Constitutions in exile: Who ate presidential term limits?

Friday March 16 2018

Term-limits, like other constitutional restraints in Africa, are not safe from repeal.


The constitutions made in the 1990s were meant to support the new still fragile democracies.

Robust bills of rights, rule of law, checks and balances and term-limits for presidents would secure freedoms and institutions from attack by rapacious autocrats. It has not worked, especially on term limits.

In Namibia and Burundi incumbents exploited ambiguities in law to extend their terms. Elsewhere, they have just repealed the term limits.

In Namibia in 1999, president Sam Nujoma finagled an extra term by arguing that his first term, from 1989, did not qualify because he wasn’t directly elected. Parliament made changes in response but applied these only to him and the 1999 election alone. Nujoma tried but failed to remove term limits again in 2004.

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza argued much the same when he sought a third term in 2015. Since he, too, was not directly elected for his first term, 2005 to 2010, he said that term did not count.

In Guinea in 2001, President Lansana Conte scrapped a 1993 clause that limited his tenure to two five-year terms. Conte also extended the length of a term from five to seven years. The opposition rejected the results but Conte contested and won a third term in 2003, claiming 95.6 per cent of the votes. He died in office in 2008.


In Chad, Idriss Déby promised, in 2001, that he would leave office in 2006 when his second term ended. He pledged never to “change the Constitution” to stretch his term. His only interest, in this his “last mandate” was, he said, to “prepare Chad” for a change of government.

In 2005, he scrapped term limits. He contested and won elections in 2006, 2011 and again in 2016. On his victory in 2016, he promised a return to term limits implausibly decrying a “system in which a change in power becomes difficult.” Deby said that he had deleted term limits in 2005 because the “life of the nation was in danger.”

Like Deby in Chad, Mamadou Tandja of Niger, told Le Monde, a French newspaper, in 2007, that he would retire in 2009 when his term ended. He repeated the promise to Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, in March 2009.

In 2010, the ruling party did a volte-face, drafting changes to extend by three years both Tandja’s and the National Assembly’s terms. The changes ran foul of the constitution, which barred government from amending term-limits.

Tandja said he “could not ignore the people’s call” for a third term and tried to skirt the legal obstacle by making a new constitution without term-limits. Beaten back by the constitutional court, he dissolved the National Assembly, called fresh legislative elections and scheduled a referendum ahead of a presidential election in 2010.


The constitutional court frustrated this plan too and Tandja now dissolved the government. In February 2010, he was ousted in a coup and detained as Niger prepared for fresh elections in 2011.

Death in office

In Togo in 2002, Étienne Gnassingbé Eyadéma, president for 35 years, hurriedly removed the term limits under which he was due to retire in 2003. At the same time, he lowered the minimum age for president from 45 to 35 years which made it possible for his son, Faure Gnassingbé, then 36, to qualify to be president if Eyadéma were to die.

He contested and won the 2003 election but died in office two years later. The Speaker of the National Assembly, Fambare Ouattara Natchaba, should have taken over in acting capacity for 60 days. However, Mr Natchaba had travelled abroad.

The army put the younger Gnassingbé, now 38, in power to give Togo stability, they said. The next day the National Assembly elected Fauré its president, clearing his path to the presidency in a move the African Union termed a coup.

In Cameroon, Paul Biya, Africa’s second longest serving president, removed term limits in April 2008. Anti-government protests followed, especially in the western, English-speaking part of Cameroon, but Biya survived to win another seven-year mandate in 2011.

In Burkina Faso in 2005, Blaisé Campaore announced that he would be seeking a third term. Though Mr Campaore came to power in the 1989 coup in which Thomas Sankara was killed, he was first elected in 1991. His 1998 term should have been his last if a 2000 amendment limiting the president’s tenure to two five-year terms was applied.

Compaoré argued — and the constitutional court agreed — that the 2000 term-limits were not retrospective. He ran and won comfortable majorities in 2005 and 2010. But a 2014 attempt by the ruling party to force a referendum to remove term-limits altogether provoked violent protests.

Like Mamadou Tandja four years earlier, Compaoré dissolved the government and imposed emergency rule. On the very day that he abandoned plans to remove term-limits, he was ousted by military.


Outwitted by opposition

In 2012 in Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, a two-term president much praised for his progressive rule, also tried to extend his rule. He made his first move in 2008, when his party changed the constitution to return Senegal to a seven-year presidential term that had been scrapped in 2001. Though this would not have extended Mr Wade’s 2007–2012 term, it applied to any new term that Wade sought in 2012 and beyond.

In 2009, Wade now announced that he would run for a third term in 2012. Though violent protests broke out in Dakar, Mr Wade ran in 2012. He did not win in the first round. In the run-off, the opposition united against him and voted for Macky Sall, the current president.

It was a similar story in Djibouti. Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, the president, is a nephew of the previous president, Hassan Guelleh Aptidon, who retired in 1999 after 22 years in power. Mr Guelleh was the sole candidate in the 2004 elections.

On assuming office, he promised that he wouldn’t seek a new term when his six years ended in 2010. In 2010, he reneged on that pledge, amended the law and on winning a third term promised yet again, that this would be his final term. It was not. Mr Guelleh ran again in 2016 and won, this time with 87 per cent of the vote.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has twice battled and twice won against constitutional limits on his tenure. Last year, the NRM-dominated parliament scrapped a 75 years age limit that the constitution placed on the president, allowing Museveni, 74 this year and already in office for 32 years, to seek a sixth term in the elections due in 2021. Mr Museveni had already scrapped the two-term limit in 2005.

And so goes the story of term-limits. Term-limits, like other constitutional restraints in Africa, are not safe from repeal. In countries where these limits are still respected, it is probably because presidents have no power to repeal them not because they lack the desire to stay in office longer.