Are presidential term limits in East Africa checks and balances that don’t balance?

Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza on a visit to South Africa, November 2014.

Eric Mwiine-Mugaju studies Social Policy and Development at the London School of Economics. He can be reached at

In July, Burundi, a speck on the Continent’s map, has become the focus of attention on the international stage thanks to a familiar story, “Democratizing Africa”. Burundi’s Nkurunziza has stepped into the famous role of the immovable African President. Like 007, this is a role that overshadows the actors that step up to play it; and we know that every time they do, politics–the metaphorical Martini–is going to get seriously shaken.

However, we must to look through the disguise: this isn’t a one-size-fits all get-up, and however tempting it may be to roll our eyes at Nkurunziza and start muttering about Mugabe, Kabila or Museveni, we must resist, for a very simple reason. These charismatic men have dominated the regions’ politics, all playing the same game, but all playing by very different rules.

It is these players’ individual appeal and intimate knowledge of which strings to pull in their respective countries that keeps them in place. To paint them all with the same brush at best oversimplifies and at worst neglects important political nuances in each of these nations. As we have witnessed in Burundi last summer and across the East African Community over decades, enforcing term limits is risky business when politics is a battle of personalities.

Add a spark of discontent to a barren wasteland of opposition politics, and you have a political wildfire on your hands. In Burundi this has mostly been confined to social media. But, with democratic checks and balances so frequently throwing up violent protests in the region, is it time to be self-critical and interrogate the way we apply democracy, and more specifically, term limits?

After three months of violent protests, the incumbent Nkurunziza draws over 70% of the vote in the provisional results. Protesters were in opposition to the President’s attempt to alter the Constitution and remove term limits, allowing him to remain in power for a further 5 years. The move was rejected by parliament by simple majority, led by one dissident MP. Despite opposition, Nkurunziza stood for election that finally took place on 21st July 2015 after being delayed several times and was officially re-elected as the country’s President.

In a region that is susceptible to the manipulation political circumstances, the outcry over Nkurunziza’s gross misinterpretation of democracy has been surprisingly meek. By contrast, opposition in neighbouring Rwanda backed the the removal of presidential term limits and have effectively making Kagame “president for life”. In West Africa, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) shelved plans to require all members to include term limits in their constitutions when some west African states were leaving office peacefully. So where are democracy’s standard-bearers on the continent? And perhaps more puzzlingly, why are the likes of Rwanda, East Africa’s “miracle”, keen to dump term limits, risking donor outcry?


So, what’s the situation in Burundi?


Burundi is a tiny country in East Central Africa. Ethnically speaking, its population resembles the dynamics of neighbouring Rwanda–whose ethnic makeup is more familiar and is composed of a Tutsi minority (around 14%) Hutu majority of 85%, not forgetting 1 % Twa- so barely talked about outside of EA that typing this article I realised that Microsoft doesn’t recognise the word.

Despite opposition to a re-run, elections took place on July 21st 2015 against the backdrop of a boycott and a peculiar absence of observers from the African Union. The arguments for and against the legality of Nkurunziza’s move term limits have been well and truly exhausted, and so I will only summarise them.

Emerging from civil war in 2005, Burundi signed a consensus known as the Arusha Accord. Acting as a symbol of transition from violence to positive change, the commission, amongst other things, sought to make clear the terms of the Presidency. For example, Article 7 (1) (a) states that “the [subsequent] Constitution shall provide that, for the first election of a president, the president … shall be elected by direct universal suffrage …” Article 7 (1) (c) prescribes that the National Assembly should elect the first post-transition president using the procedures described in Article 20 (10). Article 7 (3) prescribes that the constitution of Burundi shall provide that the president is elected for a term of five years renewable only once. The argument boils down to different interpretations of these articles, namely:

  1. a) Nkurunziza was elected by the National Assembly for his first term (not national suffrage), therefore if he is elected again, he can still serve one more term in office.
  1. b) Nkurunziza has already served his maximum two terms. It doesn’t matter whether he was elected by the National Assembly instead of universal suffrage, his time is up.

Whatever the conclusion, the Arusha Commission is not a treaty such as, for example, the Vienna Convention on Treaties. It serves as an agreement between parties’ consensus rather than a ratifiable legal instrument. It may be morally biding. However, states are ultimately governed not by constructions of morality, but law.

This lack of leverage has probably contributed to the silence of the international community, who, at state level, have not been very vocal. The implications of the politics of its neighbors have also influenced Nkurunziza’s compadres on the sidelines Museveni’s silence and later moving in “smooth operator” comes as no great shocker, given that he has also manipulated his constitution in order to extend his seat.

Rwanda and Tanzania have issued strong statements urging Nkurunziza not to run. None of the those leaders have waded into the Constitutional debate. Most likely is that this support comes in the form of worry for regional instability and thinly veiled concern for the inevitable boom in the number of refugees in their respective countries if Nkurunziza were to abandon power.


Political parties as personal projects

The leaders advising Nkurunziza have been good political entrepreneurs in their own countries: Museveni and Kagame have both manipulated the political climate to their own advantage. For Museveni, he is aware for his political importance to the West, providing the army to AMISOM and as an ‘anchor’ for their so called global war on terror. With a track record of modest economic growth, Museveni has been able to play these cards long enough to crush his opposition. The walk-to-work initiative, in protest of the rising cost of living, resulted in floggings; opposition leaders such as Kizza Besigye have been roughed up and are frequently ridiculed in Museveni’s speeches. By contrast, re-asserting his valuable position in the region, all of this goes unchecked, without any major backlash from Uganda’s aid donors.

