African publics strongly support term limits, resist leaders’ efforts to extend their tenure

Author: Dr. Boniface Dulani

At the end of the 20th century, many African countries adopted presidential term limits as part of a broader set of constitutional rules that accompanied the transition from personal and authoritarian rule to pluralistic modes of governance. While term limits were widely embraced by the larger African public, these rules have in recent years come under increasing attack from incumbent presidents seeking to extend their tenures. In the first six months of 2015 alone, the presidents of Burundi, Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda have either personally or through their supporters expressed the intention to dispense with or circumvent term limits in order to seek additional terms of office.

These quests are often couched in language that portrays a leader’s desire for more time in office as a response to popular demands. A striking example was Blaise Compaoré’s 2014 attempt to seek a third term in Burkina Faso, which was stopped by popular protests that forced the president not just to back off, but to leave the country. But other leaders have been more successful in their efforts to avoid relinquishing power. To test the extent to which campaigns to remove or circumvent presidential term limits are in fact a response to popular demand, this paper draws from Afrobarometer survey data to gauge the levels of public support for presidential term limits. Results from 34 African countries show that there is strong support for presidential term limits among citizens across almost all countries. With very few exceptions, large majorities of Africans support the idea of imposing a two-term limit on the exercise of presidential power.

This is true even in those countries that have never had term limits and those that have removed them in the past 15 years. Continuing efforts to dispense with term limits thus reveal a major disconnect between African leaders and African citizens on this issue, underlining the lingering legacy of big-man rule on the continent and highlighting the fragility of African democracies.