Global Citizen is a community of people like you

People who want to learn about and take action on the world’s biggest challenges. Extreme poverty ends with you.


A tale of two presidents: Senegal, Rwanda, and the future of democracy in Africa

L: MONUSCO, R: ITU Pictures

2016 is shaping up to be a momentous election year, but the US isn’t the only place where the democratic process is making headlines. 

Since December, the presidents of two African nations have announced or enacted new rules governing how their respective countries choose leaders.

In a part of the world where authoritarian rulers have a habit of clinging to power under the guise of democracy, changes like these are worth paying attention to. 

First off, in Rwanda, President Paul Kagame revealed he will seek a third term in 2017 following a December referendum in which voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing him to extend his 15-year tenure. 

In Senegal, meanwhile, President Macky Sall went in the exact opposite direction, announcing that he will voluntarily shorten his term by two years, effective immediately.

Hold the phone—an African leader volunteered to reduce his time in office? 

You read that correctly. By announcing the shortened term, Sall made good on his 2012 campaign promise and bucked a trend established by a slew of current and former African leaders. Exhibits A through E:

Zimbabwe’s 91-year-old president, Robert Mugabe, took power in 1980.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has held office since 1986.

Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi has been president since 2005.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila recently extended his 14-year presidency despite fervent anti-government protests during which more than 40 people died.

President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso was ousted last year after a failed attempt to extend his 27-year term as president.  

Those are some seriously lengthy terms, especially when you think of it this way: Mail & Guardian Africa recently compared some current African presidents' terms to population age and found that several of them have been in office longer than a majority of their constituents have been alive

All of which is to say that democratically elected leaders in Africa have a long history of extending their terms, often through decidedly undemocratic means. A popular tactic (employed by many of the names above) is to pass constitutional amendments permitting additional terms, often by means of coercion, suppression, and election fraud.

Case in point: Algeria, Angola, Chad, Djibouti and Uganda have all changed laws to help incumbents stay in power, and countries including Benin and Burundi are reportedly considering laws allowing third terms.

That’s why President Sall’s decision stands out. 

He didn’t do any of that. At a news conference in March, he explained his thinking this way: 

“We have to understand, in Africa too, that we are able to offer an example, and that power is not an end in itself.” 

Supporters took to Twitter to praise Sall’s restraint: 

And then there’s President Kagame.

His decision to seek a third term prompted criticism in the op-ed pages of the New York Times and Guardian, as well as an official statement from the US State Department expressing its disappointment in Kagame’s willingness to “favor one individual over the principle of democratic transitions.”

All expressed concern that Kagame was suppressing his opposition in order to maintain power, and threatening the health of Rwanda’s relatively young democracy in the process. 

Kagame took issue with his critics, responding to the State Department in a series of tweets:

Kagame’s supporters sided with their president on Twitter, pointing out that Rwanda has enjoyed economic growth and stability during his presidency (true—but at what cost?). 

One Kagame supporter correctly pointed out that an American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, served four terms

(For a deeper dive into the Kagame presidency and what a third term could mean for Rwanda, see Tom Murphy’s recent take for Global Citizen.)

So, where does democracy in Africa go from here?

It’s important to keep in mind that Kagame does have plenty of backers. And given Africa’s complex and destructive colonial history, countries like the US should always tread lightly when issuing advice from afar lest they be accused of returning to bad habits and meddling in African affairs. 

That said, what it all really boils down to is this: In a functioning democracy, what matters most isn’t how many terms a president serves, per se—it’s whether or not the process of choosing a leader is transparent, fair, and does right by the people, not the incumbent. 

If the people of Rwanda choose Paul Kagame to be their president for a third term in 2017, that’s their right—provided the election process isn’t obstructed by coercion, violence, or fraud. 

But if the recent history of leaders extending their reign in Africa is any indication, it’s possible that Kagame’s extended stay in office will be marred by authoritarianism and a certain obsession with power. 

That’s why President Sall's decision to voluntarily limit his power is refreshing. Good governance is key to achieving the Global Goals and ending extreme poverty once and for all. Let’s hope more African leaders follow Senegal’s example and put the people before themselves.