Senegal – Back to presidentialism?

Newly reelected President Macky Sall has given his prime minister, Mahammed Boun Abdallah Dionne, the unenviable task of eliminating his own position. This will entail changing Senegal’s constitution — once again — and reintroduce a presidential system.

Despite Senegal’s history of relative political stability, the country’s constitutional history has been far from stable. Senegal is at its fourth constitution, since 1959, and has changed government system several times already. In between constitutions, there have been numerous constitutional amendments, most of which have been passed by a legislative vote without resorting to a referendum.

In August 1960, Senegal adopted its second constitution — and its first as an independent, separate republic — after abandoning the short-lived Mali Federation created by the first 1959 constitution. The 1960 constitution was modeled on the 1958 French example with a dual executive: with an indirectly elected president as head of state and a prime minister (“cabinet president”) appointed by the president, but accountable to the National Assembly. Léopold Sédar Senghor was elected Senegal’s first president and his close political ally Mamadou Moustapha Dia became the country’s first prime minister.

This two-headed executive system did not survive a rapidly mounting power struggle between Senghor and Dia that culminated in a constitutional crisis in 1962. Legislators were about to take a no confidence vote in Dia, when the prime minister ordered the army to hinder access to the National Assembly building. Senghor accused Dia of a constitutional coup attempt and had him arrested. The military remained loyal to the president and Dia spent the next 12 years in jail. Senghor promptly took steps to avoid a similar situation in the future and initiated a new, presidential constitution that was approved by referendum in March 1963 (the country’s third constitution in four years). Senghor was reelected in December of that year by popular vote for a four-year presidential term, without term limits. In 1967, in the first of what was to be a be a total of 20 revisions to the 1963 constitution, the presidential term was increased to five years.

Senegal returned to a dual executive system in 1970 with the reintroduction of the prime minister position, in an effort to defuse tensions in a context of social unrest with student demonstration and labor strikes. Senghor initiated a referendum on a constitutional change that this time resulted in a fully fledged semi-presidential government system, providing for a directly elected president and a prime minister accountable to parliament (modeled on the 1962 revised French constitution). This revision also introduced a two-term presidential term limit. This limit was, however, removed again in the fifth constitutional revision of April 1976.

Before finishing his fourth elected term, Senghor resigned on December 31, 1980. Prime Minister Abdou Diouf became president and served out the rest of the term. Shortly after being elected president on his own account in 1983, Diouf initiated a constitutional change to return Senegal to presidentialism. The argumentation presented for the revision included the need for greater efficiency and effectiveness of government action and the expressed desire for a more direct contact between the president and the population. This time, presidentialism survived for eight years, till 1991. With the return to semi-presidentialism in 1991, as the third wave of democratization swept across Africa, Senegal also reintroduced presidential term limits. The term limits were, however, removed again in 1998, in the 19th revision to the 1963 constitution.

When Abdoulaye Wade won the presidency in 2000, marking the first time that executive power transitioned from one party to another in Senegal’s history, the new president initiated the elaboration of a new constitution. The country thus got its fourth and current constitution adopted by referendum in 2001. Senegal retained a semi-presidential system of government, and reintroduced presidential term limits. This new constitution has not fared much better than the old one, however, in terms of amendments. By 2010, the constitutional text had already been revised 15 times, according to Robert Elgie.

Senegal – Changes in government system and presidential term limits

1960Dual executive system, no presidential term limits
1963Presidentialism
1970Semi-presidentialism, term limits introduced [removed again in 1976]
1983Presidentialism
1991Semi-presidentialism, term limits reintroduced [removed again in 1998, reintroduced in 2001]
2019??Presidentialism??

President Macky Sall, shortly after being elected in 2012, initiated a constitutional revision to remove the senate from Senegal’s democratic architecture, but has overall had a less piecemeal approach to constitutional reform. In 2016, the government introduced a series of amendments that touched 20 articles of the constitution and were passed by referendum. Chief among these was the reduction of the length of presidential terms to five years, from the seven years it had been increased to under Wade. Sall’s second term, after his reelection in February of this year, will thus be reduced to five years.  

Sall is now following in the footsteps of Diouf, moving to return Senegal to presidentialism. Perhaps it is his shortened presidential term that provides Sall with a sense of urgency and the desire to streamline decision-making processes. His arguments for returning to presidentialism echo those of Diouf, saying that eliminating the prime minister position will help “reduce administrative bottlenecks” and “bring the administration closer to the people.” His critics allege it is a power grab. It is striking that Sall did not mention his plans to change government system during his campaign for reelection. The first indication of his intentions came in an announcement on April 6, by Mahammed Dionne whom he had just reappointed prime minister. The government thereafter moved quickly and on April 17 adopted a constitutional amendment removing the prime minister position.

The proposed constitutional amendment was on April 24 sent to the National Assembly that will now review and debate the proposed changes. A vote is set for May 4th. It will require a three fifth majority to pass the amendment by legislative vote, a likely outcome in a legislature where the presidential coalition controls a 75 percent majority (125 out of 165 seats). Should the legislative vote pass with less than 60 percent, a referendum is required. The text of the constitutional amendment has not yet been made public, but an alleged copy is circulating online. Reportedly, besides transferring responsibilities as head of government to the president, the revised text also foresees a clearer separation of powers between the legislature and the executive: on the one hand the legislature can no longer topple the cabinet through a no confidence vote, on the other hand, the president cannot dissolve the legislature as is currently the case.

There is no indication that the proposed constitutional amendment will touch on presidential term limits. Hopefully Sall will not follow in the steps of another previous president – Wade – who stood for a third term despite term limit provisions. Wade argued in 2012 that he should be allowed to run again because presidential term limits had been reintroduced in 2001, after he was elected, and could not be considered retroactively. Elsewhere on the continent, Côte  d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara has argued that the adoption of a new constitution in 2016 reset the term limit counter and that he could therefore run again in 2020, if he wanted to. In Senegal, the difference is that if the amendment passes, the country will have a new government system, but not a new constitution. It remains to be seen whether this is a sure bulwark in a country and region where term limits have proven fickle in the past. In neighboring Guinea, President Alpha Conde and his supporters seem increasingly intent on initiating a constitutional referendum that would lift term limits before Conde’s second and last term comes to an end next year. Despite significant democratic progress in West Africa over the past decade, the notion of presidential term limits does not yet appear to be firmly entrenched.

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