Ellen, Goodluck, Others Deliberate on Constitutional Term Limits in Africa

Former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

As Liberians are currently deliberating on a number of proposed constitutional issues including term limits for their elected officials, prominent African politicians have converged in Niamey, the capital city of Niger, to deliberate on Constitutional term limits, which have become a serious challenge on the Continent.

According to a release, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in partnership with the Africa Forum, the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) and the Kofi Annan Foundation are jointly hosting the Constitutional Term Limits Summit, which began on October 2 and expected to conclude on October 4, 2019, in Niamey.

For the three days, key stakeholders from across Africa are addressing one of the pressing challenges to democratic progress on the continent — the erosion of the constitutional rule of law by extending and amending presidential term limits.

Special guests at the conference include former Presidents Goodluck Jonathan (Nigeria), Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia, participating remotely), Nicéphore Soglo (Benin), Dr. Amos Sawyer (Liberia), Mahamane Ousmane (Niger), and Catherine Samba-Panza (Central African Republic).

Panel discussions will allow the leaders to share their experiences, and tell their stories to underscore real-life experiences, and case studies of democratic progress made in Africa, and challenges still to be overcome.

Participants will issue a Declaration of Principles as a tool to empower Africans to hold leaders accountable and have them adhere to constitutional term limits.

“NDI is honored to provide this opportunity for civic leaders and African Statesmen to come together to build consensus around term limits, a major issue facing the continent and impacting democratic progress,” said Derek Mitchell, president of NDI.

Accordingly, the official Summit kicked off with an opening ceremony on October 2 with African dignitaries committing to democracy. The President of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, presided over the opening ceremony.

“The Constitutional Term Limits Summit comes at a critical time when Africa’s democratic progress is facing new challenges, and democratic backsliding is becoming more prominent. The Summit will provide an opportunity for leaders and activists on the continent to ensure that progress made through renewal of political leadership through the ballot box is sustained and encouraged,” said Dr. Chris Fomunyoh, Senior Associate for Africa and Regional Director at NDI.

The Constitutional Term Limits Summit will mark the launch of a program to support political leaders and civil society advocacy for the respect of presidential term limits across Africa. Over the past two decades, Africa has made notable progress in achieving democratic and peaceful transitions of executive power.

However, some leaders on the continent have and/or are planning to extend their tenure by altering or eliminating constitutional term limits.

It can be recalled that President George Weah, in August 2019 proposed the reduction in the terms/lengths for President, Vice President and members of the Legislature.

Under his plan, the president and representatives would serve five years instead of six, while senators would sit for seven years rather than nine years.

The idea, said Presidential Press Secretary Smith Toby, is to push officials to begin serving the people from the day they assume office, rather than putting off work until near the close of their terms.

As he put it, “if you start [work] immediately on election day “[knowing] that you have got five years, you will not play around. They will start work immediately upon their elections.”

Some lawmakers welcomed the idea at a meeting with Mr. Weah, called last weekend to introduce proposed bills he’d like to see passed. He unveiled 25 proposed bills, one of which would allow Liberians to hold dual citizenship.

Montserrado County District #11 Representative, Richard Nagbe Kun, said “We embrace the idea [of this retreat which] was the first of its kind since the President took over.’’ He said it is meant to foster reconciliation between the branches of government rather than having “one group of the government strangulating the other.”

Representative Francis Doepoh from River Gee County thinks the best way to solve some of Liberia’s major issues is to rewrite the Constitution.

But his colleague, Vincent Willie of Grand Bassa County, said reforming the document will take time and resources.

“Rewriting the constitution,” he said, “is very much important but given the time interval, you cannot rewrite the constitution in just six months, you are talking about a whole year. It is a process, not an event.”

This is not the first time the idea of shortening terms has come up.

A Constitutional Review Committee under former President Sirleaf made similar recommendations several years ago. But after a nationwide consultation, the recommendations went nowhere.

Among the ideas floated then was limiting the presidential terms to two 4-year terms instead of the two six-year terms currently allowed.