Lost in the wave of democratic backsliding seen in Africa in recent years has been the dramatic deterioration of term limit norms. Thirteen African leaders have evaded term limits since 2015. This follows a period over the previous two decades of gradually expanding respect for term limits. Between 2010-2014, there wasn’t a single reversal of term limits.
An incumbent staying on for a third term may not seem like such a big deal. After all, if a leader is popular and serving the public, then what’s the harm in having him stay on longer? (So far, all instances of term limit extensions have been by men).
In fact, the evasion of term limits tends to be a serial process. Once a leader has sidestepped his limit of two-terms, it’s rare that he’ll stop at three. In just the first few months of 2021, four incumbents (in Djibouti, Uganda, Chad, and the Republic of Congo) secured their 5th, 6th, or 7th terms. Indeed, in a recent analysis, Candace Cook and I found that in nearly every instance where an incumbent has bypassed term limits since 2015, he subsequently had to engineer the outcome of the next election to stay in power. In other words, these leaders are not ‘back by popular demand.’
Yet they persist. The average time in office for leaders who have evaded term limits is 12 years. This compares to just three years for those who’ve respected terms limits. This has contributed to the reality that a quarter of all African leaders have been in power for more than 20 years. A further twist to this pattern of longevity has been the machinations of military loyalists to perpetuate the regime even after the term limit-free leader has died or been pushed aside—something we’ve seen in Zimbabwe, Algeria, Sudan, Burundi, and Chad in recent years. When these cases are factored in, the median tenure for a term unrestricted regime jumps to 19 years.
The evasion of term limits is therefore opening the door for a return of de facto presidents for life and one-party rule in Africa.
The consequences of presidents for life
Countries where African leaders have circumvented term limits are also seen as more corrupt, ranking 50 places lower than those in which leaders uphold term limits, according to Transparency International’s annual 180 country index.
Countries with term evading leaders are, non-coincidentally, more conflict prone. Forty percent of the countries where leaders have evaded term limits are facing conflict, compared to seven percent in countries where term limits are upheld. Seven of the top ten African countries of origin for the continent’s 32 million forcibly displaced people, likewise, do not have or uphold term limits.
The upshot is that the evasion of term limits is not an isolated event but a pivotal turning point in a pattern of weakening the rule of law and checks on executive power. Once a leader has successfully bypassed term limits, he effectively has a green light to impunity.
The pattern is seemingly contagious. As more leaders succeed in extending their time in office, others are asking, then ‘why shouldn’t I?’
Rebuilding Term Limit Norms
Africa is facing a crisis in governance norms. Given the decisive role that term limit evasions play in paving the way for broader democratic deterioration, more attention—and pushback—is needed to uphold and restore these norms.
Incumbents are skirting term limit rules because they can—by taking advantage of often still nascent checks and balances on the executive. It isn’t because of citizen apathy. In every case where leaders have evaded term limits in Africa, citizens have mounted sustained protests or legal challenges to protect their democratic rights. Uganda, Guinea, and Togo stand out in this regard. Unfortunately, protests on their own, have not been enough in many cases. Leaders have learned that that they can crackdown on protesters and face few repercussions.
Incumbents will continue attempting to circumvent term limits until they understand there will be real costs for staying in power past their designated terms. This requires more decisive regional and international action. Regional and international democratic actors may hesitate since they see term limits as a domestic issue. However, term limit evasions generate a huge wake of instability—illegitimacy, corruption, repression, and frequently civil conflict. This volatility has regional security, not just governance, implications.
Regional and international democratic actors need to recognize that term limit evasion is about more than domestic politicking but an effort to derail the democratic process itself—and should be treated as such. While sudden coups are now roundly condemned on the continent (if not always backed up with concrete action), so too should be creeping coups, which are effectively what term limit evasions amount to. We know where this train is going. Accordingly, it’s negligent for the international democratic community to not call out the lifting of this critical check on executive power.
Regional and international actors need to stop naively playing the shell game of whether a leader can reset the term limit clock because there were modifications to the constitution during his tenure (a tactic that has become routine). In escalating steps, external democratic actors need to state clearly and publicly at the earliest suggestion of term limit evasion that this will not be tolerated. Impose sanctions on the executive, his family, and his patronage network. Cut off all non-humanitarian assistance. And stop recognizing these leaders as the legitimate heads of state.
No more business as usual
It can’t be business as usual. These leaders have already navigated legal gymnastics (and weakened other domestic checks and balances) to get to the point of sidestepping term limits. They aren’t going to simply back down with strongly worded statements.
Taking early action and building as wide of an international consensus against term limit extensions is vital before the move gains momentum. It is the combination of domestic and international pressure that has been decisive in successfully turning back attempts to sidestep term limits in Africa historically—such as in Malawi, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Benin, and Zambia.
This pressure will also have to be sustained. Incumbents will try to wait out any criticism until the international spotlight shifts. Democracy advocates need to be prepared to sustain their pushback just as long.
The stakes for democracy in Africa are high. The evasion of term limits is a pivotal point in the deterioration of democratic norms and must become a redline for African and international democracy supporters. Until the costs for these undemocratic power plays bite, we can expect to see more of them.
Joe Siegle is the Director of Research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. The views expressed are his own.