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Long-serving African presidents say the people want them to stay on. Is that true?

The third in Afrobarometer’s special democracy summit series on Africa.

- November 4, 2021

At his first inauguration in 1986, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni famously blamed Africa’s problems on leaders who stay in power for too long. Thirty-five years later, he’s settling into his sixth term in office.

Museveni is just one of many African presidents who have maintained their hold on power by circumventing, modifying or eliminating constitutional clauses limiting presidents to a maximum of two terms. Just last year, Alpha Condé of Guinea and Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire followed the well-trodden trail blazed by Azali Assoumani of the Comoros, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo and Ismail Guelleh of Djibouti, among others.

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Almost invariably, these leaders justify their next run by saying the people want them to stay on.

Do they? Free and fair elections are supposed to determine whom the people want as their leaders. But Afrobarometer’s 48,084 face-to-face interviews in 34 African countries in 2019-2021 indicate that in principle, leaders who stay for more than two terms are not what the people want.

How long is too long?

Afrobarometer’s series leading up to December’s Summit for Democracy focuses on term limits this week because for many democracy advocates, the passing of the presidential baton is more than a nice tradition. Many who study the processes of democracy argue that limiting terms at the top nurtures political competition and participation, demonstrates that change via the ballot box is possible, and reduces the risk of personality cults, authoritarianism, corruption and coups.

Ordinary Africans need little convincing: Support for term limits is strong and growing stronger. Across 34 countries, an average of 76 percent favor limiting their presidents to two terms, including a majority (54 percent) who “strongly” support this rule.

Term limits enjoy majority support in every surveyed country, and majorities “strongly agree” in 21 of 34 countries, as shown in the figure below.

No matter their age, education level or economic status, Africans overwhelmingly endorse term limits. Even among respondents who trust their current presidents and approve of their job performance, 73 percent and 74 percent, respectively, want a two-term limit.

This includes 77 percent in both Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, the most recent countries to discard these restraints. It also includes 92 percent in Gabon (where Omar Bongo Ondimba ruled for 41 years, and his son was elected following his death) and 87 percent in Togo (where Faure Gnassingbé has held power since 2005, following his father’s 37-year rule).

Figure 1: Support for terms limits in Africa | 34 countries | 2019/2021

In the 19 countries where Afrobarometer has asked this question since 2008, popular support for presidential term limits has increased from 70 percent to 77 percent. The proportion who “strongly” agree has grown by 11 points, from 46 percent to 57 percent, as shown in the figure below.

Figure 2: Support for presidential term limits is growing | 19 countries | 2008-2021

Removing term limits can be costly

Many first-generation African leaders extended their terms by simply banning opposition parties and declaring themselves presidents for life. But more recent anti-term limit leaders often go through the motions of changing the rules through referendums or constitutional amendments passed through parliament.

Often these moves are successful — but at a cost. Campaigns to remove term limits faced large, often violent — and ultimately unsuccessful — protests in Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Burundi, Guinea, the Republic of Congo, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And such protests were instrumental in thwarting efforts to remove presidential term limits in Zambia (2000), Malawi (2002), Nigeria (2006) and Senegal (2012).

In three countries, popular protests against removing term limits led to military overthrows: of Mamadou Tandja in Niger in 2010, Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso in 2014 and, this year, Condé in Guinea. Both Niger and Burkina Faso quickly restored civilian rule.

Is there regional support for term limits?

Critics say the African Union offers little pushback when presidents tamper with term limits, and most regional bodies, including the Southern African Development Community and the Economic Community of Central African States, have not taken a position on the issue.

The East African Community considered imposing term limits for all elective positions in the region as part of its good-governance protocol in 2011, but member countries did not adopt the proposal.

The Economic Commission for West African States (ECOWAS) abandoned its first attempt to defend presidential term limits in 2015 because of opposition from the presidents of the Gambia and Togo. At an extraordinary meeting last month, however, the ECOWAS Parliament adopted a nonbinding motion to ban any attempt by presidents in the region to extend their rule beyond two terms. The ECOWAS chairperson, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, has been among champions of outlawing third terms in West Africa.

How old is too old?

Activists seeking to change the gerontocratic face of African politics also note that only a handful of African countries have maximum age clauses for their presidents.

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Most Africans (76 percent) like the idea of an age limit for presidential candidates. On a continent where many countries impose a retirement age of 60 years, we find that people lean toward similar limits on their presidents. Afrobarometer surveys reveal that among those who prefer an upper age limit, the average suggested maximum age for candidates is 66 years, as shown in the figure below. Moroccans, South Africans and Ethiopians prefer candidates under 60 years, on average.

Figure 3: How old can presidential candidates be? Here’s what Africans propose. | 34 countries | 2019/2021

Contrast these findings with the ages of the continent’s longest-serving presidents, and we find some of the same men who have succeeded in overturning term limits: Biya of Cameroon (age 88), Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire (79), Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (79), Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo (77), Museveni of Uganda (77) and Guelleh of Djibouti (73).

But two other elders stand out: Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari (age 78) and Ghana’s Akufo-Addo (77) are expected to observe term limits.

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Boniface Dulani (@bonidulani) is director of surveys for Afrobarometer and associate professor of political science at the University of Malawi. He is spending the fall quarter of 2021 as Visiting Fulbright Scholar in Residence in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside.

Read more in this special series:

Do Africans want democracy — and do they think they’re getting it?

China has invested deeply in Africa. We checked to see whether that is undermining democracy.

Long-serving African presidents say the people want them to stay on. Is that true?

Some Africans — but not all — are happy with the quality of their elections.

Why are Africans dissatisfied with democracy? Think corruption.