Similarly, Nkurinziza returned to Burundi after the attempted coup to remind Burundians of the “threat posed by Al-Shabaab”, completely dodging discussion of the attempted coup just days earlier. The opposition leaders were swiftly disposed of, and for Burundi’s incumbent, it was business as usual. Like Museveni, he is aware of the country’s growing importance since he has been providing forces for AMISOM. He is able to crush the opposition and its demand for term limits.

Likewise, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is a master puppeteer when it comes to donor politics. However, unlike his counterparts, Rwanda’s development under his rule has been really very impressive. Despite negotiating himself into a position that effectively (and legally) could make him President for life, Kagame has won the opposition’s support in a power-sharing deal that is de facto single-party state with no term limits.

Tanzania is the only EAC member to have peaceful leadership and transition. However, Tanzania has been led by one party (CMM) since independence, and as a result its politics have noticeably “more policy and less personality”. However, Tanzania is not economically better off than its counterparts. Multi-party democracy cannot function where political parties are personal projects. For example, without Museveni there is almost no NRM, without Kagame no RPF. In cases like this, democratic checks and balances in an East African political economy cannot balance.

Are term limits hindering democracy?

What we commonly refer to as “democracy” is a newcomer on the continent. It is applied unimaginatively, unanimously, uniformly across all 54 modern African states, and when it fails we fling up our hands in despair and begin to ask silly questions like “is democracy possible in Africa?” with silly answers like “No! Africa isn’t ready for democracy!” (as Mr. Chirac once put it). A more appropriate and fruitful question might be “what do we mean by democracy?” or better still “what do we really want, when we talk about ‘democracy’?”

Thinking about these last two questions, we should consider whether term limits are such a hindrance to democracy and good governance that Mo Ibrahim spending millions of dollars to pay off power-clinging leaders to step down is considered the more democratic route.

As it stands, the majority of countries actually have stipulations that require leaders to only run for a maximum of two terms. Rwanda’s President Kagame has commented that leaders flaunting term limits are not the greatest problem that Africa faces–indeed, they may hinder meaningful change and democratic settlement. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore remained in power for 32 years and in this period transformed Singapore into a developed country. Should Africa be looking away from the likes of Mandela’s one-term precedent and towards the likes of the “Asian Tigers” if it wants to secure long-lasting social and economic change?

Confusing “social media democracy” with democracy


Protest in Burundi was inspired and organized on social media. Social media challenges our “depth perception” on a daily basis. Last summer, Cecil the Lion met his unfortunate end, and the Internet was understandably in outcry. Meanwhile, at least 54 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea and Boko Haram murdered another 25 people in Northern Nigeria. All of these events are tragic; but their disproportionate coverage on social media (hint: Cecil was most talked about) demonstrates how we need to be mindful of who is saying what, where, and when, when we use social media.

Burundi suffered from the “Cecil the Lion effect” when Sudan’s al-Bashir controversially visited South Africa and the world’s media seemed to lose interest in the growing protests in Bujumbura and storms on Burundi’s social media. However, both of these things raise some important questions about how the outside world perceives politics in Burundi.

Both the capital city and Burundian social-media users have a strong middle-class/elite bias. In developing countries, it is important to ask who has access to social media and how this affects our perception of the general population. The typically poorer rural areas constitute the majority of the population and are likely to have lower rates of access to Facebook etc. and also possess different priorities to city dwellers.

Why rural dwellers remain royal to incumbents

“No third term” protests were mainly in the capital Bujumbura. Urban warfare was a rare phenomenon in post-independence Africa. Most of East Africa’s conflicts were fought in the bush, with the city symbolising a refuge for the elites or incumbent government forces. Urban centres were made safe by the presence of state houses, presidential palaces, national radio and TV stations: all of the institutions one has to control in order to claim control of a nation. This meant that security was always provided in cities at the expense of rural areas. And so it comes as no surprise that city dwellers are typically the champions of change as in Uganda’s “walk-to-work” or Bujumbura’s street protests. For rural populations who suffered disproportionately during the guerrilla wars, the relative peace attached to long-standing presidents is very desirable, and firmly associated with the fighting efforts of armies-turned-political-parties such as Uganda’s NRA and Rwanda’s RPF.

Rural areas are less dependent on government services in comparison to the dense residential areas of the inner city, with no access to land or means of (food) production. It’s easy to see how rural concerns for security could outweigh urban concerns of bad governance and cement an incumbent in place.

What does it mean for rural communities in times where the cities are becoming centres of resistance? Cities are becoming violent. The Arab Spring, the storming of the parliament in Burkina Faso and, now, Burundi, are the result of social media democracy.

In Rwanda and Uganda, protests and public gatherings are illegal, with opposition leaders continually harassed. In situations like this, peaceful transitions seem beyond reach. Looking to Egypt, Libya and Syria, we see the consequences of pushing “democracy” into a system with an underdeveloped opposition.

Afrobarometer indicated that 62% Burundians were against Nkuruziza’s third presidential third term. But again, this raises the question of who has access to technology and should be paired with evidence that has shown that opinion polls often get it wrong especially in times of uncertainty. The UK election was testimony to that as Cameron, out of the blue, won an absolute majority thanks to a climate of economic uncertainty (I wonder if an African country would have also escaped allegations of rigging in the face of such an unexpected result?). With Burundi’s civil war still well within living memory of rural voters, security is an important issue–I would treat the Afrobarometer polls with caution.

At the moment, political settlements are too weak in East Africa to allow meaningful transition and term limits. Creating legitimacy should be seen more in an economic mirror rather than simply political term limits. Term limits will remain illusive in countries healing from the effects of civil war and in the process of economic transition.

PS21 is a non-ideological, nongovernmental, nonpartisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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