This is not the first attempt by Jonathan to change the rules of the game to lengthen his time in power. Nigeria’s Constitution limits presidents to two four-year terms. Because Jonathan ascended to the presidency in 2010 upon the death of incumbent Umaru Yar’Adua, and then won the regularly scheduled election in 2011, there were legal challenges to his eligibility to run again in 2015. The high court ruled in his favor, which obviated the need for Jonathan to pursue alternative mechanisms he had suggested – such as limiting the president’s term to one, longer, term. This was a tactic attempted by former president Olusegun Obasanjo, although it was ultimately defeated in the legislature.
Nigeria is not the only country where limits to staying in power are being tested. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, ruling President Joseph Kabila has delayed setting a date for a presidential election in 2016. Last month, he attempted to pass an electoral reform bill that would have allowed him to stay in power, but this was dropped by lawmakers following massive popular protests and 42 civilian deaths.
In November 2014, Burkina Faso’s former president Blaise Compaoré’s attempt to push legislation through the National Assembly to repeal presidential term limits resulted in his ousting by a popular insurrection. The power void this created led to a military takeover, followed by a fragile transitional civilian-military government, attempting to organize elections for October 2015.
When they are upheld, presidential term limits across the African continent have played a key role in creating critical opportunities for alternation in power. And attempts by sitting presidents to extend or remove term limits have resulted in conflicts and political disorder, democratic transition, or authoritarian stability.
Term limits are focal points for political change because they challenge the legitimacy of the incumbent’s right to maintain power. Term limit repeal attempts can unite previously fragmented opposition political parties and individual leaders against the incumbent. Civil society organizations also mobilize around upholding term limits, seeing the opportunity to advance the rule of law and democratic rights as separate from partisan politics that frequently limits their coordination with the opposition. Term limits also provide distinct legal mechanisms that can bolster the autonomy and credibility of the judicial system. Additionally, public opinion is often mobilized around upholding term limits, providing an opportunity for collective action to protest the offenses of the ruling regime. And term limits provide an opening for international pressure, to support neutral application of the law and democratic elections.
For all of these reasons, we imagine that debates around term limits generally yield more democratic outcomes. It is an opportunity for opposition, civil society, the general public and international actors to act collectively in this pursuit. Yet the data suggest that successful repeal of term limits has been the most common outcome, where incumbents are brave or powerful or naive enough to begin the process.
In sub-Saharan Africa, 34 constitutions have been implemented since the 1990s that have term limits in place. Of these, 20 percent have had full compliance. In Benin, for example, President Mathieu Kerekou is reported to have offered members of parliament substantial bribes to support a third term, but civil society mobilization and opposition politicians successfully agitated and the attempt was abandoned. In 12 percent of the countries, legislative amendments were introduced and failed, such that term limits were upheld through institutionalized means. This was the case for Nigeria’s Obasanjo, as well as in Malawi and Zambia.
The most frequent outcome, however, is for term limits to be repealed. President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda highlighted the bargains often struck with other political elite: combining a constitutional change to allow multiparty competition was bundled with repealing term limits. Other countries where this has happened include Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, Namibia and Niger.
What is striking from these cases is the divergence of possible pathways. Where term limits are repealed, the general result is continuing authoritarian stability. But where term limits are contested and even maintained, the outcome is much more uncertain. To establish or sustain democracy, it is not sufficient for term limits simply to be upheld. For example, in Burkina Faso, upholding term limits led to the dissolution of the government in 2014, an interim military-civilian transition, and the possibility of instability and conflict, military rule, or democratic elections on the horizon.
Crucially, a plurality of the cases (35 percent) have not yet had an opportunity to test the term limit debate. This is why each case, as it unfolds, is so critical. Presidents are watching. Opposition politicians and civil society organizations are waiting. International pressures can play a critical role in determining which path is taken, from upholding term limits to fostering credible and competitive elections.
Adherence to the rule of law is not a matter of restricting voter choices – as some critics of term limits claim. Term limits provide an opportunity for contestation, participation, representation and limiting the concentration of power around one individual. But they are most assuredly not a panacea for democracy and stability. As usual, Nigeria is emblematic of the challenges and opportunities ahead for the continent.