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As thousands protest against term limit extension in Burkina Faso, will other African presidents take note?

- October 28, 2014

On Tuesday, protesters in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second city, tore down a statue of president Blaise Compaore to express their anger at a proposed constitutional amendment to scrap term limits and extend Compaore’s 27-year rule. And in the capital, Ouagadougou, protesters clashed with security forces after some of them attempted to march towards the National Assembly. This Thursday, the Assembly will debate the proposed amendment to the constitution to extend term limits from two to three consecutive terms.

Compaore has been reelected four times since 1991, garnering 80.2 percent of the vote in the last election held in 2010. The announcement of the proposed constitutional change has elicited mixed reactions from the Burkinabe public. The opposition has called for a campaign of civil disobedience until the amendment is withdrawn. Bracing for opposition protests, the government ordered schools closed throughout the week ahead of Thursday’s parliamentary vote.

But will the protests succeed in stopping the president? Well, if previous evidence from other countries in the region is anything to go by, it looks like Compaore will have his way. Furthermore, President Compaore is no stranger to term limit extensions. In 2005 he successfully ran for a third term on a legal technicality, arguing that the 2000 term limit law did not apply retroactively.

Since 1990, 11 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have had leaders try to rewrite their constitutions to do away with term limits. Seven (64 percent) of these leaders succeeded (Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, Togo, and Uganda). Three failed (Malawi, Nigeria, and Zambia), in the face of erstwhile opposition from legislatures. In one instance – Niger in 2010 – attempts by President Mamadou Tandja to extend term limits resulted in a coup.

In previous work, I found that the dominance of the president’s party in the legislature was a good indicator of the likelihood of term limit extension. It is noteworthy that in the three cases in which attempts at term limit extension failed it was legislatures that rejected such amendments. And on this score, Compaore has a clear advantage. His party, Congress for Democracy and Progress, controls two thirds of the seats in the Burkinabe legislature (73 out of 111).

Barring a widespread uprising or a coup by Burkina’s restive military, it is likely that Compaore will extend his 27-year rule beyond 2015.

The question of term limits is critical for the prospect of democratic consolidation in sub-Saharan Africa. As in Burkina Faso, a number of African countries have term-limited leaders who are likely to manipulate the rules to extent their tenure. These include the presidents of Angola, Burundi, Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. With the likely exception of Liberia and Sierra Leone, presidents in these countries seem poised to alter their respective constitutions and stay in office. Some will do so on technicalities arising from ambiguities in the law, while others will have to rewrite the law through legislative amendments or referenda. And going by the previous record, pliant legislatures or manipulated referenda will most likely rubberstamp such amendments.

It is unfortunate that in the present age of global political turmoil, the world will most likely look the other way and let these leaders continue to entrench their rule in the name of political stability. Such a prospect is ominous not just for democratic consolidation, but also for political stability in these countries.

But why exactly should we care if presidents choose to remain in office indefinitely? Furthermore, what if this is done in a “democratic manner” with the explicit consent of the people or their representatives – as some leaders like Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo have claimed?

Vote Share of Winners and Runners Up in General Elections (Source: Opalo, 2012)

We should care because both theory and empirical evidence suggest that leadership turnover is good for institutional development, democratic consolidation, and political stability.

Peaceful leadership turnover after elections is a good test of a country’s democratic credentials. But even when the ideal of open democratic elections cannot be attained, any leadership turnover is often better than none. This is to say that systems such as the one that existed under the authoritarian regime of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) in Mexico, or the current Communist Party in China, are better than the highly personalist “life presidencies” of the likes of Ceausescu, Mobutu and Mao. The former cases tend to provide for institutionalized rule, with clear modes of elite competition, recruitment and replacement. The latter cases are often a recipe for chaos and violent leadership turnover. They also stunt institutional development.

Furthermore, the lack of turnover facilitates the entrenchment of executive power at the expense of basic political and economic freedoms – for both political and economic elites, and regular citizens alike. This is because leadership turnover is often not just about presidents, but also about sets of elite coalitions. Rotating elite coalitions’ access to power creates conditions favorable to the emergence of systemic balance of power within the ruling class in a manner that enhances long-run political stability.

As is shown in the figure above, over time leadership turnover is correlated with the convergence in the vote share (both in presidential and legislative elections) of the ruling party and the opposition.
This important fact was borne out in the just concluded Mozambican elections. Over the last two decades Frelimo, which has ruled the country since independence from Portugal, has observed term limits for presidents. And so while the outgoing president garnered 75 percent when he was reelected, his successor, Filipe Nyusi, got a much lower 57 percent of the vote.

So while the party will retain power in Maputo, this massive vote shift is likely to force realignments within Frelimo, ensuring that no single elite coalition is entrenched in power at the expense of everyone else. It also gives the opposition Renamo hope that with continued leadership turnover it may soon have a real shot at winning the presidency.

Lastly, leadership turnover generates legitimacy for the political system, regardless of whether it is democratic or not. This is for the simple reason that it allows for institutional development beyond specific individuals and affords regimes a longer time horizon. With this in mind, it becomes clear why regularized leadership turnover, and not entrench rule by a single individual, is the best way to guarantee long-run political stability (and other normatively preferred outcomes such as sustained economic growth). Simply stated, there is a strong case to be made for presidential term limits, regardless of regime type.

Earlier this year I confronted President Paul Kagame of Rwanda with a question on term limits when he visited Stanford. My question was simple: did Kagame plan to step down in 2017 when he will be constitutionally term limited? His answer was evasive. At first he rambled on about the need to shift focus away from whether he will step down or not, and instead concentrate on the gains that Rwanda has made over the last 20 years under his watch. He then concluded by saying that as to whether he will stay in office or not is beyond his control; that the people of Rwanda will decide. This can be interpreted to mean that when the times comes Kagame and his allies will do whatever is politically convenient, regardless of what the constitution says. The point that leaders like Messrs. Kagame, Compaore, and others, are missing is that the surest way to secure their legacy is to allow for the development of a political culture of peaceful leadership turnover.

The lesson for democracy-promoting states and international institutions with leverage vis-à-vis these leaders is that they should be encouraged to step aside, even if it means handing over power to their handpicked successors. In other words, emphasis should be on turnover, and not necessarily the process that generates it. Experience tells us that most turnovers eventually necessitate intra-elite realignments in a manner that, in the long run, might serve to entrench institutionalized rule.

Ken Opalo is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University. He blogs at www.kenopalo.com.