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Region-wide Presidential Term Limits for West Africa? Not So Fast.

President of the Gambia Yahya Jammeh. He has been in power since 1994.UN photo by Erin Siegal. Used under Creative Commons license BY-NC-ND 2.0.

President of the Gambia Yahya Jammeh. He has been in power since 1994. UN photo by Erin Siegal. Used under Creative Commons license BY-NC-ND 2.0.

West African leaders meeting in Accra, Ghana, have dropped the idea of instituting a two-presidential-term limit across the region, thanks to the opposition of The Gambia and Togo, the only member states without term limits. Throughout most of West Africa, states’ constitutions prevent presidents from serving more than two terms.

Last year, Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore was ousted when he tried to change the constitution to stay in office after 27 years in power.

President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia seized power in a military coup in 1994 and had since won four presidential elections. Domestic and international election observers, including observers from the African Union (AU) and Commonwealth Secretariat have always described the election as “free fair and peaceful”. However, in the run up to the last presidential election (in November 2011), the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) declined to send election observers to The Gambia, arguing that the elections will not be “free and fair”.

President Faure Gnassingbe, on the other hand, gained the Togolese presidency in 2005 after the demise of his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who took power in a coup in 1967. Last month, Mr Gnassingbe, now 48 years old, won a contest marred by opposition protests, though the AU and ECOWAS described the election as “free and fair”.

According to Reuters, Ghana’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Hannah Tetteh, said that the proposal was put on the agenda at the meeting in Accra, but the “dissenting view (from Togo and The Gambia) became the majority view at the end of the day”, Tetteh explained.

People throughout West Africa have vented their anger online about the abandonment of region-wide term limits. While some are still optimistic, others are disappointed and outraged, especially given the widespread sentiment that the region has made difficult progress toward adopting such checks and balances on executive state power.

Gambian Internet user Sanna Camara was unhappy with the summit’s outcome, wonderng how 16 heads of state could make such an important decision while ignoring the wishes of millions of West Africans:

Where's the voice of ECOWAS citizens in decisions such as the ones that just took place in Accra?
Whatever happens to the ECOWAS of the People's dream?
How could 16 ECOWAS citizens (call them heads of state) take certain crucial decision without the voice of hundreds of millions of her people?
No wonder the economic integration process and the single currency project (Eco) suffered a staggering slow process of realization…
Ignorant and self serving leaders, who became leaders by chance or dictators by design are the ones expected to take our dreams forward… I am not a historian but I understand that unity as we yearn for in Africa today cannot be realized if countries are not willing to relax their stiff sovereignty muscles which they flex in the name of their people and states, to reflect on the implications of present day decisions over future prospects for their people…

Al Amin Jahaten replied cynically:

Well, what do you expect when the power of the state – the power to make decisions on behalf of the citizens – is in the hands of ‘legitimate’ criminals, rogues and thieves who legalise their powers with the votes of the ‘educated illiterates and ignorant'….

Nshom­wanmomtanla was surprised that dissenting views from two countries could become the “majority view”. Commenting on Facebook, he wrote:

how did a dissenting view by 2 countries become a majority view in a regional summit that had more than 4 countries in attendance? were there abstentions?

Alhagie Jobe echoed similar concerns:

Only two nations should not hold all 15 nation bloc to ransom. A vote should have been conducted and the majority should carry the vote. How can only two nations say no against 13 other nations and it stand. In fact, the leaders where just acting as sheep in wolf clothing. All of them did not support it but where pretending as if they are.

Ona Victor Obinna expressed a certain hopelessness:

Yaya Jammeh and Faure Gnassigbe are recipes for political instability in the West Africa sub region, yet the other heads of statement couldn't caution and control their power drunk minds. It's a shame.

Thierno Ba had a warning for ECOWAS:

I might add we don't wanna hear any condemnation of any eventual coup against those despots.

Hassan Matia wondered how a country like The Gambia can be part of a forum about democracy:

What do you expect telling a thief to investigate itself. What the heck was Gambia doing there in the first place? Gambia is not qualified to talk about human right or democracy.

Modou Joof thought that the regional bloc is joking, asking how the views of two heads of state supplanted the interests of 13 nations:

How can the views of only 2 of 15 States become a ‘majority view'? We knew the whole bloc was pretending, an insult to the intelligence of over 300 million citizens of the community.

Some Internet users, however, such as Adisa A. Alkebulan, argued that leaders should serve as long as the people want them to:

Presidents should serve for as long as the people will have them. One term or 10 as long as they serve at the pleasure of their people. But they should not impose themselves on an unwanting people or by exralegal or military means. And we shouldn't reject a president because Europeans have trained us into believing in the divinity of 2 terms. Having said that, most euro/America serving African presidents aren't worthy of a single term

“Why change them if they are working hard?” asked Juneil Bryte:

Allow Africa learn their own form of democracy. Stop forcing us to change our presidents after 2 terms. If they are working hard y change them? This is what the west and America use to destroy us. Do we always have to be like them. This is Africa. Allow us..

While the debate about presidential term limits continues online, it's unlikely to have any effect on the decision reached at the summit. The citizens of The Gambia and Togo will probably have to rely on other means, should they wish to pursue democratic change.

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