Term limits can safeguard fragile African democracies. But are they all they seem?


Opinion article published at Apolitical

Restrictions can help end "leaders for life" culture, but aren't a democratic magic wand

Teodoro Obiang has ruled over the tiny, oil-rich nation of Equatorial Guinea since the successful coup d'etat he leaded in 1979. He was re-elected president of his party for an indefinite term last year, paving the way for him to run again in the 2022 elections. He's the longest-serving president in Africa - and first in the line of succession is his son.

Obiang is not a unique case. Seven of the ten current longest-serving presidents are from African nations: Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Uganda, Chad, Eritrea, Sudan and Congo. African leaders want to die in power.

Equatorial Guinea has a two-term limit for the presidency, but it was introduced only in 2011 and wasn't retrospective. So Obiang was allowed to run for office in 2016, when he won his first seven-year term. He could now rule until 2030.

Many other countries have longer-standing term limits. In the 1990s, the fall of the USSR and pressure from foreign donors led to a wave of democratisation in Africa. A total of 33 countries adopted a two-term limit for their leaders.

But as longtime leaders have seen the end of their administrations approaching, they have manoeuvred to extend their time in office through parliamentary bills, referenda, and violent and unlawful constitutional changes.

The first president to successfully remove his own term limits was Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaoré in 1997. Since then, 11 more leaders have removed restrictions on their time in office.

The other 21 countries from the democratising wave have upheld their term limits, and 15 more have subsequently introduced them.

Results show that term limits have a direct effect on leaders' time in power. In those countries with limits, presidents have been in office for four years on average, while in countries where heads of state have abolished their limit the figure is 22 years. The Obiangs could follow the Bongo family. Omar Bongo was president of Gabon for 42 years until his death in 2009. Since then his son, Ali Bongo, has been in power.

Data shows that establishing a two-term limit for presidents helps a country's democratic development. The seven African countries with the longest-serving presidents are assessed as "not free" by Freedom House, and as "authoritarian regimes" in The Economist's 2017 Democracy Index.

Term limits also have a positive impact on a country's peace and stability. Only two out of the 21 countries that have upheld constitutional limits are currently in conflict, while six of the 18 that have either overruled or never established term limits struggle with clashes and war.

Term limits are compatible with authoritarian rule

A third benefit of term limits is that incumbents hold an unfair advantage when running for re-election. Incumbents in Sub-Saharan Africa were re-elected in 96% of the elections they ran in between 1992 and 2006. When incumbents didn't run, successors from their party won only 60% of the time. That's because ruling parties can face fracture when choosing a successor and new candidates tend to have less public support than their predecessor. Most importantly, the political opposition tends to unite when they see a real opportunity of obtaining power.

However, there are also reasons to doubt how effective term limits really are at fostering development. For one thing, they are compatible with authoritarian rule. In Tanzania and Mozambique, the governing Chama Cha Mapinduzi and Mozambique Liberation Front have changed presidents every two terms without ever relinquishing power.

It's also arguable whether alternating between parties is necessary for a democracy. South Africa, Botswana and Namibia are all considered democracies despite having a single party in power since independence. And African dictators often argue that term limits are an undemocratic Western imposition.

Two-term limits for presidents are not, on balance, a magic wand that can bring democracy to a country. But there are clear examples of such limits helping democratic progress.

The most recent Afrobarometer poll found about 75% of Africans agree with limiting a president to two terms. If democracy is about listening the will of the people, the message is clear: people all across the continent have voiced their desire for a new leader every two terms.