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Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

THOMAS MUKOYA/REUTERS

African leaders are afflicted with an acute case of third termitis. Although constitutions in 20 sub-Saharan African nations explicitly prohibit presidents serving more than two usually five-year terms, incumbents like their trappings of office, declare themselves absolutely indispensable (on little evidence), and frequently forcibly shred legal provisions to the contrary.

Vaunted assertions of "indispensability" occur often, think King Kong thumping his chest. Each eruption of such machismo threatens democracy and detracts from routine obedience to prohibitions that heads of state previously pledged to uphold. Tossing aside such constitutional bans ultimately leads to greater corruption, diminished investment, and poor economic growth prospects. It also destroys nation-building endeavours that are still intensely fragile.

Although a dozen African presidents have had their third-term dreams derailed by their own parliaments, by vociferous outpourings of street protest, or both, other mailed-fist autocratic leaders such as Paul Biya in Cameroon, Isaias Afewerki in Eritrea, Yahya Jammeh in the Gambia, Omar al-Bashir in the Sudan, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe cling to power, some for several decades. They have either simply rejected constitutional provisions to the contrary, or coerced their legislatures to remove any constraints. In each of these national cases, popular opinion is repressed, opponents are jailed, and democracy is long buried.

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The latest head of state to repress large-scale protests against the butchering of a constitution and general high-handed arrogance is President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, a Francophone sliver of a state bordering Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Tanzania. He will doubtless be "re-elected" to a third term next week despite African Union, American, and European calls to obey his country's constitutional two-term limit.

Unfortunately, Mr. Nkurunziza's ability to overcome the wishes of thousands of agitated Burundians and to neglect his own early pledges of obedience to the constitution will embolden neighbouring presidents who also seek to ignore or amend their own national bans on more than two terms in office.

President Joseph Kabila, 44, of the massive DRC, is mandated to leave office in 2016 after 14 years. But he has already indicated a strong desire to be declared "indispensable," and thus continue beyond his second term. Protests have already embroiled Kinshasa, the capital, and promise to destroy what little peace and prosperity the war-torn Congo enjoys.

Across the Congo River from Kinshasa is Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo. President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, 71, has held that office for 18 years and wants more, again in 2016. He, too, will try to ignore his country's constitution and street protests.

The more important test of constitutional adherence takes place in Rwanda, a favourite of donors and a country where obedience to the rule of law has gradually been restored. President Paul Kagame, 57, wants to be asked by acclamation to stand again in 2017. He rescued the country from genocide in 1994, effectively ran the country as Minister of Defence and military commander until 2000, became a self-anointed transitional president until 2003, and then orchestrated the writing of a constitution that restricted heads of state to two seven-year periods in high office.

But for months Mr. Kagame has been behind a carefully developing campaign to ensure a third presidential term. Thousands of Rwandans have signed petitions in salute to his "indispensability." Instead of protests, as in Burundi, there have been marches in support, and many other public meetings to back the renewed Kagame-for-president initiative.

Mr. Kagame says that he is "open to going or not going," but he clearly relishes the momentum that his shadow effort is encouraging. A small Rwandan opposition political party is trying to mount a court challenge to slow the momentum's surge, but lawyers in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, have been reluctant to touch anything so antagonistic to Mr. Kagame's wishes.

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Mr. Kagame runs a tightly controlled country where free media and free speech are often abridged. Journalists are detained, political opponents jailed or exiled. Rwanda is suspected of assassinating opposition figures in South Africa and Uganda. Yet Rwanda is stable, crime-free, corruption-free, and comparatively prosperous. Its health services and educational opportunities are improving and its people are much better off than they were before the genocide. Thus, what is different in Rwanda as compared to the DRC and Burundi is that many if not most Rwandans would probably vote now for the Kagame they know than for some post-Kagame contender.

Even if Mr. Kagame is somehow more popular than Mr. Kabila and Mr. Nkurunziza, neither of whom have much widespread national backing, what is at stake is less short-term expedients than the future of democracy and rule of law in Africa. Both are fragile concepts, easily neglected and then destroyed. Mr. Kagame, more than Mr. Kabila and Mr. Nkurunziza, understands that Africa will mature only when constitutionalism prevails. An Africa with reduced ethnic conflict and political and social growth will become likely only when rules of law respected as a matter of course.

As sub-Saharan Africa continues to teeter on the cusp of a full democratic embrace, because he is so well-respected globally and in Africa, Mr. Kagame's personal decision matters. Knowing when to step down is the ultimate act of responsible leadership.

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