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Africa: Why China’s Removal of Term Limits Is a Gift to African Despots

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The recent sitting of the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) rolled out a big surprise development: Removal of presidential term limits Paving way for Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely. This came among a raft of other constitutional amendments.

The two-term limit had been instituted in 1982 by Deng Xiaoping after his experience with the chaotic post-Mao succession. Term limits were instituted to facilitate orderly succession and to support China’s reform era.

China’s economic transformation wasn’t to be disrupted or sidetracked by unnecessary political struggles and uncertainty. Consequently, successive communist leaders have abided by this limitation. And it has ushered in relatively smooth and carefully choreographed changes of leadership.

The broader implication of this amendment, critics fear, might be that it signals to African authoritarians to strengthen their grasp on power and push back on the need for leadership alternation.

In fact observers are already pointing to the increasing allure of the China model as a basis for African economic and political development.

In Africa, term limits have acted as a democratic safety net for the untamed African presidency, and their removal has often been counterproductive.Term limits removal in Beijing might have the unintended knock-on effect of weakening faltering democracies on the African continent.

President Xi Jinping’s tenure has been like no other in China’s recent history. Arguably the most transformative leader since Mao Zedong, he has gone on to cement an indelible mark on the system that paved his way to the top.

Xi has also pivoted China to the centre of the world stage. He has midwifed an assertive and confident China that is no longer subservient to the West.

African countries are often castigated for their poor leadership record, long term presidencies and atrocious human rights record. Yet in dealing with African states, China professes a doctrine of non-interference in the internal matters of national governments.

As a result China’s relations with countries such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo,Nigeria and Uganda – to mention a few – have been buoyed by billions of dollars of investment.

With the removal of China’s presidential term limits adds a new dimension to the relationship: African presidents now have a political godfather whose political practice they can claim to emulate. Or at the very least to validate their continued stay in office.

By David E Kiwuwa, Princeton University

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