Two Terms and Done

By Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs

In early August, U.S. and African leaders had their first opportunity to discuss security, economic growth, development and good governance during the U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington. Over the course of three days, President Obama and the leaders of some 50 African countries discussed strategies to for stimulating growth, creating opportunities, and supporting an enabling environment for Africa’s current and future generations.  Democracy was a central component of these discussions.

Large majorities of Africans want more democracy.  Moreover, support for democracy and free and fair elections are at the heart of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. According to the Afrobarometer, which is the gold standard for independent opinion polls in Africa, 84% of Africans support free and fair elections, 77% reject one-party rule, and 72% believe democracy is preferable to any other system of governance. These are not abstract data points. These are overwhelming and powerful numbers that reflect the very real opinions of millions of people.

Presidential term limits are fundamental to people’s demand for democracy. According to opinion polls, 74% of Africans, or three quarters of the men and women living on the continent, do not want their presidents to be able to serve more than two consecutive terms in office.  Constitutionally mandated term limits provide a mechanism for holding leaders accountable, reduce the tendency toward corruption by ensuring political turnover, and give new generations the opportunity to compete for political office and choose new leaders. Term limits are also important because, as President Obama said in Ghana in 2009, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

Fourteen presidential elections are scheduled to take place in Africa between now and the end of 2016, including in countries where presidential term limits are already deeply woven into the political fabric. Tanzania, Namibia, Mozambique, and Benin have upcoming elections where sitting presidents will not be on the ballot.

Elsewhere in Africa, however, term limits are under threat.  Changing constitutions and eliminating term limits reduces people’s confidence in their institutions, weakens overall governance, and serves only the interests of the person or party in power.  In democratic systems, strong leaders abide by constitutions, step aside when their terms of office come to an end, and support free and fair elections.

In his address to the Civil Society Forum, which occurred one day before the Washington summit, Secretary Kerry said that the United States “will continue to stand up for constitutionally mandated term limits, as [it has] in countries around the world, including in Africa” and that “[it] will urge leaders not to alter national constitutions for personal or political gain.”  Respecting presidential term limits and constitutions as they are written is crucial for realizing the aspirations of an entire continent and strengthening democratic institutions for future generations.