Home | Top News and Analyses | On Côte d’Ivoire, Jammeh Says This, Others Say That, We Say Term Limit Now!

On Côte d’Ivoire, Jammeh Says This, Others Say That, We Say Term Limit Now!

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In the wake of the resolution of the Ivorian electoral, or shall we say political, crisis, players on the Gambian political field have been making publicized statements about the situation there, with President Jammeh declaring his government does not recognize the internationally recognized government of Alasane Ouattara while Mai Fatty of the new Gambian Moral Congress applauding the newly installed Ivorian leader. That the views would be opposed to each other is expected, the question is why both Yahya Jammeh and Mai Fatty think that Gambians care about political events in faraway Côte d’Ivoire and what should be for them in the partisan politics of that country. Okay, recent advances in the regional economic integration has meant that the price of palm oil shot up at the markets in Banjul and Serrekunda because of the Ivorian conflict, but so what? 

Well it was the Yahya Jammeh regime which first issued a statement on the Côte d’Ivoire crisis, condemning what he considers Western interference in the internal affairs of another African country to have “their puppet” installed. So Mai Fatty’s statement can be taken for a response to Jammeh’s statement than a congratulatory message to Ouattara’s government.

Many Africans and friends of the continent feared that an ultimate Gbagbo victory in the post electoral power struggle would mean the death of free and fair elections on the entire continent and were therefore adamant in their support for a Ouattara presidential inauguration. The crisis in Côte d’Ivoire was essentially over the fate of Africa’s renaissance and this was why every African political actor felt obliged to take a position on it. After Zimbabwe and Kenya, it was felt that the future of multi-party politics, democratic governance and accountable leadership and respect for the sovereignty of the people hung on the political tussle between the incumbent defeated in the polls and the choice of the majority of voters in Côte d’Ivoire.

When it was heralded in the early 1990s, many saw Africa’s emerging renaissance in the introduction of new constitutions with a two-term limit on power that would consign the “President for life“-syndrome of African politics to history. Though the political culture on the continent has changed considerably since the end of the Cold War, many leaders continue to be caught in the trappings of power. Coming to power in Africa continues to be like riding a lion and never wanting to dismount. Indeed, there have recently been many cases of African heads of state attempting to extend their tenure beyond the constitutionally permitted number of terms, or maintain power via a back-door strategy of hand-picking a docile successor and remaining in the powerful post of the chairman of the country’s dominant political party.

Presidential term limits, most often two terms, are a common feature of democratic constitutions adopted in Africa in the 1990s though it was quietly deleted in the initial draft of The Gambia’s 1997 constitution it has been said that thirty-three of the forty-eight new constitutions of African states contained such provisions, at least for some time. However, not all politicians subscribe to the importance of a two-term presidency. Across Africa, proponents of additional presidential terms have been going the rounds.

Term limits offer a periodic guarantee of personal change and thus enhance the possibility of change of party in government. This is significant, as power alteration is an important feature of a democratic polity.

Côte d’Ivoire’s constitution does not contain a two-term only presidential term limit provision. It argued that a third term, when achieved via a legal constitutional amendment and an election, is a perfectly legitimate development that reflects people’s will to re-elect the incumbent. Moreover, third-term advocates have proposed a range of country-specific arguments. They often speak of the fear of instability, in particular in cases of absence of a clear successor, or of the need to complete or sustain reforms. Critics of these claims retort that presidents may be motivated by more selfish considerations, such as vanity and hunger for power, fear of prosecution for corruption or human rights abuses and the lack of opportunities for retired presidents. It has also been suggested that tenure extensions may be spurred by the anxiety of the neo-patrimonial network that fears the loss of connections and privileges.

The most-often cited reason for the adoption of term limits in the early 1990s was to “prevent arbitrary and violent rule often associated with lifelong presidencies from recurring”. In the case of Nigeria, it has been suggested that the term limits can contribute to the zonal rotation of the presidency among the country’s three main geo-ethnic-political zones, thus alleviating the danger of one of the groups feeling permanently politically marginalized.

In fledgling democracies, the main importance of term limits stems from its positive impact on power alternation which, in turn, contributes to democratic consolidation and strengthens the sense of inclusiveness. In Africa, elections are heavily burdened by advantages that incumbents have at their disposal, and these make electoral change more difficult than in established democracies. “If the incumbent has a tight grip on the electoral system (perhaps including the appointments of the electoral commission like in The Gambia); has access to slush funds for the party campaign; can determine the date of the election; can have opponents disqualified or harassed by the legal system; controls much of the media and has the advantage of exposure and familiarity before the general public, all can be turned to personal advantage.

Client list networks that incumbents develop during their tenure can also secure additional votes. It comes as no surprise that incumbents have an extremely high re-election rate. even a hand-picked successor tends to fare significantly worse in elections than the incumbent. Term limits offer a periodic guarantee of personal change, and thus enhance the possibility of change of party in government. This is significant, as power alternation is an important feature of a democratic polity. Prolonged time in office allows for greater centralization and personalization of power and deeper entrenchment of informal patronage networks. Prolonged tenure also creates an accountability deficit that allows for an increase in corruption. It has also been suggested that power alternation is important for the consolidation of democracy. While in life-presidencies power transitions are orchestrated by the gun, by increasing the likelihood of change, term limits also increase the chance that power contestation will take place in a non-violent manner. Indeed, the two-turnover test (power peacefully changes hands twice) has become a definitional feature of a functioning democracy.

As far The Gambia is concerned and reading in between the lines of the Jammeh regime’s official statements on the crisis that ravaged Côte d’Ivoire, Gambians ought to give greater prominence for the call for term limit to be inserted in the country’s constitution. Opposition political parties have failed to take it up as major issue but it is one thing they should press on, as an afterthought of the Côte d’Ivoire’s crisis. 

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