Senegal Consolidates Its Constitutional Democracy

While a number of African rulers—most notably Joseph Kabila of the rather ironically named Democratic Republic of the Congo whose ham-fisted attempts to prolong his presidency threaten to reignite the continent’s most bloody conflict—have been trying to extend their tenures by all possible means, fair or foul, voters in Senegal were asked in a March 20 referendum to not only reaffirm the two-term limit on the presidency, but also cut the length of terms themselves down to five years from the current seven years. Altogether, the fifteen constitutional amendments approved by nearly two-thirds of the citizens who took part in the plebiscite consolidate the already significant progress made by the West African country in terms of democratic governance and make it something of a model for the region.

Both the length of presidential mandates and the limits to them have been the source of not inconsiderable controversy in Senegalese politics. President Macky Sall was elected in 2012 in part because of his predecessor’s attempt to manipulate the system. Abdoulaye Wade was first elected to a seven-year term in 2000, but the following year voters approved a new constitution reducing presidential terms to five years. In 2007, Wade was elected to a second term. However, on the morrow of his reelection, he had the National Assembly pass a constitutional amendment going back to the seven-year term. Even more provocatively, he argued that since the constitution of 2001 went into effect during his first term, his initial mandate did not count towards the new two-term limit and that he was entitled to run for another term of seven years in 2012. As it turned out, the Senegalese people had a different view on the matter and, in the presidential run-off, gave Sall a landslide victory with more than 65 percent of the vote over the incumbent who, to his credit, accepted defeat and left office.

One of Sall’s campaign pledges was, in fact, to reduce the presidential term back to five years, beginning with his own. Ultimately, Senegal’s Constitutional Council rejected the proposal to cut the current term, instead ordering that the new reduced term of office would take effect with the next election—a point that the political opposition made much of in the lead up to the poll.

Although most of the attention paid to the referendum has focused on the issue of rights and wrongs of the decision to apply the reduction in presidential mandates only after the next election, now scheduled for 2019, perhaps even more significant in their cumulative effect were the fourteen other constitutional changes approved by the voters, most of which would be deemed quite progressive anywhere, much less in Africa. These include:

  • Reaffirming the strict limit of two consecutive presidential terms (the language adopted preempts any attempt at creative reinterpretation à la Wade: “La durée du mandat du Président de la République est de cinq ans. Nul ne peut exercer plus de deux mandats consecutifs”);
  • Establishing an upper age limit of 75 for presidential candidates (Wade was 84 years old when he tried to win a third term);
  • Allowing independent candidates to run in all elections;
  • Banning political campaigning or organizing that is divisive along racial, ethnic, gender, religious, sectarian, linguistic, or regional lines (the prohibition on religious or sectarian politicking resonates in this overwhelmingly Muslim country that has a long tradition of peaceful coexistence—the widely revered founding president was a Roman Catholic—and is currently menaced by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other jihadist groups operating in neighboring countries);
  • Strengthening the rights of the political opposition, including the creation of the post of Leader of the Opposition, who would have access to government funding and other resources to carry out his or her role in the democratic process;
  • Engaging and empowering the Senegalese diaspora by creating representatives for it in the National Assembly;
  • Expanding parliamentary oversight over government policy and conduct;
  • Increasing the membership of the Constitutional Council from five to seven members, with the two additional members to be nominated by the Speaker of the National Assembly to join the current presidential appointees;
  • Writing into the constitution principles of decentralization and the creation of a High Council of Communities to represent local government entities and to advise the national government on decentralization and regional development;
  • Recognizing rights of citizens to a healthy environment as well as access to natural and land resources and the obligation of the government to steward the latter transparently for sustainable development and economic growth;
  • Proscribing any future attempt to change the republican form of government, the mode of election, the duration and number of consecutive presidential terms.

Senegal has long enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as an exception to the depressing cycle of poor governance, economic mismanagement, military adventurism, and flawed strongmen that have characterized politics in much of post-independence Africa. The only country in the region that has never suffered a military coup, Senegal has also been blessed with extraordinary leaders who nurtured a unique and deeply rooted democratic culture anchored in strong political and civic institutions. Unlike other colonial territories, Senegal has had elections since the late nineteenth century and, in 1914, elected the first black African to sit in a European parliament, Blaise Diagne, as its deputy in the French National Assembly. Diagne subsequently persuaded his colleagues to pass legislation, the Loi Blaise Diagne, which gave full citizenship to residents of the four major municipalities in Senegal, irrespective of their race. Léopold Sédar Senghor, the brilliant philosopher and poet who led the country to independence from France in 1960, established a multiparty political system and a reasonably performing administrative framework before becoming, in 1980, the first postcolonial African leader to voluntarily relinquish office, declaring on his way out his regret over having been away from his beloved books for too long. To give his successor, Abdou Diouf, some political space, Senghor even moved to France, where he settled in his wife’s home village of Verson in Normandy and became the first African elected to the prestigious Académie Française. In his turn, Diouf, after he was defeated in the 2000 run-off election by the long-time opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade, peacefully handed off the presidency and likewise exited the national political scene. And, as noted earlier, after the voters rejected his brazen attempt to cling to office, Wade himself did the right thing and likewise peacefully yielded the reins of power.

The overwhelming “oui” vote in last week’s referendum not only consolidates the enviably stable constitutional democracy which the Senegalese people have built on this legacy, but, together with the extraordinary economic performance under the Macky Sall administration—according to the International Monetary Fund, growth registered at 6.5 percent in 2015, the highest rate in twelve years, buoyed by the government’s Plan Sénégal Emergent reforms as well as an especially buoyant agricultural sector—the choice positions the country up to overcome the real challenges it still faces and achieve even greater success going forward.

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Follow the Africa Center on Twitter at @ACAfricaCenter.

Image: Senegalese President Macky Sall votes in the March 20 referendum. Credit: Présidence de la République Sénégalaise