An overwhelming majority of Zimbabweans want two-term presidential limits despite President Robert Mugabe’s self-serving suggestion that term limits were unnecessary as people should choose how long their leaders stay in power.
Speaking at the African Union (AU) Assembly of Heads of State and Government in South Africa last week, Mugabe said African leaders had made a mistake by endorsing such frameworks, raising fears that he could push for an amendment to the new Zimbabwean constitution — still to be fully implemented —which sets a two-term presidential limit.
Mugabe said two terms could feel as short as two weeks.
“We (in Africa) put a rope around our own neck and say leaders must only have two terms,” he said in apparent reference to Burundi where President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for an unconstitutional third time has thrown the East African country into turmoil, instability and violence.
“It is a democracy, if people want a leader to continue, let him continue,” he said.
However, Zimbabweans overwhelmingly voted for a new constitution in a referendum in March 2013, with 3 079 966 people voting Yes while 179 000 voted No, endorsing the whole package, including presidential term limits.
Although many Zimbabweans were disappointed after parties in the inclusive government ignored some views they expressed during the outreach programme in favour of horse trading, the limiting of presidential terms was one of the major drivers of the Yes vote.
The issue of term limits was raised in all provinces with an overwhelming majority of people supportive.
Constitution Parliamentary Select Committee (Copac) co-chairpersons Munyaradzi Paul Mangwana (Zanu PF) and Douglas Mwonzora (MDC-T), who drove the constitution-making exercise alongside Edward Mukosi of the MDC, said this week the subject of term limits was a popular issue countrywide.
Mwonzora said at least 85%of Zimbabweans wanted a maximum two-term limit.
“It was a major area of interest,” said Mwonzora. “It was one of the most talked about areas. In fact, Zimbabweans did not want a president who had already served two terms to contest the 2013 elections, so we had to negotiate the issue. It was strong in all the provinces, including in Mashonaland West (Mugabe’s home province).
“In total, 85% of Zimbabweans wanted term limits, and in Zvimba District (Mugabe’s rural home area), 88% were strongly in favour of term limits.”
Mangwana said he did not have figures off hand, but concurred the term limit was one of the most popular among ordinary Zimbabweans.
“It was a very popular issue that’s why it’s in the constitution. I can’t remember the statistics but it was a popular issue in all the provinces.”
UK-based constitutional law expert Alex Magaisa, a technical advisor during the constitution-making process, said: “There was no dispute over the principle as the overwhelming majority of the people demanded presidential term limits during the consultations.
“The message was simple: no to long stays in positions of power, since power has a corruptive effect.
“However, we realised that beyond giving effect to this principle, it was important to make it water-tight, and to ensure that the rule could not be circumvented. We made it clear, for example, that if a person has served a minimum of three years as president, whether continuously or cumulatively, then he would be regarded as having served a full term.
“We did not want a person to leave office just before the end of his term so that he would return again on the basis that he had not served a full term. We were also concerned about the tendency of an incumbent to want to extend his/her stay in office beyond the two terms, so we ensured that the process of amending the term limits provisions was not only complex, onerous and cumbersome but we removed the incentive for incumbent leaders to amend.
“This we did by ensuring that any move to change the term limits provisions would not benefit an incumbent. In other words, if an incumbent decides to amend the term limits provision, that amendment would not apply to his/her case, but would only take effect after he/she had left office.”
Even in 2000 the issue of term limits was popularly expressed and endorsed by Zimbabweans when the government and Zanu PF-dominated Constitutional Commission drafted a new charter which was rejected by the people.
There was a big fight in the commission between a camp led by the late Zanu PF maverick Eddison Zvobgo and another led by then Justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, supported by Information minister Jonathan Moyo, over Mugabe’s term limits and eligibility to contest in future elections.
Zvobgo, through a thematic committee on transition and mechanisms chaired by veteran lawyer Honour Mukushi, wanted Mugabe explicitly banned under the new constitution from seeking re-election as he argued that he — then 20 years in power — had already served more than two terms. But Mnangagwa and others argued the new constitution should not be used to legislate an individual out of office. The fallout was so nasty that it led to serious clashes in the government-appointed commission which was dominated by senior Zanu PF leaders and legislators.
Mugabe sidelined the ambitious Zvobgo afterwards from government and Zanu PF as part of the backlash.
Although Zimbabwe’s constitution restricts presidential term limits to two terms, Mugabe is eligible to run for another term in 2018 because his first term under the new charter began when he won the 2013 presidential elections.
Mugabe’s support for erasing term limits comes at a time when 10 countries in Burundi, Uganda, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Gambia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Djibouti and Angola are scheduled to hold presidential elections between 2015 and 2017. The leaders of the countries have served two terms or more and will be seeking to extend their stay in office
Third terms bids have failed in countries like Malawi, Zambia and Nigeria, but have succeeded elsewhere, in Namibia and Togo more recently.
Many African leaders have been in power for long periods. Those who have served for over 20 years include Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema who has been at the helm for 36 years, Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos (36), Mugabe (35), Cameroon’s Paul Biya (33), Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (29), Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir (26), Chad’s Idriss Deby (24), Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki (24) and Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh (21).