From Burundi to Congo and Rwanda, one of the major stories that triggered the most debate and attracted headline news in 2015 has been the debate over presidential third terms.

Indeed, leaders attempts at overstaying their constitutional welcome (Burundi) or effecting contested constitutional amendments (Congo) has become a new realm of contestation for democratic consolidation on the continent.

Elections as norm

Granted, the era of military rule and one-party regimes has been replaced by the new era of multi-party democratic dispensation that started in the 1990s. Today, there is almost no African country that does not profess to a multi-party political system. Indeed, elections have become a common feature of the political landscape of the continent. In 2016 alone, at least 17 countries have scheduled presidential polls.

Despite routine elections, some ten African countries did not witness change of leadership for nearly three decades or more. The trend indeed shows that elections fail to effect regular change of leadership. The kinds of electoral change of leadership witnessed in 2015 in Nigeria and Tanzania are the exception rather than the rule.

It is against the background of the inadequacy of elections for effecting leadership change that constitutional guarantees for change of leadership, most notably presidential terms limits, have emerged to be the new arena of political contestation on the continent.

Africa’s enthusiastic embrace of constitutional limits on presidential terms

Where it is observed, presidential term limit not only enables competitive politics by restricting the advantages of incumbency but also facilitates change of leadership, affording the society the infusion of new thinking and new blood in the management of the affairs of the country. It was no wonder that as part of the wave of democratic constitutional change of the 1990s, the constitutions of 33 African states incorporated constitutional clauses limiting presidential tenure to two terms.

The operationalization of these limits has indeed facilitated changes. In this regard, Issaka Souré pointed out that ‘there is an empirically proven correlation between presidential term limits and leadership alternation in Africa, given that almost all the African leaders that have left power after elections have done so after ‘exhausting’ all their constitutional terms except in eight cases.’

Over the years the constitutional objectives that presidential term limit is meant to serve have become under immense pressure. Two related trends have thus emerged in this regard.

The steady retreat from presidential term limits – the source of contestation

The first trend relates to the rising number of countries seeking the removal or amendment of constitutional clauses limiting presidential tenure to two terms. Indeed, the number of countries whose constitutions contain presidential term limits has shown steady decline from what it was in the early 1990s. That number is now less by about half a dozen countries.

Together with the successful removal of constitutional limits on presidential terms in Congo and Rwanda in 2015, the record so far, as reflected in the table below, shows that there have been 16 attempts at changing or removing constitutional term limits. This is in addition to Senegal (2012) and Burundi (2015) where incumbent presidents used legal lacuna in their respective constitutions to run a hugely contested third term.

Table 1. Countries where proposed amendments for removing or extending terms limits were made

State Year amendment proposed Outcome
Algeria 2008 Successful
Cameroon 2008 Successful
Chad 2004 Successful
Congo 2015 Successful
Djibouti 2010 Successful
Gabon 2003 Successful
Guinea 2001 Successful
Malawi 2003 Unsuccessful
Namibia 1998 Successful
Niger 2010 Unsuccessful
Nigeria 2006 Unsuccessful
Togo 2002 Successful
Tunisia 2002 Successful
Uganda 2005 Successful
Burkina Faso 2014 Unsuccessful
Rwanda 2015 Successful
Zambia 2001 Unsuccessful

It is interesting to note that the number of countries that succeeded in changing or removing constitutional limits on presidential terms is significantly higher than those in which attempts for such change did not succeed. Only in five of the 16 countries that attempts at changing constitutional term limits failed.

Additionally, irrespective of the success rate, recent changes in Rwanda and Republic of Congo and on going debates in DRC illustrate that there is continuing trend of seeking to remove or change constitutional provisions on term limits. Pending proposals in Algeria and Liberia for introducing term limits are not as common as the trends for removing such limits.

It is this successful retreat from term limits and the resultant loss of opportunity it presents for democratic change of leadership that sets the context for Africa’s new political phenomenon of contestation over constitutional limits over presidential term of office.

Violent contestation of the push of incumbents for third term

The second trend is that increasingly attempts at extending (or removing) term limits are being contested violently. While earlier cases include Niger (2010) and Senegal (2012), the most recent such trend started in Burkina Faso. In October 2014, Burkina Faso’s long term dictator Blaise Compaore’s political manoeuvring of using parliament to remove the constitutional limit on the president’s term set off a successful popular protest that not only forced him into exile but also plunged the country into volatile constitutional crisis.

In Burundi, the ruling party’s announcement in April 2015 electing President Nkurunziza as its presidential candidate, amid strong opposition contesting the constitutionality of his candidacy, has been received with protests in Bujumbura and some other parts of the country. The country has since been in political turmoil that has put the stability that the country enjoyed since the end of the civil war at  serious peril.

The situation in Burundi is strikingly similar to the third term controversy in Senegal in 2012. As in Burundi, Senegal’s President Abdoulay Wade insisted that he did not serve the two terms stipulated in the constitution arguing that the provision limiting term limits was not applicable to his first term. Again as in Burundi, President Wade sought legal interpretation from the Constitutional Court and the Court supported him. Where as President Wade was eventually defeated by the electorate at the ballot box, in Burundi elections (boycotted by the opposition) were held and the President secured a third term. Unlike in Senegal where the elections brought the political instability over President Wade’s third term campaign to an end, in Burundi the crisis has since the elections deepened further.

In 2015 two other countries namely Congo and Rwanda engaged in amending their respective constitution removing term limits. In Rwanda, although it did not set off the kind of instability observed in other countries, the constitutional referendum that removed the two term limit on presidential tenure with little opposition will extend the power of incumbent President Paul Kagame.

Despite having been at the helm of the country for three decades, in September 2015 President Sassou Nguesso of Congo announced a constitutional referendum over proposed amendments to the constitution. The proposal involved amending the constitution to remove the 70 year age limit on presidential candidates as well as the two term limit the head of state can serve.

Although the country did not witness the level of violence that afflicts Burundi, the protest that the opposition and civil society groups mobilized meant that October 2015 became one of the most violent months in the country since 2002. Between four to 20 people are said to have lost their lives in the violence.

The riots and protests that affected the two largest cities of Brazzaville and Pointe Noire did not however change the outcome of the referendum. Both proposed changes were approved in the referendum held on 25 October 2015, although the opposition and civil society challenge the legitimacy of the referendum.

With incumbents continuing to win elections, the issue of third term is sure to attract continuing contestation in the years to come. In 2016, Democratic Republic of Congo is poised to be the next battleground in Africa’s new arena of contestation for democratic consolidation and constitutional rule. The contestation is sure to be violent. All eyes are on the African Union (AU) and the international community to see if they will act on the early warnings emerging from DRC and the lessons from other recent contestations and take successful preventive action preventing DRC’s descent into violent instability.