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Debates Over Presidential Term Limits Are Heating Up Across Africa including The Gambia

Fatoumatta: At a UNESCO conference in Paris, France, in 2019, I encountered some Ugandan women and inquired about their long-serving President, Yoweri Museveni. They did not appreciate my description, but they expressed admiration for the Gambians’ ability to peacefully remove their dictator, Yahya Jammeh, from power through elections after his twenty-two-year rule. The Gambia continues to make consistent progress, often refreshing its leadership with each general election, as evidenced in the Legislative and Local government elections. It has shown that it is capable of changing any leader through the ballot box in a free and fair manner.

Adama Barrow’s initial term focused on securing a second, and his subsequent victory indicated he would govern as his predecessors did. Thus, Barrow maneuvered the opposition, fulfilling his ambitions. With the third term underway, it’s about securing a lasting legacy for himself and his supporters. The president is determined to retain his power exclusively. J.D Brown, in his Daughter of Eve series, outlined three simple rules for engaging with demons: never make a promise to a demon you cannot keep, never trust a demon, and never save a demon’s life, as the consequences will return to haunt you, much like Caesar’s experience with Pompey.

The Gambian Constitution empowers its citizens to choose their leaders, a right exercised during general elections. The future of Adama Barrow’s governance beyond 2026 is uncertain, as Gambian history shows that leadership changes only conclude with the departure of the incumbent. This is evidenced by the experiences of Yahya Jammeh and the APRC.

The two-term limit is a critical feature in the constitutions of well-established democracies to prevent the corruption of nation-state institutions. For instance, the 22nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that no one can be elected president more than twice, and anyone who has served more than two years of another’s term can only be elected once.

Fatoumatta: As of this writing, Uganda is under the control of a dictator who has cleared the path for his sixth term after 39 years in power, including altering the constitution to eliminate the presidential age limit. This is significant when considering leaders like Paul Biya of Cameroon, who has been in power since 1982, Teodoro Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea since 1979, Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule in The Gambia, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara’s 29-year tenure, Denis Sassou Nguesso’s rule in Congo since 1997, and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who has dominated the state institutions for over two decades.

Remaining in power is acceptable as long as it doesn’t involve undermining state institutions. However, when one starts to distort established electoral processes and rigs the system for personal gain, it ceases to be a democracy. This approach is reminiscent of Museveni’s tactics, and it’s what Trump might have resembled had he encountered institutions similar to those in Uganda. Therefore, the concern is not whether America is as dysfunctional as Uganda or The Gambia, but rather that, unlike these nations, there is no ‘elite pact’—a consensus among the political elite to maintain a leader in power—which acts as a vital defense against autocratic governance.

These actions indicate that Africa is still struggling to move past the notorious ‘Sit-Tight syndrome’, a term coined to describe African leaders’ tendency to overstay their power, often manipulating constitutional provisions to do so. This syndrome emerged post-independence and persisted until the late 1990s, severely impacting the continent’s stability, democracy, and socio-economic progress. Moreover, the African Union has been working to implement a continent-wide two-term limit for presidents. This includes ensuring that terms served are counted when new constitutions are enacted.

Regrettably, the Gambia’s national assembly and executive branch dismissed the 2020 draft constitution, which proposed a two-term limit and included terms served prior to its adoption. This provision led to the rejection of the draft constitution, reverting to the 1997 constitution altered by Yahya Jammeh to eliminate presidential term limits. Under the current constitution, there is no legal barrier to the incumbent President seeking a third term. Despite this, Gambia has maintained eight years of uninterrupted democracy, a significant achievement. However, the political class must still align with the Gambian people’s expectations. The nation has always possessed the potential for greatness and a resilient spirit. What requires cultivation is a deeper patriotism. True love for the Gambia will always be evident in one’s actions.

Fatoumatta: The African continent has seen a disproportionate number of presidents who have overstayed their welcome, with nearly seven of the world’s ten longest-serving leaders hailing from Africa, their tenures protected by their nations’ constitutions. Elections in Africa occur at a critical time, especially in West Africa, where there is increasing concern about the erosion of democratic progress. For instance, the army overthrew Mali’s government, and in the neighboring Ivory Coast, months of protests against President Alassane Ouattara’s extension of his mandate for a third term have become violent. In Guinea Conakry, former President Alpha Conde amended the Constitution to allow for a third term, claiming the reform was fair and democratic. He argued that he required more time to complete major mining and infrastructure projects in West Africa. However, the military eventually ousted him, leading to his third-term aspirations throwing the country into the control of a military junta

Gambians have endured a disproportionate number of political leaders with megalomaniacal and monopolistic tendencies, who have persisted in power despite clear signals for change. Presidential term limits are designed to prevent democracy from devolving into a de facto dictatorship, where a leader could monopolize power, potentially declaring himself ‘president for life’—a situation reminiscent of the long tenures in Cameroon, Uganda, and Equatorial Guinea. Such monopolies can suppress emerging talent and undermine democracy.

