Guinea headed towards controversial constitutional change

It appears to be official. For months rumors have been swirling that President Alpha Condé was planning a constitutional referendum to adopt a new constitution and by the same token remove presidential term limits. Condé, who is 81 years old, is currently serving his second five-year term which will end next year. According to Guinea’s 2010 constitution, “no one may exercise more than two presidential mandates, consecutive or not.” The constitution also provides that “the number and the duration of the mandates of the President of the Republic may not be made the object of a revision.” So, logically, the only means of amending the presidential term limits is through the adoption of a brand new constitution.

On June 19, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Guinea reportedly issued a note to the country’s diplomatic representations across the world, confirming the government’s intention of submitting a new constitution to a referendum, and laying out the reasons for this initiative. The official reasons for the adoption of a new constitution include among others:

  • That the 2010 constitution was elaborated and adopted by a transitional council and not submitted to a popular vote;
  • That the roles and responsibilities between the president and prime minister are not clearly defined in the existing fundamental text;
  • The cumulatively short duration of legislative sessions during the year;
  • The need to reformulate the articles governing the constitutional court; and
  • The absence of a more elaborate bill of rights, including environmental, defense and women’s and children’s rights.

Interestingly, the note does not make reference to changing presidential term limits. However, revising term limits for the incumbent president is among the changes supported by Conde’s ruling RPG which include the following:

  • Replacing the prime minister with a vice-president;
  • Replacing the existing economic and social council with a senate;
  • Increasing the number of legislators and allowing for independent candidates;
  • Facilitating greater gender equity in elected positions;
  • Reducing the minimum age requirement for presidential candidates from 35 to 30 years of age; and
  • Allowing the incumbent president to run again.

Guinea’s opposition parties are, not surprisingly, less than thrilled with plans to change the constitution and allow President Condé to run for a third term. A coalition of opposition parties, civil society groups and trade unions have come together to form the National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (FNDC), in an effort designed to counter initiatives to change the constitution.

In the context of West Africa where countries have been gradually consolidating mechanisms for the peaceful transfer of executive power, notably through presidential term limits, Guinea would be rowing against the tide. Currently, President Faure Gnassingbé of Togo is the only president serving more that two terms in the subregion. Moreover, Togo just recently reintroduced presidential term limits – though they will not apply retroactively to the sitting president. In The Gambia, ongoing debates on constitutional reform are centered on entrenching, not eliminating presidential term limits. Even in Mauritania, not otherwise known for a stellar democratic record, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is stepping down at the end of his second presidential term, following presidential elections held on June 22.

Guinea is headed towards turbulent times, with presidential elections on the horizon for October 2020. Given the country’s history of violent demonstrations, significant loss of life is to be feared should the referendum to change the constitution proceed. Even if term limits are not revised, the adoption of a new constitution can reset the term limit counter, as we saw President Abdoulaye Wade argue in Senegal when he ran for a third term in 2012. Tensions in Guinea over the constitutional change debate have already boiled over with deadly consequences. At least one person was killed in clashes between police and demonstrators against a third term in the south-eastern city of N’Zerekoré earlier this month. As the announcement of the constitutional referendum becomes official, more violence is likely to follow.

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