The Institutionalisation of Power Revisited: Presidential Term Limits in Africa

Denis M. Tull, Claudia Simons


In Africa, a seemingly growing number of attempts by presidents to overcome or abrogate term limits, or make them otherwise ineffective, has ignited a debate about the significance of constitutional engineering, and its implications for the rule of law, democracy, and the nature of politics in general. In light of recent instances of “third-term bids,” we revisit the hypothesis about the institutionalisation of power in Africa and challenge the assumption that, over the past two decades, African politics have experienced a fundamental change away from “big man” rule towards the rule of law. Based on a comprehensive stocktaking of the state of play of term limits and third-term bids, we analyse broader trends and outcomes of legal and constitutional engineering. We argue that an analysis focusing exclusively on formal institutions and procedures misrepresents the extent of political change by ignoring power and authority in many African countries. While the growing salience of formal institutions is undeniable, we suggest that they matter more as a legitimisation of the power of political leaders than as a constraint to it.

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