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Can the AU deal with Amendments to Term Limits?

Can the AU deal with Amendments to Term Limits?
Panelists of the IPSS Briefing Session on Term Limits. From left: Dr. Boniface Dulani, Amandine Rushenguziminega, and Dr. Solomon Deresso
September 21, 2015

The African Union's normative and response mechanisms need to be stepped up to deal with amendments to term limits across the continent, according to panelists at the IPSS Briefing Session on the term limits.

With twelve countries out of the thirty-three with term limits across the continent amending their constitutions between 1990 and 2011 to extend terms of their heads of state or government and recent trends in Burundi, Congo, and Rwanda, the issue of extending term limits has come under the spotlight with some seeing it as an impediment to the development of democracy and rule of law in many African countries.

"There is as such nothing in the AU norms that prohibits the revision of constitutional amendments on presidential term limits; the power to do so remains with member states," Dr. Solomon Dersso, Commissioner of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. "This however does not mean that the AU norms are completely devoid of rules on term limits. The concern of the AU norms, nevertheless, is not with amendment or revision but the context in which such revisions and amendments are made particularly on issues like the democratic nature, the purpose and process of the amendments as provided in Article 23 of the Africa Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance."

"While the AU norms focus on unconstitutional change, the issue with term limits is not about unconstitutional change but of unconstitutional continuity and the AU needs to deal with such nature of term limits," commented Dr. Boniface Dulani of the University of Malawi and Afrobarometer, a research project that measures public attitudes on economic, political, and social matters in sub-Saharan Africa.

Amandine Rushenguziminega, Programme Associate at the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU) added on her part, "there is an obvious gap in AU norms on popular uprisings and third terms, and the continental organisation is shying away from taking decisions on heads of states that change term limits."

"Public Opinion favours term limits"
A number of African countries have recently gone through constitutional reform to allow for their heads of state to seek a third term in office. The issue of whether the public allows a president to stay in power past his second term is a hotly debated topic in both news and circles. Dr. Dulani, whose organisation runs public opinion surveys on the issues, says there is a public will for term limits to hold. "Surveys done in many countries in Africa show that majority of the public are for term limits," he said. "I don’t think there is any public that want a president to stay [when their term expires]."

He went on to add: "Most countries that have tried to tamper with term limits have managed to do so, but even in such countries term limits remain to be popular. The recent experiences in Burkina Faso and Burundi have shown that people now go to the streets when presidents prepare for a third term; stressing the need to enable the public opinion have a positive impact on leaders’ decisions on amending term limits. There is a need to create a system where in a constant change of leadership can happen and consequently enable new leaders with new energy to arise."

The Need to Build Strong Democratic Instituions
A point stressed in the briefing session was the need for African countries to build strong democratic instituions to deal with term limits. "When a president stays too long in power, it undermines instituions and personalises power," said Dr. Solomon. "It is imperative for countries to build strong democratic instituions to deal with amendment to term limits, one way of building such instituions is by honouring the existing ones’ Dr. Dulani added, "in order for African states to continue building effective institutions, external actors, Africa Union and regional mechanisms need to be made part of the process."

The Way Forward
Discussing on how to deal with the threat amendment to term limits pose to the democratisation processes across the continent and with spectre of changes of term limits looming in the Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo elections, Dr. Solomon said, "both the normative and response mechanisms of the Africa Union need to be reviewed. The AU needs to interfere as early as possible whenever the purpose, context and procedures of the amendments do not adhere to constitutional requirements." Dr. Dulani added, "The Africa Union finds itself in a difficult position to have a certain stand on term limits as it has members that have presidential term limits and those that don't. But the continental organisation can encourage member states to honour their constitutions - rules should never be changed to satisfy the interest of individuals."

For photos from the briefing session, please click here

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