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Africa's Presidential Term Limits: Changing the Rules


Recently, term limit extension efforts have been prevalent in African politics. Olly Owen, a research associate with the Center for Democracy and Development, gave Voice of America an overview of this trend. He told Voice of America reporter Cole Mallard that despite the recent trend, changing constitutions has been going on since the 1960s, as the colonial period was ending. He says many long-term leaders are raising the issue because they’re coming to the end of their tenure.

Owen says, “Incumbents enjoy power, and when they reach the end of their tenure they don’t want to go. That’s a self-reinforcing trend if you’re in a political environment where personalities are strong and institutions weak. And the more that people change the rules to suit themselves, the more powerful they become and the less powerful the rules become.” Owen says African countries in general are freer in terms of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the public right to protest, so these issues become a matter of public discussion.

He gives examples of Anglophone governments working to manipulate the Constitution are Malawi, Zambia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. He adds Togo as a francophone example. He says countries successful in that effort are based on militaristic “status, socialist, guerrilla movements…who feel they have a right to inherit the state.”

By contrast, governments not successful in changing the Constitution to allow a third term “came in as civilian political parties through electoral rule” and those elected are not powerful enough to change the rules. He says, “Constitutions themselves tend to dictate how they can be changed,” through built-in directions and instructions. He says it’s easier to change in some countries than others: “If you dominate the parliament of a country, and if you dominate the media and public debate, then you can really leverage as much as you want.”

He says Zimbabwe is a good example: “Zimbabwe has been molding its system of government through highly placed people in the ruling party…but it’s been done very procedurally; they got the necessary two-thirds majority to give themselves the Senate, which they wanted basically as a retirement home for all the statesmen and to entrench their influence more; but they’re very much sticklers for the rules…and they can craft those rules to suit themselves.”

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