What Does the New Constitution Mean in African Countries?


When an incumbent leader in an African country claims that the constitution needs to be amended or that a brand new constitution needs to be drafted, this is not a good sign. He is probably nearing the end of his second term as president, but since he does not want to give up his seat, he wants to keep his seat for two more terms by resetting the mileage with the adoption of a new constitution. For 15 years I have been following Africa, and in many cases, constitutions that have been renewed on the basis of honorable principles such as democracy, separation of powers, human rights, social state, rule of law, etc., are in fact malicious attempts to prepare the legal ground for the president to serve for a few more terms.

Constitution amended before elections

This time, Togo, a former French colony in West Africa, swiftly passed constitutional amendments last April, replacing the country’s 65-year-old presidential system and adopting a political model based on a parliamentary system, on the eve of parliamentary elections that had been postponed until late December. On April 29, 10 days after these substantive changes, more than 4 million Togolese voters went to the polls to elect 113 members of parliament and regional assemblies. Under the new constitution, senators, who will be elected by the votes of the members of the regional assemblies, will form the second “chamber” of the new legislature.

Power in Togo has been in the Gnassingbé family since 1967

What do we see when we look at the political history of Togo, which has decided to adopt a parliamentary regime? It is certainly not a proud picture in terms of democracy. In Togo, which gained its independence in 1960, when the first 7 years are set aside, we see only two heads of state: Father Gnassingbé and Son Gnassingbé. In 1967, the father Gnassingbé seized power in a coup and ruled the country until his death. In 2005, the military handed Togo over to the son Gnassingbé. The term of office of 57-year-old Faure Gnassingbé, who has held the reins of his country for 19 years after winning back-to-back presidential elections, will end in 2025. In this respect, Togo is reminiscent of Gabon, where two father-and-son leaders have dominated the country’s destiny for more than half a century. Today, in 15 African countries, the current heads of state continue in office without a time limit. The son Gnassingbé probably made the constitutional changes I mentioned above in order to be included in the class of those who rule the country without a time limit.

Togo suddenly switched from a presidential to a parliamentary system

It is clear that the constitutional change in Togo did not emerge as a result of grassroots pressure, but was imposed from the top down. On paper, the transition from a presidential to a parliamentary system means a stronger legislative power, a more prominent role for parliament in the balance of powers, and a more symbolic role for the president. So shouldn’t the opposition, civil society organizations and voters in Togo be happy that the authoritarian Faure Gnassingbé regime has been replaced by a parliamentary democracy? This is not the case at all. The ruling party has been winning all elections in the country for decades, the opposition is under constant pressure, voters have no confidence in the polls, and it is widely believed that the elections are rigged. In these circumstances, no one outside the ruling circles bought Faure Gnassingbé’s hasty and fait accompli transformation of Togo into a parliamentary democracy, without addressing the opposition, without informing the electorate, ignoring civil society organizations. Son Gnassingbé cooked it himself and will eat it himself.

Opposition : We are against the constitutional coup

After boycotting the 2018 parliamentary elections, the opposition parties did not repeat the mistake this time and participated in the April 2024 elections. They opposed the constitutional amendments imposed before the elections, approved after only two debates in the plenary session of parliament, and tried to explain that they were facing a constitutional coup d’état, that the amendments were drafted and finalized in an unacceptable manner, and that they were imposed from the top down without public debate, but they were unable to make their voices heard. Opposition politicians abroad claimed that they had not even had the opportunity to read the constitutional amendments, let alone discuss them, and called on the people to take to the streets to express their reaction against the “dictatorial” Faure Gnassingbé regime.

Western journalists could not cover the elections

The elections were closed to foreign media and without the presence of Western observer delegations. ECOWAS, the West African regional organization of which Togo is a member, initially pretended to object to the hastily adopted constitutional amendments, but then had to back down, unable to speak out against the repression of the elections. Eventually, the book was closed when the African Union, the Organization of French-speaking States and ECOWAS announced that the elections had been a success. The organization responsible for the elections announced that the turnout was 60 percent, while opposition circles claim that 60 percent of the electorate did not go to the polls.

Son Gnassingbé in power until death

As far as I can see, the political situation in Togo is unlikely to turn against Gnassingbé any time soon. Faure Gnassingbé, who won 108 out of 113 parliamentary seats in the April 29 elections, will remain the sole ruler of his country for many years to come. After his term expires in 2025, he will leave the presidency and be appointed by the parliament, as the head of the party with the majority in the parliament, as “head of the council of ministers” (in western terms, prime minister), and with this new hat, he will rule his country until his death, with no time limit.

Criticized at home, admired abroad

On the other hand, we have witnessed in recent years that Faure Gnassingbé, whose authoritarian rule at home we have criticized, has been a successful mediator in solving the problems caused by the successive military coups in West Africa. We have seen that the region has benefited from the appeasement initiatives of the experienced politician, who has advocated for dialogue between the regional organization ECOWAS and the coup countries and opposed the military intervention of the organization in Niger, with the military governments in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. We hope that the authoritarian leader’s successful foreign initiatives will now be followed by domestic ones in Togo, which has become a parliamentary democracy, in the interests of the poor people.

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