A Perilous Path: How Exceeding Term Limits Can Foster Violent Extremism

After the deadly attacks on hotels in Mali in November and Burkina Faso in January, neighboring Senegal is justifiably worried about the threat of violent extremism spilling over into its territory. Next week the U.S. government will begin jointly conducting a three-week military exercise in Senegal and Mauritania, alongside African and European troops, to improve African countries’ responses to such attacks. But to counteract violent extremism in the region, military preparedness alone is not enough; U.S. officials should focus on the drivers that foster grievances leading to violence, including violations of presidential term limits.

When President Obama addressed the African Union in July he said, “When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife, as we’ve seen in Burundi. And this is often just a first step down a perilous path.”

On this issue, Senegal stands out. In late January 2016, Senegalese President Macky Sall proposed a constitutional reform to change the president’s mandate from seven to five years. It would also limit the president to two consecutive terms in office. He is making good on a campaign promise, and sending a message to the region. As he said in March 2015, “People must see that in Africa, we are capable of setting an example and that power is not an end in itself.”

The proposal will be put to a public referendum, likely in May. If approved, it would shorten President Sall’s tenure and move the next election from 2019 to 2017.

On the other end of the spectrum, the crisis in Burundi is indicative of how badly things can go wrong when heads of state violate their mandates. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power traveled to Burundi in mid-January as part of a delegation of the U.N. Security Council to address the violence that erupted when President Pierre Nkurunziza insisted, last April, on running for a third term despite constitutional prohibitions.

Just a few days ago, the African Union walked back on its commitment to send a peacekeeping mission to Burundi. President Nkurunziza had threatened to fight any troops that entered the country without consent, likening peacekeepers to an “invasion.” Security forces in Burundi perpetrated mass killings and some opposition factions have taken up arms, causing a quarter of a million people to flee the country. These developments are not only disastrous for Burundi, but also threaten regional stability.

Meanwhile, Rwandan President Paul Kagame hastily called a referendum in December, which passed easily, to allow him to seek another term and potentially stay in power until 2034. When the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), whose leader has been in power for 31 years, sought a similar constitutional reform last October, the country erupted into protests which were violently put down. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is also due for elections this year, but they may be postponed as President Joseph Kabila seeks to extend his term in office. A top U.N. official recently warned of “very real risks of unrest and violence” there over elections.

To promote peace and stability in the region and diminish the grievances that fuel extremism, the United States should focus its efforts not only on military partnerships, but also on promoting rule of law. This means matching words with action in countries like Burundi, bolstering the credibility of an international response when term limits are violated, and commending heads of state like Senegal President Macky Sall who champion responsible constraints on executive power.

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Published on February 3, 2016

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