In recent years, an increasing number of African presidents have sought a third term in office, despite operating in countries with a two term limit on the presidency. By and large, such efforts have been successful in countries in which leaders exercise effective control over both the security forces and a dominant ruling power. Thus, presidents in Rwanda and Uganda removed constitutional barriers to their tenure without significant difficulties.
By contrast, leaders who either lack effective control of their parties and security forces, or hold power in more open and democratic states, have tended to forced to respect the constitution. Examples of the former type of case include Burkina Faso and Nigeria, while Zambia is often cited as an example of the latter trend. Back in 2001, when the then-President Frederick Chiluba sought to seek a third term, an “Oasis Forum” of religious leaders, trade unionist and opposition activists defeated his plans.
It is looking increasingly likely that Zambia will now experience a second “third term crisis” as President Edgar Lungu looks to extend his time in office. Lungu is currently in his second spell in State House, and has argued that because he did not serve a full first term – he took over from the former President, Michael Sata, following his untimely death in office – he should be allowed to contest for power for a third term.
He appears confident that Constitutional Court judges will back his interpretation of the constitution. On the one hand, there are precedents in Africa of a leader serving three terms in such cases. On the other, the new Zambian constitution is ambiguous and can be interpreted both to support and prohibit Lungu’s ambitions. One clause of the 2016 constitution states that “a person who has twice been elected as President shall not be eligible for re-election to that office”, which seems to present a shut and dried case.
However, a further clause states that “If the Vice-President assumes the office of President … or a person is elected to the office of President as a result of an election [a presidential election held if the VP cannot assume the presidency for any reason] … the Vice-President or the President-elect shall serve for the unexpired term of office and be deemed
(a) to have served a full term as President if, at the date on which the President assumed office, at least three years remain before the date of the next general election; or
(b) not to have served a term of office as President if, at the date on which the President assumed office, less than three years remain before the date of the next general election.”
Although Lungu did not replace Sata from the position of Vice President, he did win power through a presidential by-election and only held office for a year before the next general elections. On this basis, his supporters claim that the most appropriate interpretation of the constitution would be to treat the president as if he had fallen under (a). If the Constitutional Court agrees, Lungu will be deemed not to have served a full term, and is eligible to stand again.
This, coupled with the fact that Lungu appointed the Constitutional Court last year, has encouraged the president to believe that he can carry the day. Indeed, while most leaders pretend not to be actively campaigning for a third term until they are sure that it is in the bag, the Zambian president has openly stated his desire to retain the top job, despite the next election not being until 2021.
However, recent analysis that has suggested that the president is now a shoe-in for a third term risks overstating the case. There are a number of important players who will seek to block Lungu’s third-term bid, both without and within his own political party. Despite its narrow election victory in 2016, the Patriotic Front remains deeply divided. Moreover, allegations of election rigging mean that the president’s mandate is questionable. At the same time, international donors are increasingly worried about Lungu’s poor record on both political and economic governance. Against this backdrop, efforts to force through a third term are likely to generate considerable opposition, both within the legislature and on the streets.
This is significant because it was precisely this combination that blocked Chiluba’s path back in 2001. While much of the academic and media coverage focussed on high-profile civil society protests, it was a revolt by Chiluba’s own MPs that denied him the votes he required to change the constitution through parliament. Lungu will be hoping that a combination of carrot and stick – patronage and intimidation – will be sufficient to marshal parliament to his side if the Constitutional Court does not rule in his favour. He may well be right, especially as Zambian civil society is significantly weaker today than it was in the past and his MPs have recently been falling over each other to express their loyalty in the media. However, it is worth keeping in mind that the last Zambian president to make such as assumption ended up profoundly disappointed.
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*This post was updated following particularly helpful comments and suggestions from Sishuwa Sishuwa. Any errors or mistakes remain my own.