Democracy in Africa: Power alternation and presidential term limits

04-04-2016

The democratic landscape in Africa is complex, featuring a mixture of examples of progress, in some areas, and regression in others. While some countries have continuously come closer to high democratic standards, considerably strengthening their democratic systems, others have seen their democratic credentials worsen. A pervasive feature of political systems on the African continent has been the fact that the incumbent presidents and ruling parties tend to win elections, whether fair or not. Since independence, few African states have experienced transfer of presidential and parliamentary power as a result of elections. At the beginning of the 1990s, during the democratisation wave that swept the continent, most African countries introduced constitutional term limits for their presidents. However, ultimately many of these limits were short-lived, as the leaders who initiated them were often themselves later responsible for spearheading constitutional amendments in order to extend their position in power. In several cases, strong opposition from civil society, but also from political actors, was successful in upholding constitutional rules. In others, however, popular opposition was repressed and the will of the heads of state concerned prevailed, sometimes at the cost of prolonged turmoil. In this context the question arises: how essential and useful to democracy are presidential term limits? While the US under the Obama administration has been vocal in defending term limits in Africa, the EU has not taken sides on the issue as such, focusing instead on the respect of constitutional processes when revisions occur.

The democratic landscape in Africa is complex, featuring a mixture of examples of progress, in some areas, and regression in others. While some countries have continuously come closer to high democratic standards, considerably strengthening their democratic systems, others have seen their democratic credentials worsen. A pervasive feature of political systems on the African continent has been the fact that the incumbent presidents and ruling parties tend to win elections, whether fair or not. Since independence, few African states have experienced transfer of presidential and parliamentary power as a result of elections. At the beginning of the 1990s, during the democratisation wave that swept the continent, most African countries introduced constitutional term limits for their presidents. However, ultimately many of these limits were short-lived, as the leaders who initiated them were often themselves later responsible for spearheading constitutional amendments in order to extend their position in power. In several cases, strong opposition from civil society, but also from political actors, was successful in upholding constitutional rules. In others, however, popular opposition was repressed and the will of the heads of state concerned prevailed, sometimes at the cost of prolonged turmoil. In this context the question arises: how essential and useful to democracy are presidential term limits? While the US under the Obama administration has been vocal in defending term limits in Africa, the EU has not taken sides on the issue as such, focusing instead on the respect of constitutional processes when revisions occur.