Presidents and term-limits in Africa: a tribute to Robert Elgie

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There are three types of academics. Some work hard to publish their ideas, and have an influence through the body of work they leave behind. Others combine this with a zeal for teaching and mentorship, imprinting their ideas and approach on a new generation. A very select few somehow achieve combine this with also setting up new institutions and creating new ways for people to learn and share their ideas.

Robert Elgie, who sadly died earlier this month, belonged in the third category. In addition to publishing his own work – which was always greatly respected – he was a constant source of innovation and creativity. As well as running his own website, the Semi-Presidential One, he created Presidential Power, which has become an incredible resource for academics, journalists, and students. In doing so, Robert didn’t just start a website, he built a community.

Presidential Power has been sustained by an alliance of scholars from across the world who only have one thing in common: we had the good fortune to know Robert. I was particularly lucky in this respect. In addition to being part of the Presidential Power team, he invited me to contribute two chapters to his important book projects – one on presidential term-limits and the other on coalitional presidentialism with my colleagues Paul Chaisty and Tim Power.

That he did so demonstrates another key feature of Robert’s career: his determination to overcome regional boundaries and to take all parts of the globe seriously. Instead of adopting a narrow focus on Europe, Robert had a global interest. A genuine comparativist, he was rare in not only taking African cases seriously and asking for chapters from people like me on countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Zambia – which so often left out of mainstream approaches to political institutions – but also wrote on Africa himself.

This blog is a tribute to Robert. The chapter it is drawn on would not have been written without him.


Encouraged by Robert’s prompting, I set out to explain the fate of term-limits in three African countries: Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. The struggle over the enforcement of presidential term-limits in Africa has received considerable media and scholarly attention. However, while there have been a number of studies about how often term-limits are respected, less attention has been given to the question of under what conditions term-limits are challenged and upheld.

The cases of Kenya, Uganda and Zambia are useful in this regard, because they provide the full range of possible outcomes. While term limits were overturned in Uganda, and respected after a struggle in Zambia, all presidents have respected term limits in Kenya without the need for opposition and civil society mobilization.

These cases are also suitable for comparison because, while they have very different economies, they are all former British colonies and all feature high levels of ethnic diversity. Moreover, all three countries fall within the category of competitive-authoritarian regimes, employ the same combination of direct presidential elections along with a Westminster style legislature, and have held uninterrupted elections since the transition to multipartyism. They therefore allow me to hold a number of important historical and institutional factors – though by no means all – constant, and so make it easier to identify the causal impact of others.

Based on a comparative analysis of these countries, I demonstrate that three of the factors that are most commonly cited in the wider literature – the presence of natural resources, the quality of democracy and the position of the international community – cannot explain the fate of term-limits. While Kenya and Uganda discovered oil very recently, none of the three states considered here was particularly resource rich when presidential term limits first came to be tested – unless one counts Zambia’s copper mines, but these have rarely generated sufficient income to sustain government expenditure.

Similarly, there is no clear relationship between respect for term-limits and international financial support: Kenya was the least aid dependent nation during this period but the only country in which they have never been threatened. The same is true when it comes to while the quality of democracy. While this proves to be an important background factor in all three countries, term limits have come under greater threat in Zambia than in Kenya, despite the fact that both countries featured the same level of democracy in the relevant period.

I therefore investigate alternative structural and contingent factors, and identify two issues that play an important but often overlooked role, namely the extent of organized opposition and the ability of the president to enforce unity within the ruling party. While the importance of international, opposition and civil society resistance has often been noted – for example in accounts of how the OASIS Forum campaigned against President Frederick Chiliba’s unsuccessful attempt to secure a third term in Zambia – the significance of the internal dynamics of the ruling party has often been underestimated.

This oversight has significantly undermined our ability to fully understand the battle over term-limits. For example, in Zambia it was not the OASIS Forum that ultimately put paid to his ambitions, but the fact that Chiluba could not marshal a majority of his own MPs to back his proposals within the National Assembly. The same was true in Nigeria, where President Olesegun Obasanjo might have used the country’s oil wealth to ignore complaints from international donors and stay for a third term, had his plans not been rejected by the Senate. By contrast, figures such as Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, and Paul Kagame in Rwanda, have been able to marshal strong support for their proposals from within the ruling party, smoothing their transformation into presidents for life.

Significantly, while these factors are shaped by the quality of democracy, they are not reducible to it. On the one hand, internal party unity clearly varies at each level of democracy as a result of the size of the party and the ethnic and economic cleavages that it contains. On the other hand, while authoritarian leaders have more tools at their disposal to deal with domestic opposition, it is also true that many of Africa’s less democratic regimes face strong resistance either in the form of political parties, as with the Movement of Democratic Change in Zimbabwe, or rebel groups, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I am grateful to Robert for encouraging me to take on this research, and for starting Presidential Power, which has taught me so much about how presidents govern. He will be sorely missed, but his influence will live on through this website, his writings and the people he inspired.

This chapter was published as ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go? Term-limits, elections, and political change in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia’, In Alexander Baturo and Robert Elgie (eds), The Politics of Presidential Term-limits, Oxford, OUP, 2019.

This piece first appeared on the Presidential Power website.

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