A number of countries in West Africa are undergoing a constitutional reform process, in pursuit of stronger, democratic institutions: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Mali. Senegal held a constitutional referendum earlier this year. In stark contrast to recent constitutional changes and ongoing debates in the Central Africa region – Congo Brazzaville, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – where focus has been on extending presidential terms, the declared intent of some of these reforms is to build bulwarks against presidential overreach and overstay.
The constitutional changes in Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Mali follow the violent overturn of democratic processes in all three countries, albeit under very different circumstances. In Benin and Senegal, constitutional reform was a promise of the presidential campaigns of Patrick Talon and Macky Sall, respectively.
Constitutional review commissions in Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire are preparing completely new constitutions. A principal concern in Burkina Faso is to find ways to “lock in” presidential term limits and to better balance strong presidential powers. It was former President Blaise Compaoré’s attempt at removing presidential term limits that led to his overthrow in October 2014 in a popular uprising. A 92-member commission representing the ruling party, opposition parties (including the CDP of Compaoré) and civil society (including labor unions and traditional authorities) was seated in early June. Its members have two months to present a new draft constitution. The draft will undergo popular consultations, go to the president for comment and be finalized by the commission before submission to a popular referendum. Opposition parties have demanded, however, that the decisions of the constitutional commission be reached by consensus, threatening to walk out on the process otherwise.
In Cote d’Ivoire, President Ouattara appointed a commission of 10 experts at the end of May, giving them a month to make proposals for a new constitution. During the month of June, Ouattara himself undertook consultations with opposition parties, civil society, traditional leaders and others to receive their suggestions before scheduling a referendum to take place before the end of the year. Key expected changes include the introduction of a vice-presidency and the rewording of article 35 which requires a presidential candidate to be born of both parents of Ivorian origin. The constitutional review process is controversial, however. Opposition parties criticize it for being insufficiently participatory, rushed and ill-timed, as the country has yet to fully heal and reconcile after the 2010 election-related violence.
In Mali, a 13-member expert commission is charged with proposing revisions to the 1992 constitution to incorporate provisions of the 2015 Algiers peace accord signed between the government of Mali and former rebel groups. The constitutional commission will have six months to complete its job. The 1992 constitution is the consensual product of the 1992 National Conference and is vested with significant popular legitimacy. It is unlikely to be completely scrapped and replaced.
The constitutional revision that passed by referendum in Senegal in March of this year shortened presidential terms from seven to five years, and added wording to clarify that “no one can serve more than two consecutive terms” (Art. 27). Other articles were amended to provide for greater oversight by the National Assembly and Constitutional Court, although changes affecting presidential powers are overall fairly minor.
In an even more radical move, newly elected President Patrice Talon of Benin has suggested that presidential terms be limited to one single term. A 35-member commission with representation from political parties and civil society was charged with proposing a series of political and institutional reforms. The commission submitted its report on June 28. The report includes two constitutional scenarios – one where the current two five-year terms are maintained, the other where they are replaced by one single six- or seven year term. The commission was divided on the issue, as some members were concerned a single term would not provide sufficient incentives for accountability.
The process and focus of these various constitutional reforms vary and reflect different priorities and political realities in each country. Overall, however, the combined picture is one of democratic dynamism that contrasts sharply with the institutional atrophy witnessed in other regions of the continent.