Development vs Democracy: Is Third-Termism Africa’s Path to Sustainability?


The growing trend of third-termism in Africa is a big topic on the international scene. The likes of Britain and the US have worked closely with African leaders to establish democratic roots across the continent. Yet all that effort is starting to unravel as more heads of state break or change constitutions to run for third terms in power.

This prompts obvious questions about the state of democracy in Africa. However, some would argue democracy doesn’t guarantee the economic development many African nations need. In fact, the miracle stories of recent emerging economies all have something in common: strong leaderships overcoming many of the struggles we see in Africa today.


Africa’s ‘democratic’ leaders

Some of the biggest success stories in Africa’s recent history come out of the East African region. Kenya remains the powerhouse, although Uganda is shaping up as a lasting presence in the region. Meanwhile, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania are rising names that look set to take the region’s economy into the next stage of development.

These countries also come with some of the most prominent names in African politics. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, in particular, have been credited for pulling their countries out of crisis and into economic stability. The rate of development speaks for itself:


Uganda under Museveni

  • Poverty headcount dropped from 33.8% in 1999 to 19.5% in 2012
  • Average life expectancy up from 44 years in 1996 to 59.2 in 2015
  • GDP growth rose from -3.3% in 1985 to 6% in 2013


Rwanda under Kagame

  • Poverty headcount down from 56.7% in 2005 to 44.9% in 2010
  • Average life expectancy up from 36 in 1996 to 65 in 2015
  • GDP growth -50.2% in 1994 to 4.7% in 2013


Source: World Bank


These leaders were also once hailed for their efforts to bring peace and calm after terrible human rights violations. There is a downside, though. As time has passed and these regimes have become increasingly oppressive and the praise heaped on them by the international community has turned into growing concern.


Lessons from Asia’s rising dragons

Two of the most impressive economic stories of the developed world emerged from Asia over the last 60 years. Singapore and South Korea both rose from conflict and poverty to become two of the world’s leading economies in less than half a decade.

During that time, Singapore had only one leader – the iconic Lee Kuan Yew – until he stepped down in 1990. He won seven consecutive elections and turned his country into a global financial powerhouse. However, his regime was a dictatorial stronghold on power in its early days – one celebrated both in Singapore and abroad.

Korea’s path was a little more painful, however. Democratic shifts, military seizures of power and some serious human rights violations marred its meteoric development. You can still hear and see the pain on the streets of Seoul and other South Korean cities today, but the rate of development was incredible. Which begs the question whether rapid growth and democracy are different sides of the same coin.


The dark side if third-termism in Africa

None of this takes away from the social and political concerns of dictatorial leaderships. At best, the media often falls first in line for censorship and opposition is often wiped out before its voice can be heard.

Uganda’s main opposition leader currently awaits trial for the second time on charges of treason. Burundi’s government refuses to hold dialogue with opposition groups during peace talks as the body count from its political crisis continues to rise. Meanwhile, new reports of human rights violations against media officials, protestors and civilians in East Africa are commonplace.


Are Africa’s new leaders fairing any better?

Let’s not pretend all of Africa’s leaders are counting the decades as heads of state. Elections continue to nominate new presidents and the political climates in these nations are just as varied as the rest.

Kenya would be East Africa’s shining example of democracy, with Uhuru Kenyatta set to run for his second term next year. Yet his victory was marred by such violence he faced charges of war crimes from the International Criminal Court (ICC). And, more than a year before his second campaign, the build-up to elections has already turned violent. Recent protests against the country’s electoral commission resulted in live ammunition being used against crowds of unarmed protestors.

Meanwhile, the level of corruption in Kenya has halted growth and put its place as the region’s economic leader under threat.

Things are far worse in South Sudan, where civil war broke out just two years into Salva Kiir’s first term. The country has endured a deadly power struggle that only recently moved away from the streets and into the boardroom. The war and political infighting has been enough to put the oil-rich nation’s economy under serious threat.


So, whether it’s a case of Africa failing democracy or democracy failing Africa, there doesn’t seem to be a perfect compromise for its nations. Elections clearly don’t guarantee peace of the kind of economic development African nations so dearly need. While the conflicted success of nations like Ethiopia only grows stronger as democracy takes a back seat.


Featured image:

By Copyright World Economic Forum ( Miller, – Pierre Nkurunziza – World Economic Forum on Africa 2008, CC BY-SA 2.0,

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.