Fatoumatta: In 2007, the draft African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance included a provision to encourage African governments to adopt presidential term limits, but it was abandoned after opposition led by Uganda. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni had already eliminated the country’s two-term limit in 2005. Similarly, an initiative by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to establish a presidential two-term limit was dropped in 2015 due to resistance from The Gambia, under Yahya Jammeh, and Togo, which lacked term limit provisions in their constitutions. Presidential term limits are a means to transfer power to the populace and fortify democracy, shifting the focus from the consolidation of leaders’ power to public service and national welfare.

Entrenched leadership, which solidifies its power by manipulating party politics, stands in stark contrast to the principles of democracy and growth. Democracy is more than a mere inheritance for a country’s citizens. On the African continent, only six countries with presidential systems, where the head of state is also the head of government, lack Presidential Term Limits. These countries are Eritrea, Somalia, Cameroon, South Sudan, Djibouti, and The Gambia. However, most nations that had abolished term limits have now restored them.

Despite this, President Museveni of Uganda, after 38 years in office, remains eligible to run again. Similarly, Togo reinstated term limits last year, but President Faure Gnassingbe, in power since 2005, can still participate in future elections and potentially remain in office until 2030. Nevertheless, the establishment of a continental two-term policy could prevent the perpetuation of lifetime presidencies. Encouragingly, several African nations, including Nigeria, Ghana, and South Africa, have successfully implemented and maintained Presidential Term Limits, proving that progress is attainable.

There have been significant instances of democratic leadership transitions in Africa due to Presidential Term-Limit legislation. Recent examples include Senegal (2019), the Democratic Republic of Congo (2019), Sierra Leone (2018), and Liberia (2017). In these countries, the elections were marked by intense competition and victories for the opposition. However, numerous presidents have altered their nations’ constitutions to prolong their tenure. This list includes Togo (2002), Gabon (2003), Ivory Coast, and Guinea Conakry (2020). These recent abuses indicate that measures must be taken promptly to eradicate this practice.

Fatoumatta: It is often stated that American Presidents exit office with dignity and grace, whereas Westminster Prime Ministers tend to hold onto power until the end, often leaving in disgrace. There is empirical evidence suggesting this may be true, which is why the Gambian people should advocate for a presidential term limit of two terms or ten years. With 95 countries already imposing term limits on their heads of government, it is imperative for The Gambia to become the 96th to adopt such a limit.

As a young independent nation, The Gambia has experienced its share of triumphs and tribulations. Gambians have endured dark times and witnessed significant changes since independence, including historic constitutional reforms that return power to the people. Redefining our democracy to mirror contemporary thought and safeguarding the right of the people to govern could be the most important legacy we leave.

A segment of the Gambian population believes our governance should evolve to mirror the American system. In the United States, presidential elections occur every four years, allowing citizens to choose a leader they deem fit, but this leader can only serve for a maximum of eight years. I have long maintained that this American practice of term limits is a profound constitutional reform that restores power to the populace.

Presidential term limits continue to be a contentious issue in Africa, with several leaders extending their mandates to remain in office. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame is serving his third seven-year term and plans to run for a fourth in 2024. Conversely, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe was compelled to step down in 2017 after 37 years of authoritarian rule. Since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, the 94-year-old had been the leader, but his successor, President Mnangagwa, has been encouraged by some within his party to pursue a third term after his current one ends in 2028.

In a continent often ruled by “Big Men” – a term Africans use for their long-serving septuagenarian and octogenarian leaders – Africa’s top 10 youngest leaders stand out. This group includes Cameroon’s Paul Biya, in power since 1982, and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, ruling since 1979. Their governments are frequently marked by instability, lack of civil and political freedoms, widespread patronage, and corruption.

Fatoumatta: In The Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh, who had been in power for nearly two decades, was defeated in the December 2016 presidential election by Adama Barrow but refused to concede. After regional leaders deployed troops to enforce the election results, Jammeh was given an ultimatum to leave the country. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) stated that its forces would remove Jammeh by force if necessary to ensure the transfer of power to Barrow. Jammeh’s eventual departure signified the Gambia’s first democratic change of leadership. Initially conceding defeat, Jammeh later contested the election results and declared a state of emergency in an attempt to retain power.

When President Adama Barrow’s government succeeded Yahya Jammeh’s regime, Gambians celebrated in the streets, anticipating a brighter political era free from unjust suffering and pervasive fear, and the abolition of outdated laws inherited from British colonial rule that were still enforced. The 2016 opposition coalition’s campaign pledge prominently featured a presidential two-term limit, ensuring no president could remain in power indefinitely, unlike previous leaders who had abolished term limits to extend their rule.

Fatoumatta: In essence, no president will hold office for life since previous presidents abolished Presidential Term Limits, allowing them to govern indefinitely. Given the 1997 constitution, it is quite probable that Adama Barrow will serve a fourth term unless The Gambia adopts a new constitution to prevent him from continuing as President, similar to his two predecessors who each held power for over two decades. Let us hope that democracy flourishes, bringing about more significant benefits and truly transformative leadership.

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