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MAURITANIA’s president Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz has been under fire from the opposition in the country, who accuse him of scheming for a third term in power – joining a long list of African presidents who have engineered the scrubbing of term limits.
To diffuse the tension, Abdelaziz proposed a national dialogue that would bring members of the ruling party and opposition together to discuss constitutional reform.
The dialogue hit an impasse when opposition politicians refused to participate, saying it was a “political manoeuver” whose only objective was to keep the president in power beyond his second term, which ends in 2019.
Abdelaziz came to power in a coup as a colonel in 2008, and was elected to the presidency in 2009. He was re-elected five years later to a second term.
Since early last year, however, several figures within his government, including the justice minister, have declared that he “deserves” a third term — though each time the president has played the reluctant suitor, shy to endorse the move, at least in public.
Most recently, the president has said any change to the nation’s constitution must go to a referendum.
This is familiar stuff in Africa, as leaders continue to seek ways to drop term limit rules or identify loopholes that would enable them to remain in power, frequently claiming that their bids are driven by “popular demand”.
By one estimate, almost 30 countries in Africa have contemplated the amendment of presidential term limits since 1998, and 13 so far have been successful.
But it appears that referenda in Africa are actually poor signals for what people really want. In a survey of 29 African countries, 75% of respondents favour limiting presidential mandates to two terms, data from Afrobarometer shows.
The question of term limits is crucial in presidential and semi-presidential systems of government, as most of the countries in the survey are. In parliamentary ones, the tenures of prime ministers are tied to legislative support, and so term limits are less of an issue, in constitutional and practical terms.
Support for term limits has been consistently high for more than a decade and a half – the data goes back to Afrobarometer’s first survey in 1999.
What’s more surprising is that support for term limits is the majority view in countries that have never had term limits, and even in those that have removed them from their constitutions.[advanced_iframe securitykey=”68f51ed951ec4f22230bb7eb91315944cb08a912″ src=”//datawrapper.dwcdn.net/dDKKH/1/” frameborder=”0″ transparency=”true” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”100%” height=”844″]
Among those surveyed, nine had either never had term limits (Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, and – at the time – Zimbabwe) or removed them in the recent past (Algeria, Cameroon, Guinea, Niger, Togo, and Uganda).
In these countries, support for term limits was actually higher than the broader country average, at 77% vs 75%.
When outlier Algeria is excluded from the calculation, support for term limits peaks at 80% in the very countries that have dispensed with them, or never had them in the first place.
It is baffling why popular support for presidential term limits would be so high, yet fiddling with them is largely successful in Africa.
Data from 2011 by political science scholar Boniface Dulani showed once a formal process for removing term limits has begun, African presidents have been successful 80% of the time in carrying the day, whether through parliamentary amendments or popular referenda.
And when limits are removed, only in one case – Senegal in 2012 – did the electorate respond by rejecting the third-term contestant at the ballot box, and voting in an opposition candidate into power.
Dulani’s dissertation showed that third term bids are likely to be successful in countries that have cohesive ruling parties that enjoy high majorities in Parliament, a president who has a military background, and in countries where use of violence is politics is common.
On the other hand, if a country had a precedent of peaceful transfer of power, a third-term bid was likely to fall flat on its face; a fractured legislature and united and active civil society also contribute to reject the bids to remove term limits.
Still, by the time a third term cabal begins a formal process to “collect views”, “consult” and whatever other words are used to demonstrate it was a popular decision, you can almost be sure that the amendment is a done deal, and that the incumbent will be voted in again by the very electorate that overwhelmingly support term limits, at least in principle.
Take Togo, for example. The country adopted a two-term limit in its constitution of 1992, but this was removed through a constitutional amendment in 2002, allowing the late President Gnassingbé Eyadéma to successfully stand for re-election in 2003.
THE DARK VIEW
Ten years after Togo removed term limits, more than four in five Togolese express support for term limits (83% in 2012, 85% in 2014). Yet in April 2015, they re-elected President Faure Gnassingbé to a third term.
In other words, popular support for a two-term limit apparently does not automatically translate into rejection at the polls for those who run again anyway.
These findings suggest that constitution-making processes in Africa probably provide very limited opportunities for meaningful input by ordinary citizens. Or, more likely – though there isn’t enough research to confirm this – that voters back term limits as a defensive measure for the future, to ensure that a candidate they don’t like doesn’t become president for life.
The darker view is that in Africa, the chasm between popular wishes, the letter of constitutions and voting behaviour is so wide that it almost renders elections meaningless.