The events in Burkina Faso in late October last year highlighted the potential conflict caused by presidential term limits and entrenched leaders who are less than willing to give up their presidential positions. Blaise Compaore had ruled Burkina Faso since 1987 and was the archetypal strongman but his decision to try to alter the constitution in order to enable him to run for a fifth term sparked protests which ultimately caused his downfall.
On the back of the democratisation wave which washed across Africa in the post-Cold War period many countries adopted term limits for their presidencies – a policy greatly encouraged by the West. The adoption of presidential term limits appeared to be a constitutional check against the continuation of presidencies dominated by strongmen in the new democratic period. However, as many of these assigned term limits approach for the current generation of leaders political opposition groups are growing wary of how presidents may attempt to circumvent them. Following on from Campaore in Burkina Faso, other countries where presidents are approaching their term limit include Burundi; the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); Congo-Brazzaville; Rwanda; and Benin.
Apart from Burundi, where a presidential election will take place in June this year, the rest of these countries’ presidents’ terms do not end until 2016 or 2017. However, if they are to attempt to alter their constitutions it is likely that they will do this well before election campaigns start, which could make 2015 a decisive year. Nonetheless, the removal of Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso as a result of his attempt to extend his presidential term limit may act as a warning for other African leaders seeking the same. It is highly likely that opposition parties across the continent will have taken inspiration from what happened in Burkina Faso, and will be planning to stage similar protests if their presidents attempt to extend their terms.
So much has already been made apparent in the DRC where, on 19th January 2015, students protested against a proposed revision to the country’s electoral code. The change would have required a census to take place before elections in 2016, which would have enabled President Kabila to delay the election beyond his term limit. At the time of writing, it appears that the protests have been successful in preventing a change to the electoral code as the National Assembly withdrew the controversial section of the electoral bill on 24th January 2015.
In Togo, where the opposition are calling for the adoption of a presidential term limit, protestors have taken to the streets to try to prevent Faure Gnassingbe from extending his family’s rule of the country. Faure Gnassingbe took over the presidency after his father, General Gnassingbe Eyadema, died in 2005 after ruling the country since 1967. In late November 2014 a protest erupted in Lome calling for a presidential term limit, which would prevent Gnassingbe from running in 2015. Demonstrators clashed with security forces that used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the thousands of protestors. The opposition has championed this issue leading a number of smaller scale demonstrations and promising more as the election in March 2015 approaches.
Although it must be recognized that the conditions in Burkina Faso are not the same across Africa and that Compaore’s loss of military support was vital in explaining his downfall, it appears that the events in Burkina Faso are already inspiring opposition movements across the continent. This does not mean that opposition movements in other countries will necessarily experience the same success as that in Burkina Faso but it does make it increasingly likely that presidents approaching the end of their tenures will not be able to circumvent their constitutions quite as easily as they may have thought.