October 24, 2018
News /
Posted by NCID

This opinion piece was originally published on Apolitical by David Soler, a research assistant at the Navarra Center for International Development. It reflects upon the investigation Presidential Term Limits And Democratic Development In Sub-Saharan Africa​​​​​​​. Apolitical is a global network for government, helping public servants find the ideas, people and partners they need to solve the hardest challenges facing our societies. Please visit for further articles.

Teodoro Obiang has ruled over the tiny, oil-rich nation of Equatorial Guinea since the successful coup d’etat he leaded in 1979. He was re-elected president of his party for an indefinite term last year, paving the way for him to run again in the 2022 elections. He’s the longest-serving president in Africa — and first in the line of succession is his son. Obiang is not a unique case. Seven of the ten current longest-serving presidents are from African nations: Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Uganda, Chad, Eritrea, Sudan and Congo. African leaders want to die in power.

In the 1990s, the fall of the USSR and pressure from foreign donors led to a wave of democratisation in Africa. A total of 33 countries adopted a two-term limit for their leaders. But as longtime leaders have seen the end of their administrations approaching, they have manoeuvred to extend their time in office through parliamentary bills, referenda, and violent and unlawful constitutional changes.

Data shows that establishing a two-term limit for presidents helps a country’s democratic development. The seven African countries with the longest-serving presidents are assessed as “not free” by Freedom House, and as “authoritarian regimes” in The Economist’s 2017 Democracy Index. Term limits also have a positive impact on a country’s peace and stability. Only two out of the 21 countries that have upheld constitutional limits are currently in conflict, while six of the 18 that have either overruled or never established term limits struggle with clashes and war. A third benefit of term limits is that incumbents hold an unfair advantage when running for re-election. 

However, there are also reasons to doubt how effective term limits really are at fostering development. For one thing, they are compatible with authoritarian rule. In Tanzania and Mozambique, the governing Chama Cha Mapinduzi and Mozambique Liberation Front have changed presidents every two terms without ever relinquishing power. It’s also arguable whether alternating between parties is necessary for a democracy. South Africa, Botswana and Namibia are all considered democracies despite having a single party in power since independence. And African dictators often argue that term limits are an undemocratic Western imposition.

The most recent Afrobarometer poll found about 75% of Africans agree with limiting a president to two terms. If democracy is about listening the will of the people, the message is clear: people all across the continent have voiced their desire for a new leader every two terms. — David Soler