanjo’s own party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The amendment was voted down in the Nigerian Senate. According to some observers, Obasanjo resorted to a strategy that would see him maintain power by indirect means. He hand-picked Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as PDP’s presidential candidate. The International Crisis Group commented that “the choice of Yar’Adua confirmed that, though defeated in parliament, Obasanjo was not ready to relinquish power. [Yar’Adua] is widely perceived as a weak frontman for Obasanjo. Without strong bases in the PDP, [he] would have to rely on Obasanjo to deter-mine policy and make many appointments.”14 According to the International Crisis Group, the state apparatus was used by the president in his quest to ensure Yar’Adua’s victory, both in PDP nominations and in the presiden-tial ballot. In a highly controversial manner, a number of would-be presidential candidates were disqualified from the ballot. These included Yar’Adua’s main contender, Atiku Abubakar.15 Abubakar fought this decision in the courts and the matter was finally resolved a few days before the ballot by Nigeria’s Supreme Court, which ruled that Abubakar was permitted to stand. Yar’Adua, however, emerged victorious from the election.

Factors of Success

While some leaders found it easy to prolong their stay in power, in other countries the constitution proved to be a powerful reference point that constrained the leader’s behaviour. What are the determinants that account for the varying outcomes of third-term amend-ment struggles? They include factors within society (the level of popular dissatisfaction with the leader, the strength of civil society and the level of media independ-ence), within the polity (the ability of the incumbent to suppress opposition, the size of parliamentary majority of the ruling party, and factors affecting the coher-ence of the ruling party), international pressure and factors affecting the leader personally (the possibility of impunity, opportunities for retired presidents and the dedication to constitutionalism).

The outcome of third-term struggles may hinge on the strength of civil society and the independent media, and on the degree of popularity that the president enjoys among the population. While some (for instance, Conte in Guinea) have found it easy to harass the opposition and faced only weak civil society; in other countries (such as in Zambia), leaders faced a much more formidable opposition from the people and a well-organised civil society. While Nujoma’s time as president was widely perceived as successful and he was held in high regard as the hero of the liberation movement, Chiluba in Zambia was associated with negative economic growth and high levels of corruption. The experience of third-term strug-gles in Namibia, Zambia and Malawi led a recent analysis to conclude that the varying outcomes can be explained by factors affecting the coherence or fractionalisation of ruling political parties. In particular, the following factors were considered: institutional structures (that give party leadership power over the party rank and file, such as being able to determine whether parliamentarians can stand for re-election), intra-party distribution of resources, habits of dissent and unity, and political opportunities outside the political party. This thesis is supported by the fact that Namibia’s SWAPO displayed a high degree of support for the third term, while in Zambia, the ruling party splintered dramatically over the issue. In Malawi, the party lost much of its unity in the concluding stage of the amendment debate. It has also been noted that international pressure can play a significant role, whether it be peer pressure from other leaders or behind-the-scenes pressure from donor countries and their support for civil society organisations opposed to third-term amendments. International pressure reportedly played an important role in Ghana, Malawi and Zambia. Others have argued that, in order to ease their exit, retired leaders may also need to be provided with material well-being and a prestigious role to play, so that they retain their important status.16

Future Implications

The overview presented indicates that Africa has a mixed record on term limits. Since the early 1990s, the number of leaders who decided not to attempt a constitutional amendment to remain in office, or failed to secure such an amendment, has been greater than the number of successful over-stayers. This is indicative of a pattern of change. Indeed, these developments have led some authors to believe that the political culture in Africa is slowly changing.17 At the same time, it should be noted that while there have been substantial advances in some countries, there has been little or no progress in others. However, the mere trend towards increased respect for constitutional term limits is important for two reasons.

Firstly, increased adherence to term limits may result in the emergence of a nascent norm that in itself may contribute to further change. Cases where leaders observed constitutional term limits may turn out to be precedents delineating acceptable behaviour. Increasingly common examples of the observance of term limits have the potential to become a powerful reference point that could make it more difficult for future third-term attempts to gain popular and international acceptance.

Secondly, some of the examples in this article demonstrate that there is a clear scope for meaningful action by civil society and the international community in similar situations in the future. The fact that these actors can have an impact on the outcome of third-term presidential challenges suggests that there are opportunities for action on a variety of levels, such as invigorating civil society, working towards media independence and plurality in the ruling political party, pressure from other leaders and donor countries, and the provision of opportunities for retired presidents. In addition, it is important to note that the example of success in some states is likely to encourage increased involvement from civil society and the public in similar scenarios in other countries.


The attraction of power is still strong, and many African leaders are keen to stay in office for as long as they can. This article has explored the opportunities for the extension of power that are still open to presidents, in the operating environment of the new constitutions adopted by many African states in the early 1990s. The starting premise is that term limits play an important role in a democratic polity, and their extensions are undesirable. The methods that African leaders utilise to extend their influence beyond the constitutionally permitted two terms in office were also explored. Some leaders achieved constitutional amendments, while others failed to do so and resorted to an indirect strategy of maintaining power via a hand-picked successor. This strategy has, almost invariably, displayed very limited success, and the hand-picked successor either did not get elected or turned against his erstwhile patron.

The varying scenarios across Africa suggest that there are a number of factors that have a bearing on the outcome of presidential endeavours to extend their hold on power. This not only allows for optimism, as it shows that actions by civil society and the international community can be successful, but also suggests that there is a scope for action in similar situations in the future. In the not so distant future, third-term debates are likely to remain a common feature of African politics, and examples of adherence to term limits will serve as an increasingly significant reference point for responsible leadership, which includes timely departure from power.