Constitutional term limits: Young people challenged to be more involved in governance matters.

Katiba Institute hosted more than 50 students from 7 universities based in Nairobi on 26 September 2023 to discuss the importance of constitutional term limits in Africa. The meeting sought to get young people’s perspectives and what they can do to advocate for respect of constitutional term limits. This is in line with Katiba Institute’s project on term limits titled “Promoting democratic governance through control of power” with support from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) under the Constitutional Term Limits Initiative. 

Does it concern young people? 

Young people are a critical constituency in the discussions about term limits. Throughout history, the youth have participated, contributed, and even catalysed essential changes in political systems. The Gaborone Declaration in Support of Constitutionalism and Democratic Consolidation in July 2022 highlighted young people as key players in advocating for constitutional term limits in Africa. Experience shows that people who cling to power may become long-term and autocratic rulers – a problem for future citizens. 

While making her presentation titled “Term limits for presidents: A young person’s perspective,” Katiba Institute’s Chairperson of the Board of Directors, Jill Cottrell Ghai, challenged young people to be more involved in governance matters – participate in discussions, including on social media platforms. This, she noted, will make them think and get others to think. 

The link between term limits and national values 

Jill linked the issue of term limits to Article 10 of the Constitution of Kenya on National Values. On the issue of democracy and the rule of law, research shows that countries without term limits undermine democracy and the rule of law. This directly affects human rights and human dignity. The Reporters Without Borders 2018 index 23 shows that nations with presidential term limits have significantly higher levels of press freedom. Leaders who ignore constitutional term limits tend to disrespect other limitations provided by constitutions. 

The absence of term limits also affects the participation of the people. Citizen participation is critical to good governance because it ensures the government works for the public good. Almost inevitably, someone who has been in office for a long time will become less sensitive to the country’s needs and more convinced of their worth, while others will become resentful and critical. This very often leads to intolerance on the part of the leader. 

Participants discussed the importance of term limits in a democracy and why leaders want to extend or remove term limits. Fear of prosecution, maintaining status, and believing that no one else can govern make some leaders want to stay on. 

“We have seen in the past; former presidents being arraigned in court over corruption and other crimes. This could be the reason some leaders fear leaving office.” Observed one of the participants. 

Javas Bigambo, an author of a paper titled, “The need for limits: Democratic governance and discourse on presidential term limits in Africa and the Kenyan experience,” reinforced the importance of term limits, calling on the youth to be vigilant and enhance the discussions on term limits on the available platforms. The paper analyses constitutional designs of presidential term limits in Africa, focusing on Kenya. It explores the winding path of authoritarian governance terrain in post-independence Africa and how authoritarianism has been gradually extenuated by introducing presidential term limits. 

By Kevin Mabonga


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