Africa has the world’s most youthful population. It also has the world’s oldest and longest-serving heads of government. Though African countries form 28 per cent of the members of the UN, it is over-represented in presidential gerontocracy. On the list of the world’s 10 longest-serving leaders, seven are African. The rest of the world contributes only Iran’s Ali Khamenei, (37 years), Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev (34 years) and Cambodia’s Hu Sen (34 years).
In the multi-party era, 15 of Africa’s 54 heads of state and government - in Ethiopia, Libya, Gabon, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, Swaziland, Sudan, Chad and Eritrea – held or have held power for more than 20 years.
By the time of his death in 2012, Meles Zenawi had been Ethiopia’s prime minister for 21 years. Muammar Gaddafi, overthrown in 2011, had ruled Libya for 42 years as had Omar Bongo of Gabon who died in 2009. Joao Bernardo Vieira ruled for 31 years before his own soldiers killed him in 2009. Yaya Jammeh was forced out in early 2017 after running The Gambia for 22 years. Until he was ousted in a palace coup late last year, Robert Mugabe, 93, was the world’s oldest head of State. He had been in power for 37 years.
There are still many long-serving leaders in power, especially along ‘Africa’s Crescent of Dictators’, the arc of repression that runs from Equatorial Guinea across Cameroon, through Chad via the Sudan to Eritrea.
Dinosaurs in Equatoria: Is age just a number?
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Equatorial Guinea’s ‘god,’ according to a 2003 broadcast, overthrew and executed his uncle, Francisco Macías Nguema, the country’s first president, in August 1979.
Thirty eight years later, he is Africa’s - and the world’s - longest-serving leader. He may be around awhile yet: He won a fifth seven-year term in 2016.
Next door in Cameroon, Paul Biya has been in power for nearly 36 years. In Congo Brazzaville, Denis Sassou Nguesso has now served 34 years in two different stints, from 1979 to 1992 and then again since 1997. He repealed term limits in 2015, was re-elected in March 2016 for another seven-year term and, though he would 80 in 2023, he is likely to run again when the current term expires.
Idriss Deby has ruled Chad for 28 years. He won a contentious fifth term in 2016. Without term limits, he could keep running till he dies. In the Sudan, Omar-al-Bashir has been in power for 29 years having come to power in a coup in June 1989. Issaias Afewerki has been Eritrea’s Presid++++ent for 25 years. He is unlikely to be leaving soon.
In East Africa, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has ruled for more than 32 years. He was re-elected to a fifth term in February 2016. King Mswati III of Swaziland marks 32 years in power this year.
These numbers mean that since the mid-eighties one in four heads of government in Africa has served more than 20 years.
Constitutions in exile: Who ate term limits?
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 were meant to secure freedoms and institutions from attack by rapacious autocrats. They have 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 was not 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, 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”. Déby said that he had deleted term limits in 2005 because the “life of the nation was in danger”.
Like Déby in Chad, Mamadou Tandja of Niger, told Le Monde, a French newspaper, in 2007, that he would retire in 2009 when his term ended. However, 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 the 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 was detained as Niger prepared for fresh elections in 2011.
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 take over in acting capacity for 60 days. However, he 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 described as a coup.
In Cameroon, Biya, Africa’s second longest serving president, removed term limits in April 2008. Anti-government protests followed but he 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 he 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 seven-year terms was applied. Compaoré argued - and the constitutional court agreed - that the 2000 term-limits were not retroactive. 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. Compaoré dissolved the government and imposed emergency rule. On the very day that he abandoned plans to remove term limits, he was ousted by the military.
In 2012 in Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, a two-term president, also tried to extend his tenure. He made his first moves in 2008, when his party changed the constitution to return Senegal to a seven-year presidential term which had been scrapped in 2001. Though this would not have extended Wade’s 2007–2012 term, it applied to any new term that Wade sought in 2012 and beyond. In 2009, Wade announced that he would run for a third term in 2012. Though violent protests broke out in Dakar, Wade ran. 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.
In Djibouti, President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh was the sole candidate in the 2004 elections. On assuming office, he promised that he would not seek a new term when his six years ended in 2010. When that time came, however, 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 to be. He ran again in 2016 and won, this time with 87 per cent of the vote.
In Uganda, President Museveni has twice battled and twice won campaigns against constitutional limits on his tenure. Last year, the NRM-dominated parliament scrapped a 75-year 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. Museveni had already scrapped the two-term limit in 2005.
And so goes the story of term limits. Like other constitutional restraints in Africa, term limits 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.