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An Awakened Citizenry Is Critical In Ensuring Effective Control of Power

There needs to be an intersectionality between a good law and an awakened citizenry ready and able to defend such a law.

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Jukwaa la Katiba Tanzania, in collaboration with Katiba Institute of Kenya, convened a meeting of democracy stakeholders in Dar es Salaam on October 24, 2023, which focused on enhancing knowledge and understanding of control of power through presidential terms limit.

During the workshop, participants also deliberated on the need to increase appreciation by civil society organisations, the media, academia, and the public on power control as a key to good governance in the East African region, specifically focusing on Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

This meeting could not have come at more an opportune time, especially after some controversial public utterances made by the outgone CCM ideology and publicity secretary, Sophia Mjema, and others within the ruling party that President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s first term of office should start counting from 2025, contrary to article 40 (2) of the Constitution, which provides for presidential terms limits. 

Such calls are not new and won’t be the last, given the entrenching political culture of self-aggrandisement, sycophancy and the politics of patronage within the ruling elite.

It is fair to suggest that, in Tanzania, presidential term limits have been consistently respected since they were first introduced in 1984, despite several attempts to amend the Constitution to eliminate them.

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There were, in fact, unsuccessful attempts in 1991 by some of then-President Ali Hassan Mwinyi’s close allies to challenge the constitutional presidential term limits to allow for him another term in office. However, President Mwinyi ignored such calls and decided to retire in full compliance with the constitutional requirement.

Other similar attempts came in December 2019 when some MPs made calls to the effect that there should be a constitutional amendment that would provide for the late President John Magufuli to seek another term in office, in what would later come to be famously known as atake asitake, tutaongeza muda, literally meaning whether or not he wanted, we shall extend Magufuli’s term.

In line with such calls, a constitutional case was even filed with the High Court of Tanzania, questioning the legality of the presidential term limits in the country calling for the revision of the respective law. All this happened despite Magufuli’s pledge to respect the Constitution on presidential term limits and stick to his two five-year terms.

Institutions over personalities

Traditionally, presidential term limits entail laws in national constitutions limiting the number of years or terms a president can stay in office. Depending on each country, this period oscillates between a four-year or two five-year terms and, in some countries such as Rwanda, a seven-year term

The idea of leaving office after serving a particular tenure is meant to ensure that institutions outlive individuals and not vice versa. These terms limit subordinate individual interests to institutional demands for the greater good of a country that then cannot be held to ransom by an individual.

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Over the past two decades, this wave to constitutionalise term limits hit the African continent like a bug as each country struggled to incorporate these provisions to come off as democratising. 

Its proponents, akin to a tornado movement, projected it as the magic wand that would finally arrest the runaway abuse of executive power by the presidents in African nations, sometimes wholly ignoring other forces that could help control or contain executive power. 

In fact, other equally critical non-legal means of providing checks and balances on the executive by, for example, strengthening civil society and awakening citizenry were neglected.

This is probably the first mistake in the struggle for control of executive power ushered in by the term-limits movement. 

What emerged then was the continued conceptualisation and treatment of term limits as the core guarantor of democracy and, therefore, the main, if not the only, ingredient for the control of power, especially in Africa. 

READ MORE: Court Rules Magufuli’s Dismissal of Assad as CAG ‘Unconstitutional’

Other diverse factors

This argument failed to appreciate the reality that there are other quite diverse factors that, too, have a hold on the conduct of democracy and control of power. 

Indeed, some analysts rightly note that term limits are a core principle of good governance but certainly not the only one. At best, it is contributory. Accordingly, there needs to be an intersectionality between a good law and an awakened citizenry ready to defend such a law. 

Because, in many parts of Africa, such laws are usually and routinely subjected to political manipulations by the hegemony-seeking ruling elite, in what some analysts have branded as ‘constitutional engineering’ or ‘constitutional coups.’ 

Some analysts and defenders of constitutional term limits have even argued that the act of amendment to lift term limits is the epitomisation of ‘the Big Man syndrome.’

In Africa, this plague has grown by emulation where the success of the change in constitution removing term limits in one country has always inspired the same attempt in another country – the epitome of negative learning and copying of bad precedents and manners. 

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The list of such presidents for life facilitated by amendment of the constitution is long across Africa.

Most of these presidents use their power to cajole, manipulate, buy off or make concessions with their respective legislature members to ensure that the presidential term limits are lifted in their favour. 

The increasing prevalence of this scourge is exemplified by the fact that in the past twenty years alone, almost half of the African countries have attempted and succeeded while the people have resisted others in their quest to amend these presidential term limits provisions.

Legally implemented

What is deplorable is that all these terms limit circumvention, which has been undertaken under the covering of the law, using legitimate institutions of the parliament or judiciary or both, especially where the latter confirms the amendments made in the former. 

The institutions that would have acted as sentries watching guard of the constitution have often been co-opted into this vendetta of third-term politics.

READ MORE: Suspended Advocate Mpale Mpoki Shares His Side of Story: ‘This Is Not About Me’

What is very clear from the third-term politics across Africa, particularly in Tanzania, is that the words of the constitution restricting presidential terms and thereby controlling executive power continue to be wasted ink, leading to dashed hopes amongst Africans. 

The situation speaks of the dangers of over-glorifying the constitution without developing a culture of constitutionalism, for a constitution alone cannot guarantee the progression of the democratisation process and control of executive power.

Additionally, however fundamental, constitutional provisions cannot be implemented, especially if they are likely to affect incumbent leaders without complementary vigilance from the populace. 

This means that the building of the civic capacity of the populace and strengthening of the civil society as the main guarantors and protectors of the constitution are central to breathing life into term limit provisions.

This becomes more pertinent when considering the level of corruption and patronage in Africa’s politics. 

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In almost all the African countries where these provisions have been amended, the conduit has been the corruption of the parliament – a manifestation of the hegemonic-patronage system often robustly built by incumbent leaders and sustained by institutionalised corruption of the praise singers. 

No measure of the law can dismantle such a system without a corresponding force from an empowered populace applying every legal means within its power to reclaim its loaned power to the executive in this social contract.

John Kitoka is the Executive Director of HakiTaarifa Tanzania and an independent analyst based in Dar es Salaam. He can be reached through his cell number—+255 755 622697 or by email at kitoka2000@gmail.com. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Chanzo. If you are interested in publishing in this space, please contact our editors at editor@thechanzo.com

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