The political upheavals in Burkina Faso and Burundi have recently drawn international attention to the issue of term limits, but African leaders’ assaults on constitutional tenure restrictions have been under way for some time, notes Adrienne Lebas, an associate professor of government at American University’s School of Public Affairs, and the author of From Protest to Parties: Party-Building and Democratization in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2011). Between 2000 and 2015, fifteen African leaders attempted to stay in power by removing term limit provisions from constitutions. The majority of these attempts were successful, but the tide may now be turning against “third-termism,” she writes for Current History:
Term limits are strongly supported by African voters. According to public opinion data collected by Afrobarometer in 34 African countries between 2011 and 2013, roughly 75 percent of respondents believed that presidents should be restricted to two terms in office. Support for term limits tops 80 percent in 13 of these countries. Levels of support are high even in countries where presidents have repealed term limits and won reelection to third terms in office, such as Uganda, Togo, and Guinea.
Countries that have fallen prey to thirdtermism can be divided into two categories: nondemocracies in which executive power remains unchecked, and flawed democracies where some space for opposition exists:
- Many of the countries in the first category that removed term limits are those in which presidents have been in power for decades. For instance, a 2008 parliamentary bill in Cameroon removed presidential term limits from the constitution, enabling President Paul Biya, then 75 years old, to extend his stay in office, which had already lasted 25 years. Riots triggered by the change were violently repressed.
- There is a second set of countries where bids by presidents to extend their time in office have failed. In these nations, authoritarian control is weaker and there is a better infrastructure and more space for popular protest. For instance, in 2012, Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade sought to extend his eligibility beyond the constitutional two-term limit. Protesters seized control of portions of the capital, Dakar, and confrontations with riot police turned violent. …. In Malawi and Zambia, erstwhile reformists were similarly defeated in their attempts to extend their tenures in office.
Grassroots organizational capital remains more important than social media, notes LeBas, observing that foreign media played up the social media dimension of Burkina Faso’s “Revolution 2.0”:
In reality, social media played little to no role in organizing the protests. Instead, the country’s trade unions and Balai Citoyen, an urban protest movement formed by two popular musicians, were largely responsible for mobilizing the hundreds of thousands who joined the street protests in both 2014 and 2015. As Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly point out in their recent book Africa Uprising, a similar alliance of labor unions and grassroots organizations has been responsible for large-scale protests in a number of other African countries. As in Burkina Faso, popular musicians and artists played a prominent role in the January 2012 Occupy Nigeria protests, reaching segments of the urban poor that trade unions and formal political organizations could not touch. Even in far more repressive Ethiopia, informal organizational networks, person-to-person recruitment, and popular songs brought urban youth into the streets for large-scale protests in Addis Ababa in 2005.