Presidents with too much staying power

The concept of amending Constitutions so that national leaders can remain in office for extended periods of time has come under increasing criticism in recent years.

This did not prevent Chadian legislators from voting last month to allow President Idriss Deby to run for a third five-year term in 2006, however. Now there are concerns that this vote might encourage the proponents of similar constitutional reform in Benin.

Although Chad and Benin are dissimilar in many respects, both are governed by heads of state whose second and final term in office is scheduled to end in 2006.

In the 2001 electoral campaign, Deby promised not to run in 2006. However, observers believe that development of Chad’s enormous oil resources has caused him to rethink this position.

On May 26, 110 parliamentarians from the ruling Patriotic Security Movement joined 13 deputies from smaller parties in voting to revise Chad’s Constitution.
The measure was adopted without any real debate after 30 opposition legislators left the floor to protest against an alleged violation of parliamentary rules.

Even though the revised constitution still needs to be given the green light in a national referendum, there seems little doubt that it will be adopted.

These events have been watched with keen interest in Benin, where a debate on amending the constitution has been raging in the media for a year -‒ even though no changes have yet been proposed in parliament. This debate has split the country into pro- and anti-amendment camps.

Leaders from various small political parties in Benin have formed a group known as the ‘Noyau dur pour la révision de la constitution’ (which roughly translates as the ‘hardline group for constitutional reform) to press for changes that would allow President Mathieu Kerekou to stay in office.

For several months, the group has conducted a campaign in which it claims that “only the revision of the constitution will allow us to preserve peace, freedom, national unity and especially stability in our country”.

Those in the opposing camp accuse these parties, which have no representation in Parliament, of having an ulterior motive in pushing for Kerekou to stay on -‒ and they maintain that peace cannot be guaranteed by tampering with the Constitution.

They also fear that an amendment would open the door to a succession of “presidents for life” in Benin.

In a column published earlier this month in the privately-owned daily La Nouvelle Tribune, Roger Gbegnonvi -‒ a professor of French at the University of Abomey-Calavi -‒ called for Beninese citizens to “stand up as one against this money making revision of the constitution.” Abomey-Calavi is located near the West African country’s capital, Cotonou.

Benin’s political history has been marked by a series of coups staged after independence in 1960. The last of these, in 1972, instituted a Marxist-Leninist regime which led the country into economic collapse and bankruptcy. As a result, the regime was forced to organise a national conference in February 1990, which ushered in multi-party politics.

The conference also drew up Benin’s present constitution, which was adopted by popular vote in December 1990, and which limits the presidential term of office to two periods of five years. It further sets a 70-year age limit for presidential candidates. Kerekou will be 73 in 2006.

But, whatever else might be said of them, Beninese deputies of all stripes are unlikely to allow constitutional amendments to slip through easily. Kerekou’s critics are also speaking up on the matter.

According to Victor Topanou, a law professor at the University of Abomey-Calavi, “A president who has not been able to realise his ambitions for the country in ten years, will not be able to do it in 15 or even more years. That being the case, he would be wise to turn over his spot to a more inspired and more capable new team.”

Adds Moise Bossou, another law professor at the university, “The present debate over the revision of the constitution is… a false debate. [Its] goal is to replace the democratic presidential republic -‒ one of whose founding principles was a changeover in political power -‒ by a president for life.”

Both men have reiterated this view in articles published during the past two months in another privately-owned daily, Le Matinal.

Other “anti-revisionists” have also appealed to Beninese legislators to “freely and courageously reject, even if it means rejecting their own self-enrichment”, any plan to change the Constitution. They draw inspiration from events in Malawi, where law makers dismissed a 2002 bid for the Constitution to be amended so that President Bakili Muluzi could run for a third term in office.

Unfortunately, leaders in West Africa have not been checked in this fashion.

President Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo, in power for some forty years, forced a constitutional revision in 2003 so that he could remain in office for a third term. This was despite giving a personal undertaking to France’s president a year earlier that he would leave power at the end of his constitutionally-approved second term.

Presidents Omar Bongo of Gabon, and Lansana Conte of Guinea have also altered Constitutions to allow them to run for a third term in office. And their supporters -‒ eager to reap the benefits of having patrons in high positions -‒ are almost certain to help rig elections in these states to ensure the amendments are put to good use.

The fact that French President Jacques Chirac failed to condemn events in Togo -‒ even congratulating Eyadema on his re-election in 2003 -‒ has been viewed with bitterness by many. This bitterness deepened when Xavier Darcos, France’s minister with special responsibility for cooperation, visited Chad shortly after the constitutional vote, making a statement on national radio which some viewed as being in support of the May amendment.

Chad’s oil resources were again suspected to have played a role. “France needs economic growth, so its minister of cooperation came to bless this constitutional swindle,” observed Gbegnonvi. - IPS

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