Central Africa and the third term syndrome, a challenge for Democracy

By Dr. Pippie Hugues (Download pdf version)


When the original and constitutional mandate of an elected official expires and he/she engages in attempts to alter the constitution in order to stay in power is refer to as a third term syndrome, an activity which is very common in Africa, most especially in central Africa (1). The African Union recognizes the Central Africa region as comprising eleven countries: Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Angola, Rwanda and São Tomé and Príncipe (2). Most of these central African countries that adopted one party system as a form of government switched to democracy/presidential systems (multi-partism) as soon as the continent was freed from colonial rule, and gained independence. It is increasingly frequent for African presidents to fail to transfer power when their mandated term of office expires (3). This scenario has painted a bleak picture of some of these countries ( Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, DRC) on the international scene especially in the Western World (4). Numerous factors have been put forward to explain this phenomenon, encompassing, but not restricted to, the misuse of state assets and the apprehension of legal consequences. Other contributing factors include the absence of a formidable opposition, the absence of a clear plan for succession, the deliberate refusal to relinquish power due to despotic inclinations, an insatiable craving for resources and authority, as well as an overwhelming sense of greed and self-centeredness. Consequently, this document aims to explore the underlying causes of the third term syndrome in Africa, particularly its prevalence in West and Central Africa. Furthermore, it seeks to propose policy recommendations that can guide our continent in breaking free from this undemocratic culture and practice.

Causes of the third term syndrome in Africa

Numerous Africans were convinced that liberal democracy held the key to resolving the myriad issues faced by the continent. As a means of ensuring their survival, numerous African nations wholeheartedly adopted liberal democracy. However, three decades afterwards Lumumba (5), argues that there is scanty results to show that this assertion is true. This opinion is partly shared by Boadi (6)  when he observed that many African countries embraced democracy from the 1990’s up to the 2000’s but soon afterwards the process slowed down and even in some places there have been reversals. This became so because many governments were not accountable and responsive to the needs of their citizens as corruption became endemic (7). The presidential term restriction, which established a maximum term limit for presidents that is typically two terms, was a fundamental component of liberal democracy that Africa accepted in the 1990s. However, African elected presidents have devised an alternative strategy called as a constitutional coup or a third term bid to increase their own personal authority and influence. This shifted the paradigm back to what was customary prior to the 1990s by allowing incumbent presidents who have served their full terms to run for office a third time or more. (8). Many reasons have been advanced for this. Some of which include, quest to stay in power. It is often said that power corrupts while absolute power corrupts absolutely. This has been the new sensation within the African continent, where presidents come to power and after serving their constitutional terms decides to clink unto power. Again, most African leaders have demonstrated the absence of democratic will and instead projects greed. Democratic will is the ability to leave power without force or prejudice upon the expiration of mandate. This culture is fast eluding most of our leaders. Many leaders have attempted to change constitutions to keep themselves in power. Some of the countries that have succeeded in this third term syndrome in Africa, not limited to the Central African sub-region include; Burkina Faso in 1999 with Campaore, Cameroon in 2008 with Biya, Comoros in 2018 with Azali, Congo-Brazzaville in 2016 with Sassou Nguesso, Gabon in 2003 with Bongo, Guinea in 2020 with Conde, Ivory Coast in 2016 with Quattara, Senegal in 2012 with Wade, Rwanda in 2015 with Kagame, Uganda in 2005 with Moseveni, Namibia in 1998 with NUjoma, Sudan in 2005 with Albashi, and Djibouti in 2010 with Guelleh. While others struggled and succeeded, there were some who made attempts but failed. These ones include; Mulizi of Malawi in 2002, Obasanjo of Nigeria in 2008, Chuluba of Zambia in 2001.

Some Cases of Third term syndrome

Burundi, where a failed military coup and political unrest resulted from President Pierre Nkurunziza’s maneuvers for a third term in 2015. In 2015, he went on to win an election that was tainted by violence and intimidation. (9). This is a clear indication of undemocratic behavior of most African leaders. Despite wide protest, the third term was secured.it should be mentioned that elections is seen by many as an evidence of democracy. However, the million-dollar question is how free, fair, transparent and credible are these elections?

Congo: In 2015, President Denis Sassou Nguesso declared a constitutional referendum to allow him to run for office, claiming that the people wanted him to continue serving as leader for another three decades. Protesters in large numbers shouted that “the country does not belong to Nguesso” in response to this. He prevailed in the 2016 election despite strict security protocols and a communications blackout (10).

There was a similar scenario in Cameroon in 2008, when the incumbent President Paul Biya had to change the constitution by removing the presidential term limit of two, and replace it with no limit. The president is elected for a seven-year term by the people; a two-term limit on the office was removed through a parliamentary vote in April 2008.

The current presidents in the majority of these African nations where the third term syndrome has been successful always assumed office as the messiahs but ultimately turned into the very evils they set out to destroy. For example, Guinea changed its constitution to remove the president’s term restriction. Presidents of Cameroon and Comoros changed their countries’ constitutions to do away with term limits in a manner similar to this one (11).


The extensive occurrence of anomalies implies the systematic character of the electoral manipulation. Despite the disorder and substantial evidence of widespread deceit, citizens voted predominantly in a peaceful manner, demonstrating resilience, tolerance, and trust in democracy.

Undoubtedly, conducting elections in central Africa is an enormous undertaking due to the inclination towards predetermined results, inadequate or nonexistent infrastructure, pervasive violence, feeble or inadequate institutions, and the lack of youth participation. Nevertheless, consecutive administrations have exploited these limitations as a cover to manipulate democratic establishments (12). What has been the record of electoral democracy and multipartyism in Africa since its introduction during the 1990s, following the end of the cold war? The respect for the rule of law, constituted institutions is the only way out. When then rule of law is respected, and constitutional institutions are separated from the executive and respected, abuse of power will be minimize and Africa will be free from this undemocratic tendency.

Elections play a crucial role in upholding liberal democracy. They serve as a viable mechanism to ensure a smooth transition of leadership and facilitate political authority and legitimacy. The absence or failure of elections often characterizes the prevalence of political dictatorships and personalized rule in Africa. However, the recent events and surge across the continent, with leaders unwilling to live power after the expiry of their mandate is becoming more and more rampant.

Dr. Pippie Hugues
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Dr. Pippie Hugues is a Policy Analyst at the Governance and Democracy Division of the Nkafu Policy Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in International Law with specialty in Human Rights, Conflict and Peace building.


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