- Since 1960, fourteen heads of state across sub-Saharan Africa have held office for more than thirty years.
- After declining for decades, military coups are on the rise, while incumbents are using so-called constitutional coups to secure longer terms.
- In some countries, pressure from civil society and regional blocs has successfully halted leaders’ attempts to extend their rule.
Sub-Saharan Africa is home to many of the world’s longest-ruling heads of state. Some postcolonial leaders in the 1960s and 1970s sought to become “president for life,” with several managing to remain in power for three or more terms. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the trend of entrenched leadership had spread across the region, spurring corruption, instability, societal fractures, and economic stagnation.
The trend has been thwarted in some countries, in part due to sustained pressure by civil society groups and regional blocs, but a global rise in authoritarianism threatens to undo recent progress. With the COVID-19 pandemic giving leaders an opening to postpone elections and stay in power, a string of coups since 2020 has underscored a trend toward growing instability, mounting frustration with leadership, and weakening trust in democratic institutions.
How prevalent is this trend?
Many African countries struggled with transfers of power in their first half century after independence. Leaders who gained recognition during national movements for independence consolidated power and bound their own positions in office with their countries’ national identities. In 2023, five sitting African heads of state had been in power for more than three decades each: Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea, Paul Biya in Cameroon, Denis Sassou Nguesso in the Republic of Congo, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, and Isaias Afwerki in Eritrea.
More than half a dozen other African heads of state have been in power for at least ten years. In two countries, Gabon and Togo, family dynasties have ruled for more than fifty years, while leaders in other countries are priming family members to follow in their footsteps. Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, for example, appointed his son, nephew, and wife to his cabinet shortly after his reelection in 2023.
However, several longtime leaders have been deposed or otherwise left office in recent years. In 2017, Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down after thirty-eight years in office, and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was forced from office by a military coup after thirty-seven years. Two years later, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir was ousted after three decades in power. In 2021, Chad’s Idriss Déby, who also ruled for thirty years, died following a battlefield clash with rebels. Though the frequency of coups had declined over the past two decades, they are again on the rise, with ten attempted takeovers on the continent since 2020, including in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Most recently, in August 2023, Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, was ousted by the military after nearly fourteen years in office.
What has been its impact on growth and stability?
Strong correlations exist between sub-Saharan Africa’s entrenched leadership and its developmental and security challenges, including conflict or instability, stagnant or declining economies, and democratic backsliding. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2022 Democracy Index finds that nearly two dozen countries in sub-Saharan Africa have authoritarian governments. Rights abuses in the countries with the longest-serving leaders have included secret or arbitrary arrests and detentions, tight restrictions on freedom of expression, and police brutality, according to monitoring groups. Prominent examples include:
Gabon. President Omar Bongo Ondimba held power for nearly forty-two years, from 1967 until his death in 2009, and was succeeded by his son, Ali Bongo Ondimba. Ali Bongo extended the family’s rule another fourteen years, until August 2023. Following his reelection that month, a military junta forced him out, citing widespread frustration over rigged elections, corruption, and widespread poverty under Bongo’s rule.
Zimbabwe. Once one of the continent’s richest nations, Zimbabwe tumbled under Mugabe to a place of chronic underdevelopment with a long-struggling economy. Mugabe’s alleged misuse of federal funds has been linked to underfunded and dysfunctional government departments and programs. In the wake of a slew of constitutional amendments granting Mugabe broad power, the country experienced drops in life expectancy and per capita income between 1990 and 2005. Two years after his ouster, Mugabe died in Singapore, where he had been receiving medical treatment. Economic instability and public unrest have continued under Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa: fuel price hikes in 2019 prompted widespread protests, to which security forces responded with a brutal crackdown that killed at least twelve people. A 2023 election saw a Mnangagwa victory that was widely believed to be fraudulent.
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Under the three-decade-long dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, the DRC suffered from gross corruption, embezzlement, and neglect of public infrastructure. An economy based almost exclusively on mineral extraction deteriorated as Mobutu forced out foreign-owned companies and embezzled government funds. Laurent-Désiré Kabila overthrew Mobutu in 1997 but was assassinated in 2001; his son, Joseph, succeeded him, amassing a fortune by stealing state funds and effectively disregarding the provision of public services. A war in the country’s east, considered the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II, continued under his presidency. Kabila stepped down after a December 2018 election, two years after his mandate was set to end, though election observers and many opposition leaders questioned the vote’s legitimacy.
Sudan. Omar al-Bashir came to power in a 1989 military coup that ousted the democratically elected prime minister. He remained in office despite allegations by international and domestic observers of widespread electoral irregularities and fraud. He presided over a decades-long civil war that ended with the south seceding to become the new state of South Sudan in 2011. Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for involvement in attacks on civilians in Darfur. Following months of protests sparked by the rising price of bread, the armed forces pushed Bashir out in April 2019. The interim government that replaced him was toppled by a coup in 2021, and in 2023, a power struggle catapulted the country into civil war.
