How long Mr President?


How many years in power are enough for African Presidents?

The issue of term limits for Presidents in Africa is a hot one and has been revived by unrest in Burundi.

South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma recently condemned leaders who tamper with their constitutions to stay in power. His comments could have been directed to Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza who lent on the Supreme Court to alter the constitution to extend his stay to three terms. He argued that the first term was negotiated by a peace process and therefore, didn’t count.


“This business of us agreeing to serve two terms, only to realise ten years is too short, is a problem,” Zuma is reported to have said of the aftermath of Burundi civil unrest.

Constitutional law lecturer at Kent University in Britain, Alex Magaisa said too many political elites violate their constitutions to stay in office.

“This is a dangerous trend in a number of African countries and we have just seen how this can lead to chaos and instability with the failed military coup in Burundi. This is why in Burundi’s neighbour, Rwanda, is of some concern over rumours that President [Paul] Kagame stay in office may be extended beyond the term limits. He has probably done a great job for Rwanda, but extending his stay in office will send a very bad message. The notion that a leader is indispensable is an indication of poor leadership because a leader must be able to nurture talent and promote potential successors,” he says.

(READ MORE: Rwanda opposition party seeks to block president term extension)

The Hong Kong based political analyst, Obert Hodzi, added that most African leaders wanting to rule for life usually prosper in countries with weak institutions.

“The reason is that all those countries, which include Uganda, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, and Angola are characterised by extractive political and economic institutions that only benefit the political elite and disenfranchise the majority of the countries’ citizens. For the leaders of those countries and their patronage networks to continue enriching themselves, they will need to monopolize political power and stay for as long as they possibly can,” he said.

Presidents of Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, Togo, Uganda and Algeria managed to change their constitutions to prolong their stay. Other countries’ Presidents such as Zambia’s Frederick Chiluba, Malawi’s Bakili Muluzi and Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo tried to change constitutions but failed to prevail over the people’s will. Zimbabwe did not have term limits until 2013, while Comoros, Algeria and Uganda remain without.

As the African Union (AU) meet in South Africa, Ghana’s Vice President, Kwesi Amissah-Arthur urged the AU to debate term limits as it could be a solution to Africa’s life-time presidents. This could be tricky especially when the chairperson of the continental body, President Robert Mugabe has been at the helm of his country for 35 years. In 2018, he is expected to seek a fresh mandate in Zimbabwe. If he wins, he will be 99 when his term expires and would have been Zimbabwe’s leader for 43 years.

Life-time leaders threaten democracy. But leaders of troubled countries like Rwanda argue for them. Word is Kagame may seek a third term.

“It is irrational to change exemplary leadership [Paul Kagame] and more so in our context even in the name of constitutionalism,” the country’s former Finance Minister Manasseh Nshuti is reported to have said.

The country’s opposition disagrees. The Democratic Green Party of Rwanda has filed a lawsuit demanding the Supreme Court block any move by parliament to change the constitution to allow President Kagame a third term.

“The Democratic Green Party of Rwanda demands the Supreme Court … to order the Rwandan parliament not to change Article 101 of the constitution,” the party said in a statement.

In neighbouring Burundi, about 40 people have died with over 100,000 citizens having fled the country to seek refuge in Tanzania, Rwanda and DR Congo about this very issue of a term too far. Those fleeing violence are living at Kagunga, Lake Tanganyika Stadium and Nyarugusu camps. They hope to get tents, medical attention and food supplies.

Burundians protesting against Nkurunziza’s third term bid are not alone as Burkina Faso late last year saw street protests that pushed out former leader Blaise Compaoré, who wanted to stay in power beyond elections. He won elections in 1991, 1998, 2005, and 2010.

But what about elections?

Yolande Bouka, researcher in the conflict prevention and risk analysis division at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Nairobi told CNBC Africa that many governments in Africa create an environment where it becomes near impossible to hold free and fair elections.

“Having elections doesn’t mean that you have a democracy, and that is the impression that has been created. There needs to be more attention paid to the reasons for leaders changing the constitution,” said Bouka.

As the warring parties seem to drift further apart with each passing day in Burundi, many are looking to the AU for leadership to gently remind the continent’s Presidents that time is up. 

For more read the July issue of Forbes Africa magazine. For back issues or to subscribe to Forbes Africa email Lieria Boshoff: [email protected] or visit