Opinion: Democracy Is Not Defined By Term Limits, But They Serve A Purpose

Kurt Davis Jr.
Written by Kurt Davis Jr.

Time to end term limits…not exactly the stance of the majority of democratic voters across the globe.

The re-election of Paul Kagame to a third term as Rwandan president on August 4 sparked excitement in some corners of the world and raised concerns in others.

The development and growth wing of the world point to Kagame’s amazing success in transforming the small East African nation into a formidable economic player after the 1994 genocide left the country in ruins.

The democracy wing of the world argues that Kagame had already ruled for 17 years and that the constitutional amendment allowing him to continue in that role undermined democracy. Both sides have legitimate points.

But, if it is not time to end term limits, it is surely time to reconsider what term limits mean in the grand scheme of democracy – particularly in a Western context versus an African context.

Supporters and detractors think the other side has not comprehensively considered the lasting impact of their belief. Yet it may not be the lasting impact of term limits that we need to consider.

First, consider that most African countries introduced term limits with democracy in the 1990s at the behest (or pressure) of the United States and its African allies. Fast forward two decades, and there is strong support across the African continent (and the United States) for the restriction.

We must remember the codification of two term limits into American (and Western) vernacular and later law was less principled in its earlier days. And it was challenged…not solely by Franklin D. Roosevelt but also Theodore Roosevelt. George Washington did not seek a third term in the early stages of American democracy for personal reasons, rightfully highlighted by Professor Jonathan Zimmerman at New York University in an opinion piece to the Washington Post.

“I can see no propriety in precluding ourselves from the service of any man who, in some great emergency, shall be deemed universally most capable of serving the public,” Washington wrote in a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette.

Washington had led a public life nearly 14 years by the time he was elected president in 1789, as he was appointed Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775. His exit from the presidency seemingly related more to family and personal concerns than creating a special tradition.

Yet generations followed Washington’s precedent. The first president to openly challenge the two-term limit was Theodore Roosevelt, who formed and led the Bull Moose party after losing the nomination of the Republican Party to his former friend and protégé (turned adversary and president) William Howard Taft.

Roosevelt, like some leaders today, promised not to seek a third term when he left office in 1908…and go figure, he went back on his words and tried to explain it by saying he promised not to seek a “third consecutive term.”

Term limits in an African context

So why is this all relevant? Throwing out the American arrogance around the development of the two-term tradition is vital to comprehensively assessing the impact of two terms. In the U.S. context, some critics argue the two-term limit creates lame-duck presidents after six years, in some instances.

For example, the battle between former president Barack Obama and the republicans over the last vacant supreme court seat suggests that the lame-duck period could be pushed further back.

Zimmerman, in his opinion piece, argues that presidential power is limited by term limits as positioning for elections and policy fights in the president’s last term can limit his support. Similar criticism is made about the year that leads up to polling in both Ghana and Nigeria, where the focus turns to elections (and spending) compared to actual governance.

Also, consider a scenario in which Kagame is forced to leave office today. There is a legitimate argument that there is not an opposition figure strong enough to replace Kagame.

Some observers have compared the absence of a legitimate opposition figure to Libya, Iraq and Turkey…an extreme comparison, arguably, unless you are to believe the absence of Kagame – like the removal of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi – will create a vacuum of leadership and possible civil war. Most critics would say this is not the case.

The focus on term limits overshadows the graver concerns that pervade our minds but do not always get the necessary airtime. Democracy is not the “end all, be all” solution. A healthy “politik”, however, requires first and foremost, the right of all citizens to vote.

Promoting political participation and competition is a best-case scenario but not always present. Some countries, such as Australia, make voting compulsory. Many Africans, however, remain excited to participate in elections – for example, see the long lines in Nairobi this week for Kenya presidential election – and want to have a say.

Other requirements for a viable politik is balance of powers (or checks on executive power), an independent media, and civilian control of the military.

The African continent has its challenges with checks on executive powers. But the challenges are due to the maturation process under which many democracies are still going through.

Institutions are increasingly challenged by strong personalities, such as Zuma and Magufuli, but they are holding strong. Some critics may say the same thing about U.S. politics with Donald Trump.

Regardless, the focus should be on strengthening institutions within government versus questioning the boldness and longevity of its leader. Americans can like Trump, South Africans can like Zuma, and Tanzanians can like Magufuli without theoretically destroying institutions by voting in support of those leaders.

Those critics questioning the efforts of strong (or weak) leaders should nevertheless have an ally in an independent media. Greater efforts can be pushed in this arena to strengthen African democracies.

Debates (with all the candidates in attendance) discussing issues could help both Western and African democracies; this is a problem in politics that we can all protest against and ask for change. The issue again is not about term limits but rather encouraging honest engagement on issues in a public forum.

Perfecting democracy a slow process

Progress is being made in African democracies. That said, term limits simply cannot be the sole factor for grading. Kagame is failing that grade like both (not one) Roosevelt’s in American history.

Faulting Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for seeking an additional presidential term is misplaced anger. Questioning why a referendum for whether he can have that additional term is not being held is a different story. The same referendum could be held for Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi.

Winston Churchill best summarized the problem with idealism in politics: “many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

The slow process to perfecting democracy continues in the West and Africa. Let’s agree to stay focused on the perquisites of the day-to-day functioning of government and democracy, as they supersede how many times we allow a certain figure to rule.

Even Theodore Roosevelt saw the presidency as the “bully pulpit” best used to control the narrative…it was the institutions of society that pushed back against him.


Kurt Davis Jr. is an investment banker focusing on the natural resources and energy sectors, with private equity experience in emerging economies. He earned a law degree in tax and commercial law at the University of Virginia’s School of Law and a master’s of business administration in finance, entrepreneurship and operations from the University of Chicago. He can be reached at kurt.davis.jr@gmail.com.