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Africa's Presidential Term Limits: What's Involved in Constitutional Change?

Olly Owen spoke with Voice of America about constitutional amendments to extend presidential term limits. He gives an indepth look into the mechanics of this, what’s actually involved in changing a constitution? Mr. Owen is a research associate with the Center for Democracy and Development. He told Voice of America reporter Cole Mallard that constitutions have built-in procedures for change, but it’s more difficult in some countries than others to make the changes.

Owen says, “It very much depends on the tradition of the country.” For example, he says, Nigeria, under the presidential system, has had four constitutions since independence so the constitution is viewed as “more fluid and debatable.” Owen says in francophone countries, the constitution is considered more “sacrosanct,” although some of the countries have held national debates resulting in complete change.

He says, “It basically depends on the balance of forces.” For example, if an incumbent controls the airwaves and public debate, the balance of power is on the leader’s side. He says an exception occurs if the public is strong enough to force a change.

Owen says in general, it’s a lot harder to reform the constitution in a presidential system because the president has to sign off on the changes, as is seen in Ivory Coast. He says the president is “an interested party” and can’t be forced to make the changes.

Owen says in a parliamentary system, parliamentarians have more power, but that’s no guarantee because some governments are run by a movement, such as is the case in Uganda. He says in that case parliament’s position doesn’t really matter because the organizational strength is within the ruling movement.

He says public support is a huge factor, adding that even though it’s possible to “rig changes to a constitution, it’s not possible to do so in a sustainable way if the public is against it.” Again, he cites Nigeria an example: President Obasanjo’s effort to get a third term was denied. Owen says there are exceptions, such as in Zimbabwe, where there is a very unequal balance of power “and people don’t have the option to stand up to it.”

He also says foreign support for political change is very important, but foreign leverage can be limited if the government is willing to stand up against sanctions and loss of foreign aid. Then, he says, it comes down to a question of sovereignty, which forces a legal limit on foreign influence.

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