Burundi. According to Human Rights Watch, the dire humanitarian situation in Burundi remained largely unchanged following the June 2020 death of President Pierre Nkurunziza, who held power for almost fifteen years. He oversaw a brutal crackdown against protesters who rejected his bid for a third term in 2015. The security services and the ruling party’s youth league were again accused of widespread abuses around the 2020 presidential election, in which Nkurunziza declined to run and Évariste Ndayishimiye was declared the victor. Analysts note that Ndayishimiye has signaled a willingness to implement reforms, but that these gestures have so far been largely symbolic.
Why has the problem persisted?
Leaders are increasingly securing longer terms through “constitutional coups,” proposing amendments for approval by the legislature or judiciary, or in national referenda, that allow for additional terms in office. This practice grew more frequent after 2000, when many postcolonial leaders were nearing the ends of their constitutional term limits. The COVID-19 pandemic also tipped the scales to enable greater leverage for African leaders, experts note, giving them a pretext for postponing elections, stifling opposition, and implementing strict public-health measures as a means to justify using force against civilians.
Since the turn of the century, at least two dozen heads of state have tried to remain in power by tweaking their countries’ constitutions or evading term limits. Guinean President Lansana Conté did so in 2001, followed by Gnassingbé Eyadéma, president of Togo, in 2002. One year later, the Gabonese parliament voted to remove term limits from its constitution, allowing President Omar Bongo to run for a sixth term. Following these initial instances, attempts to extend terms became fairly regular occurrences, popping up every one to two years on the continent in countries including Angola, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Djibouti, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, Sudan, and Uganda.
Angola’s dos Santos and former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, among others, claimed they were eligible to run for additional terms because the constitutions containing term limits were passed during their mandates; they argued the limits should only apply to future presidential terms. Uganda’s Museveni paired the elimination of term limits with the introduction of multiparty politics to pass a constitutional amendment in 2005, and his party eliminated the presidential age limit in a 2017 amendment. Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara defied a two-term limit to run in the country’s 2020 election, which was boycotted by Ouattara’s main opponents and their supporters.
Many experts say that a lack of effective political opposition leaves countries vulnerable to constitutional coups by undermining public trust in democracy. Polling by the pan-African research group Afrobarometer suggests [PDF] that only 44 percent of Africans believed in 2022 that holding elections actually enables voters to remove unwanted leaders. Though several countries across sub-Saharan Africa tout themselves as multiparty states, some, including Cameroon and Rwanda, remain de facto one-party states. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, who has effectively been the country’s leader since 1994, secured another seven-year term in August 2017, with the electoral commission reporting he had the support of almost 99 percent of voters. Kagame has confirmed he will run for a fourth term in the 2024 election, and said he would consider governing “for another twenty years.”
Kleptocratic incumbents have even more incentives to stay in office; they could lose their wealth if they were to lose power and potentially face prosecution. The network of businesses that Kabila and his family built in and beyond the DRC has brought them hundreds of millions of dollars. Angola’s dos Santos was long accused of funneling government funds to a small group of elites, as well as to his own family. His daughter Isabel, who headed the state oil company in 2016–17, was considered the wealthiest woman on the continent; following the release of a trove of documents known as the Luanda Leaks in 2020, authorities froze her assets. State prosecutors are seeking to bring her to trial for alleged corruption and mismanagement, and in 2022, the international police organization Interpol issued a warrant for her arrest.
During his tenure, Mugabe called the push for term limits a Western attempt to “place a yoke around the necks of African leaders,” and some politicians who concur with him point to Western democracies, including the United Kingdom and Canada, that have no such provisions.
When have leaders failed to extend their rule?
Zambian President Frederick Chiluba’s and Malawian President Bakili Muluzi’s proposals to raise presidential term limits in 2001 and 2003, respectively, were stopped after opposition and civil society groups formed alliances with lawmakers from the countries’ ruling parties. In 2006, Nigeria’s senate rejected an amendment put forth by President Olusegun Obasanjo that would have allowed him to serve a third term. Gabon’s legislature voted to reduce the presidential term length from seven to five years in the months leading up to Bongo’s 2023 reelection.
Citizens have often opposed constitutional coup attempts through protest, at times successfully blocking them. In 2012, large protests in Senegal led to an electoral defeat for Wade, who was running for a disputed third term. After weeks of demonstrations in 2014, Burkinabe citizens stopped Blaise Compaoré from repealing the constitutional provision on term limits and forced his resignation. Several military coup attempts across the Sahel have also been stopped short of assuming the reins of the government. Gabon’s and Niger’s authorities each staved off coups in 2021, but the countries both saw subsequent coups in 2023 that managed to succeed.
Polling from 2023 shows [PDF] that democracy and strong term limits remain popular among Africans, but some experts warn that their support could erode if democracies are not able to deliver clear benefits to their constituencies. Some of the recent power grabs have appealed to Africans fed up with decades-long leaders they see as incompetent and self-serving. “It’s also important not to brush aside the reality that for most Africans, democracy has been nothing more than a grand ruse in which power is hoarded by a dynasty or narrow band of egotistical elites. As long as this remains the case, millions of Africans will continue to find military rule attractive,” CFR expert Ebenezer Obadare writes for the Wall Street Journal.
