From October 2-4, former African heads of state, civil society activists and journalists came together to participate in the Constitutional Term Limits Summit in Niamey, Niger. The Summit focused on existing challenges of democratic consolidation and solutions to ensure the peaceful transfer of executive power across the continent.
The Constitutional Term Limits Summit was organized by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in partnership with the Africa Forum, the Kofi Annan Foundation, and the Open Society Institute West Africa (OSIWA). For participants, the Summit provided a platform for direct engagement between political leaders and civil society and an opportunity to exchange best practices on constitutionalism, rule of law and respect of presidential term limits across Africa. The event was also an opportunity for networking among participants, notably the senior African leaders, civil activists, and representatives of international organizations and media.
Day one began with the opening ceremony featuring President Mahamadou Issoufou, incumbent President of Niger, who presided over the opening ceremony. During his remarks he reiterated his intention to respect term limits and transfer power to a successor at the end of his second term. “My most ardent wish is to hand over power in 2021 to a democratically elected successor,” stated Issoufou. That would be the first time of such peaceful transfer of power in Nigerien history.
Five former African heads of state participated in the forum: Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, Nicephore Soglo of Benin, Amos Sawyer of Liberia, Catherine Samba-Panza of the Central African Republic (CAR), and Mahamane Ousmane of Niger. Their active participation, sharing their experiences of leaving office democratically and their understanding of the prevailing challenges and practical solutions to shore up democratic progress in Africa, contributed to robust discussions in each panel session. Although unable to attend, former Presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Miguel Trovoada of São Tomé and Príncipe shared a heartfelt video message which was featured during the opening ceremony.
Participants noted that despite progress in democratization efforts across the continent in the past three decades, a number of African countries have backslidden following constitutional changes that eliminated presidential term limits adopted during the democratic transitions of the 1990s. According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, of the 21 African countries that have upheld term limits, the executive officeholders have been in power for four years, on average. In contrast, the average time in power for the 10 African leaders who have evaded term limits is 22 years. As stated by one of the participants at the Constitutional Term Limits Summit, “The abrogation of term limits undermines accountability, increases concentration of power in the hands of one or a few individuals and shrinks political space, ultimately leading to rising risks of political tensions, violence and civil strife.” Similarly, “our countries need stability and peace, and the modification of term limits is a major destabilizing factor,” added former head of state of the Central African Republic, Catherine Samba-Panza.
At the end of the three days of deliberation, Summit participants adopted a Declaration of Principles in Support of Term Limits, Constitutionalism and the Rule of Law. Participants agreed to widely disseminate the Declaration and mobilize citizens and decision makers across the continent to sign. The declaration is posted on NDI’s Constitutional Term Limits Initiative website, the program under which the summit was organized. Within just one week after launching the official declaration on the website, signatures came from more than two dozen countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America.
The media coverage of the Summit was extensive with stories included in local Nigerien media, continent wide outlets, and international top tier outlets such as the BBC, RFI, VOA, AllAfrica.com and Africable. Some of the coverage yielded readership reach in the millions: RFI reached five million readers, three separate Nigerian media houses each reached in the millions, and Allafrica.com coverage was picked up by more than two million viewers. Commenting on the importance of this Summit, Pie Delaure of OSIWA stated, “Presidential term limits was a taboo subject. It’s as if we are now at liberty to speak freely about it in public.”
The conversation started at the Summit appears to already be having an impact. While the summit was ongoing, and as it received extensive coverage in the Nigeria media, the presidency of Nigeria tweeted out a statement indicating that ‘‘There are NO circumstances, nor set of circumstances, under which President Buhari may seek to amend the Constitution regarding the two-terms limit on holding office as President,” adding “There is not even the faintest possibility that this will change.”
For the next year, NDI’s Central West Africa and Southern East Africa teams will continue programming with CSO partners on constitutional term limits and will convene a follow up initiative in Nairobi, Kenya in 2020. Sign the Niamey Declaration in Support of Constitutionalism for Democratic Consolidation and the Peaceful Transfer of Power https://termlimits.ndi.org/.