By Alfred Muteru
In one of his many off-the-cuff remarks at the opening of the 25th African Union Summit in 2015, President Robert Mugabe slammed the constitutional two-term presidential limit discourse in Africa. However, in reference to recent events in Burundi, he wittingly noted political upheavals that emerged when incumbents decide to extend their stay in office. Ironically, President Mugabe is serving his seventh term though his first under Zimbabwe’s new constitution. This constitution restricts him to two-terms.
President Mugabe’s contradictory expressions highlight the numerous contentions over presidential term-limits on the continent. To-date, out of the 33 African countries who have constitutional term limits, 12 have successfully changed the provisions that have allowed incumbent presidents to extend their stay in power. Though a number of them have been unsuccessful in changing the constitution, the lingering question is why these leaders are desirous of extending their stay in office? What are the consequences of their actions in each context where this occurs?
There is no simple answer to this question and the explanations for the quest for extra terms vary. The majority of these explanations have been extensively examined, although the trappings of power and quest for self-serving agenda seems to be a strong motivating factor for the leaders who seek to extend their tenure beyond constitutional term limits.
As a recent Afrobarometer survey suggests, the fact of the matter is that although the majority of African citizens—73 per cent in 34 countries—favour limiting presidential mandates, the issue is very complex especially when one considers the arguments advanced for extending term limits or even why specific leaders are able to circumvent the term-limits and get re-elected.
Some leaders are simply able to exploit loop-holes in the legislation and the divisions within legislatures to effect such change. The lack of strong opposition or the suppression of the opposition, civil society and independent media also accounts for the change. Many facilitating factors therefore play a critical role and are at the heart of the debates on term-limits. But there is a leadership question at the heart of the dilemmas the term limits poses that is not given due attention.
To understand contestations around leadership transitions in these societies, we must go beyond the popular notions of leadership that view it from the perspective of personality traits, positions they occupy, or their achievement in society. To be certain the challenges with these attributes is that they hardly explain how these leaders interact with the followers, for example, why they continue enjoying popular support for third terms when in fact their performance might be wanting.
We therefore have to understand the complexities of leadership in these societies by examining the leadership processes. How do leaders interact with the society and their followers in situations where term limits exists in order to extract or win acceptance for a third term? Is the situation mutual or does it involve levels of coercion of populations? Are referendums conducted to elicit popular opinion? How are they conducted? Where they are not conducted, how does the decision to go for a third term reached and who makes the decision?
Should the focus be on term limits or the situational factors that determine the leadership needed in these societies? These questions force us to alter our perspective on disputes around presidential term limits in Africa in some way by looking at process and focusing on society rather than the attributes of the leader. It also challenges how interventions by states or external actors in these societies are determined.
In this issue, contributors scrutinise some of the issues surrounding presidential term limits. George Omondi scrutinises the transitional and constitutional loop-holes President Pierre Nkurunziza has exploited in his bid for a controversial third term. He also highlights pitfalls in the attempted intervention by external actors in the ensuing political upheavals in Burundi. Anisha Hira examines the complexities of popular will and how this impact contestations surrounding President Paul Kagame’s intentions to go for a third term in Rwanda. Albert Mbiatem finally analyses the threats of instability that the Great Lakes region may potentially grapple with when the presidents decide to go against constitutional provisions on their term limits.
 Dulani, Boniface Madalitso. Personal rule and presidential term limits in Africa. Diss. Michigan State University, 2011, 12.