How have regional and international actors responded?
The African Union (AU) has prevented some military coups by threatening countries with suspension, sanctions, or military intervention. Most recently, in August 2023, it suspended the membership of Gabon and Niger, and as it did for Burkina Faso and Mali in the wake of their latest coups.
But the bloc has been criticized for not taking similar actions against attempts at extending presidential terms. In 2012, the AU ratified the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance [PDF], which calls on its member states to identify illegal means of accessing power or staying in office, including refusals “to relinquish power after free, fair, and transparent elections” and constitutional amendments that infringe upon “the principles of democratic changes of power,” and sanction those responsible. Yet, the body “has yet to seriously confront an incumbent president for manipulating constitutional rules to entrench their regime,” writes Adem K. Abebe, an expert on constitution building.
The West African bloc ECOWAS has taken action in some cases. A military offensive by ECOWAS troops forced President Yahya Jammeh, who had ruled since 1994, to step down and leave Gambia in 2017. The bloc has also threatened military intervention to undo the 2023 Niger coup, but divisions within the group have thus far kept any deployment at bay. The body often deploys observers to help ensure free and fair elections in the region; in 2020, it sent observers to countries including Ghana, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast. However, experts say the bloc is increasingly challenged by leaders seeking to cling to power, including Gambia’s Barrow, who has reneged on a promise to step down after three years.
The United Nations and the European Union (EU) have imposed sanctions on several African countries, including Burundi, the DRC, Niger, and Zimbabwe, in response to impeded political transitions or fair elections. In the case of Gambia in 2017, the United Nations endorsed ECOWAS military action and threatened sanctions if Jammeh refused to leave. Millions in EU development aid to Gambia was frozen in 2014 due to human rights concerns under Jammeh; following Jammeh’s departure, the bloc released the funds.
What is U.S. policy toward extended mandates?
Promoting democracy has long been a U.S. priority in the region. President Barack Obama said in a 2012 brief on U.S. strategy in sub-Saharan Africa that the United States would “not stand idly by when actors threaten legitimately elected governments or manipulate the fairness and integrity of democratic processes.” In an address to AU leaders three years later, Obama urged the body to ensure that heads of state comply with term limits.
President Donald Trump’s administration said it would not “subsidize corrupt leaders and abusers of human rights” on the continent, but a new Africa strategy outlined in 2018 marked a shift in priority from democracy advancement to countering China and Russia in the region. Still, experts say the Trump administration largely continued the Africa policies of its predecessors and backed pro-democracy initiatives, such as in Sudan following Bashir’s overthrow.
Since taking office in 2021, President Joe Biden has sought to combat democratic backsliding in Africa and other regions. As part of this effort, Biden has convened two global “summits for democracy,” during which countries were expected to make concrete commitments to combat corruption and authoritarianism, as well as advance human rights. And in 2022, Biden hosted delegates from forty-nine African countries and the African Union for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, focused on shoring up democracy in the region. The leaders’ summit resulted in a U.S. pledge to channel $75 million over three years toward supporting African democratic institutions and civil society.
The United States has also imposed economic sanctions, including bans on travel to the United States and business transactions with U.S. nationals, on individuals who “undermine democratic processes.” In 2003, the United States issued sanctions against the Zimbabwean government that remain in place today. The Obama and Trump administrations sanctioned top officials from the DRC over political repression and election delays that occurred around the time Kabila’s term was due to expire. Following elections in 2019 and 2020 in Nigeria, Washington imposed visa restrictions on individuals accused of undermining voting. The United States has also threatened sanctions against Niger following the 2023 coup there.
At the same time, analysts contend that the United States has often prioritized security interests over concerns about prolonged rule. Washington has chosen not to penalize long-serving leaders of partners, such as Cameroon, Chad, and Uganda. And in the DRC, CFR expert Michelle Gavin points out, Washington accepted disputed 2018 election results to avoid further instability. The U.S. military trains partner nations’ military forces, shares intelligence with them, and helps their troops combat Islamist rebel groups on the continent, including al-Shabab in Kenya and Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria. In 2021, the Biden administration announced it would deploy additional U.S. forces to Kenya, signaling a reversal of the Trump administration’s planned military drawdown in the region. Meanwhile, the United States has struggled to respond to the rising influence of China and Russia, which have positioned themselves as anti-Western alternative partners by bolstering authoritarian leaders across the continent.
CFR senior fellow Ebenezer Obadare writes for the Wall Street Journal to explain why coups are having a ripple effect around the continent.
For the Africa in Transition blog, CFR senior fellow Michelle Gavin writes about Zimbabwe’s flawed 2023 election that kept Mnangagwa in office.
Former CFR fellow John Campbell and Nolan Quinn examine the recent democratic decline across sub-Saharan Africa.
CFR’s Sub-Saharan Security Tracker maps instances of political violence across the continent.
The Africa Center for Strategic Studies looks at the growing trend of African leaders circumventing term limits.
Brittany Brown, Nathalie Bussemaker, and Zachary Rosenthal contributed to this report. Will Merrow created the graphic.