Presidential term limits: a new African foreign policy challenge

Photo © Artem Bali/Unsplash
Photo © Artem Bali/Unsplash

A coup d’état in Burkina Faso in October 2014 thwarted attempts by West Africa’s former regional strongman Blaise Compaoré to extend his stay in power.

A few months later, in May 2015, an attempted coup in Burundi sought to settle simmering tensions around President Pierre Nkurunziza’s attempts to contest one presidential election too many. In the next two years, several African leaders will attempt to revise their country’s constitution to remain in power longer. Constitutional revisions to allow serving presidents an extended mandate should not become a residual domestic democratic issue in African countries. Such revisions are the cause of domestic violence and political instability, and have a perverse impact on regional security. These new unwelcome pressure points undermine democratic transitions in Africa. It is incumbent upon the AU and consolidating democracies such as South Africa and Nigeria to advocate against these corrosive practices in Africa’s quest for democratic development.


The January 2015, 24th Summit of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa validated ‘Agenda 2063: The Africa we want’ as a guiding document to a better African future. Agenda 2063 seeks to build on the AU’s existing texts, declarations and instruments, including the Peace and Security Council (PSC), whose mission is to end conflict in Africa. More ambitiously, Aspiration 4 of Agenda 2063 says: ‘By 2020 all guns will be silent’. While conflict trends in Africa illustrate a steady decline over the past two decades, democratic consolidation and governance is infirmed by illiberal political practices that undermine popular aspirations for peace and security in a number of African countries.

Of these practices, the rise of presidential term extensions in the coming months and years is arguably one of the most critical foreign policy challenges in the AU. How the AU and its member states respond to this policy challenge could provide a glimmer of hope for democratic governance. Failure could reverse the democratic gains and accentuate conflict.

From Burkina Faso to Burundi and beyond

On 30 October 2014, Burkina Faso, one of the nominally stable countries in West Africa and crucial anchor state in regional peace and stability, experienced a period of political chaos, with the army eventually dissolving government, including the national assembly. The president of Burkina Faso at the time, Blaise Compaore, who himself had come to power through a coup d’état in 1987, and legitimised his rule through successive elections in the 1990s, has been a leading mediator in West African conflicts over the past decade and more. Moreover, his role as a facilitator had been validated, not only within the continent and the West African sub-region, but also by Western powers including France, which had intervened diplomatically and militarily on many occasions in Africa’s security challenges, particularly in Francophone Africa.

Burkina Faso has since been followed by Burundi, where after a bitter feud between the opposition and government around a third term for Pierre Nkurunziza, a coup d’état sought to settle the dispute in May 2015. For the policy maker and analyst, the source of concern leading up to the collapse of government through a coup ought not to necessarily reside in the legitimacy of a referendum or parliamentary constitutional amendments seeking to revise the constitution to allow leaders third and fourth terms in office.

Crucially, the main worry ought to be the trend in constitutional revisions that allow African leaders to extend their stay in power. Therefore, the collapse of notionally democratic governments in Burkina Faso and Burundi as a consequence of attempts by Compaoré and Nkurunziza to extend their presidential terms should raise red flags about the extent of state-building and democratic transitions in Africa. This is particularly important in light of mooted constitutional amendments within the next two years in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Benin and the Republic of Congo. These amendments, if they go ahead would seek to extend the rule of the men in power in these countries. Ominously, we can only speculate about the consequences. But if there are lessons to be drawn from Burkina Faso and Burundi, Africa should err on the side of caution.

The African Union has acted swiftly in the event of unconstitutional overthrows of government. After the coup, it suspended Burkina Faso from its institutions, including requesting the military to produce a roadmap that would allow a transition to a democratically elected civilian government. This occurred with the army transferring power to a transitional civilian authority late in November 2014. Similar suspensions by the African Union were imposed in the case of Egypt (2013), Mali (2012) and Guinea-Conakry (2011) when coups threatened the democratic frameworks in these respective countries.

On this, the question of civilian rule, normative convergence in the AU has been widely accepted and is welcome as a safeguard for democratic civilian rule. Experience over the past decade and more demonstrates that a coup d’état is no longer a viable option in the African Union. This welcome acceptance, codified in Articles 2-22 of the AU’s constitutive Act is a result of lessons learned from the security and governance challenges posed by undemocratic rule by men and women in uniform. Still, more positive evolutions are needed since constitutional revisions to allow Presidents for life pose serious foreign policy and domestic challenges, with wide-ranging implications for regional peace and stability. It is for this reason that the African Union should seek to introduce this debate at the 25th summit in June 2015 in South Africa. As it stands, there is scant appetite to deal with what is in the foreign policy arsenal of many African states a sovereignty-norm issue.

A normative no-man’s land in Africa’s foreign policy

In the foreign policies and diplomacies of the majority of African states, presidential term limits and extensions constitute mostly a domestic policy issue that is best dealt with in the framework of the constitutions of independent and sovereign states. For as long as the domestic democratic franchise has the requisite institutions to deal with such, the practice of presidential term limits has been outside the normative and policy purview of the AU, including in leading member states such as South Africa where term limits are increasingly becoming entrenched in democratic practice. In South Africa where the democratic state-building and consolidation process has been in motion for two decades, the country is a good case study where the practice of two-term limits is accepted as a democratic acquis in the national constitution. The fact that South Africa is an exception to such practices is worrying on a continent whose democratic experiment and state-building exercise is fragile and in a state of flux. It is for this reason (state-fragility and frailty) that countries like South Africa and the African Union membership at large should seek to open up the debate about presidential term limits with a view to their entrenchment as immutable in the AU governance architecture.

As it stands, the AU, South Africa and leading democracies in the West that contribute to state-building and post-conflict reconstruction merely rely on the reactive infrastructures of peace-mediation and post-facto coercion instruments at the AU and international organisations level in cases where democratically elected governments have been removed from power through unconstitutional means. Yet, there is now significance evidence demonstrating causality between protracted stays in power by African leaders and state fragility and weak institutions. For the AU, acceptance of causality (term extensions and conflict) could be a much-needed entry point to open the Pandora box of presidential term limits.

Open the debate about presidential terms

Presidential term limits in Africa are no longer procedural questions best dealt with in the sovereignty norms of marginally democratic and fragile states. The coup d’état in Burkina Faso, and most recently Burundi, including sporadic protests in parts of the DRC against constitutional revisions to allow Joseph Kabila a third term in office clearly illustrate the necessity of framing this issue on the side of good governance and democracy. The assumption that presidential limits constitute a no-man’s land where the normative resources of the AU should not enter is increasingly under stress.

With this undue stress, the potential for the erosion of the modest democratic gains that Africans have witnessed in the last two decades is now real in countries where amendments to the supreme law are being set in motion. Worryingly, the dynamics of tensions and conflict that characterise these processes should compel the AU and leading democracies to act. Therefore, the AU’s Charter on Democracy, Governance and Elections, which in its preamble expresses concern about unconstitutional changes of governments as ‘one of the essential causes of insecurity, instability and violent conflict in Africa’ should be revisited. An evolution in this regard to include presidential term limits would be welcome. Alternatively, it should be considered in broad terms within the framework of the AU Constitutive Act, in particular Articles 3 and 4 that place emphasis on good governance, popular participation, human rights and rule of law.

The agenda of democracy, good governance, state-building and consolidation should not be divorced from presidential term limits, which can serve as catalysts for state-failure and collapse. The ‘Burkina Faso and Burundi effect’ provides South Africa and other leading democracies on the continent, including the AU, with an opportunity to promote adherence to presidential term-limits as essential anchors in the high canon of sustainable democratic governance.

A matter of preventive diplomacy

It is becoming an untenable and an equally disingenuous proposition for the African Union to invest energy in suspending member states from its processes after the unconstitutional overthrow of governments. Moreover, it is a waste of scarce resources and time to deliberate at AU summits about conflict as a consequence of presidential term limits when the AU can cut to the known core of the problem.

Presidential term extensions are no longer a popular proposition on the African street, from Ouagadougou to Bujumbura. The collapse of government in these two capitals amply demonstrates this new reality and democratic evolution. Citizen dissatisfaction in the DRC, Benin and in the Republic of Congo about presidential mandate extensions also illustrates the limited appetite for these practices. The AU through Agenda 2063 prides itself as a body whose mandate is driven by the aspirations of African citizens. Therefore, in light of the political instability inherent in presidential term extensions, the AU summit should prioritise this conversation.

As a potential tool in preventive diplomacy, the AU, and in particular the Commission as a potential initiator of this conversation, would not be starting on a blank page. In a widely ignored and underreported, but pivotal speech at the AU PSC meeting in January 2015, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma fired the first salvo by cautioning against presidential term extensions in Africa. While welcoming the report of the Peace and Security Council on its activities and the state of peace in Africa, President Zuma emphasised the need to draw important lessons from events in Burkina Faso. Sadly, the intervention by South Africa did not receive wider support, with Kenya having openly supported the presidential term amendments in Burundi. However, the bright South African spark in the debate and the unfolding events in Burundi should create greater momentum for the 25th summit of the AU to open the conversation about presidential term limits and extensions.

Conclusion and policy recommendations

The attempted coup in Burundi and a successful one in Burkina Faso are way too many. The underlying, but unnecessary strains leading to these new triggers of political instability have been laid bare by attempts to tamper with constitutions to allow for extended terms for heads of state and governments. This is no longer a residual question that remains best dealt with by competing domestic constituencies. Therefore, it leaves the AU and emerging democracies such as South Africa and now Nigeria with few options. What is imperative is for African states, the African Union Commission, and the PSC to take a pro-active approach by insisting that total respect for constitutional mandates by member states be placed higher up on the AU summit agenda.

Policy Recommendations

  • South Africa, having already raised alarm-bells about constitutional amendments at the PSC meeting earlier this year, should use its statement at the AU summits to further express strong concern about these practices and their inherent conflict dynamics. The unfolding events in Burundi make such a proposition not only attractive, but also urgent.
  • Leading democratising anchor states such as Kenya and Nigeria should as a matter of preventive diplomacy use their privileged regional positions to caution and desist from approving such constitutional amendments and re-interpretations. They bear a much bigger burden in the event of conflict and regional instability.
  • Should constitutional amendments to permit extended stays in power and political instability fail to reach the forthcoming AU summit, the African Union Commission should initiate and formulate a position paper or policy advisory note for discussion at the January 2016 AU summit. Such a process should necessarily lead to amendments in the AU Charter on Democracy, Governance and Elections.

24 Jun 2015