ISS TODAY OP-ED
New Guinea constitution may buoy nation’s political stability if presidential power limits are agreed
Legal reforms don’t guarantee stability — but step one in the transition is getting the process and content right for a new constitution.
Two years ago, military officers overthrew president Alpha Condé’s regime on 5 September 2021 — less than a year after he started his controversial third term. In December 2022, Guinea’s transitional authorities and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) agreed on a two-year roadmap for returning the country to civilian rule.
The 10-point roadmap includes developing a new constitution and adopting it through a popular referendum. These two steps will define several other elements of the transition, including the constitution’s organic laws and the holding of local, legislative and presidential elections.
The draft constitution was scheduled for adoption by the National Transitional Council by the end of June, but that deadline was missed. One reason for the delay may relate to funding. Many feel the transitional authorities’ proposed budget to implement the roadmap — $600-million — is too high. So far, the government has announced the mobilisation of only about $40-million of this amount.
In an August interview, Prime Minister Bernard Goumou seemed to blame the international community, particularly Ecowas, for the slow pace of resource mobilisation. He said Ecowas undertook in the December 2022 agreement to help Guinea raise funds. To prevent the issue from holding up the transition’s timely implementation, Guinean authorities and their partners must make a concerted effort to secure the necessary resources.
Nevertheless, with enough political will and action by those in charge, there is still enough time to complete the constitution’s drafting ahead of the December referendum.
One cause for optimism is that the National Transitional Council has organised several consultations on the constitution across the country, along with two constitutional orientation symposiums in March and April. Political parties, civil society organisations, lawyers, religious bodies and the military have submitted written inputs on several parts of the new constitution.
A review of some of these contributions reveals two important aspects that could help build a stable post-transition democracy.
President’s powers and privileges
Several inputs insisted on mechanisms for checks and balances. Most called for the presidential system to remain (rather than a parliamentary regime), with some moderation in the president’s powers. This could involve enhancing parliamentary oversight and reducing the president’s role in appointments, including of magistrates, by reinforcing the National Assembly and National Commission of Magistrates’ powers in appointing judges.
Submissions also called for subjecting some presidential appointments to parliamentary approval and ensuring that the tenures of some state institution heads couldn’t be terminated by the president, or by him or her alone.
A key feature in various submissions was the need to limit a president’s time in office to a maximum of two five-year terms. Under Condé, a new constitution was drafted and approved to side-step legal provisions preventing him from running for a third term. Arguing that the new constitution nullified his previous terms, this controversial ‘clock-setting’ saw Condé elected for a third term in 2020 — contributing to the coup that removed him and started the current transition.
Third-termism is important in current political debates in Africa. The constitutions of 40 African countries contain presidential term limits. Since 1990, some 34 leaders in 20 countries have served their time in office and handed power to successors without tampering with the constitution to remain in office.
When heads of state abide by term limits, stable political transitions are boosted in two ways. First, regular power changes signal to others with political ambitions that there is an opportunity to ascend to the helm. In all 20 African countries where outgoing leaders have respected term limits, no subsequent elected leaders have successfully challenged the provision.
Second, leaders facing only one or two terms are likely to care more about their legacy and act in the interest of their country’s citizens. The attendant high levels of citizen satisfaction, particularly regarding socio-economic development and service delivery, contribute to political stability.
What supplementary measures could the new Guinean constitution include to protect it from manipulation linked to third-termism? The 2010 constitution protected this provision from being changed, putting it in the same basket as four other ‘forbidden fruits’: the country’s secular nature, its republican form, territorial integrity, and multiparty and multi-trade union system.
Perhaps the current drafters could retain those clauses and add that any amendment or the drafting of a new constitution — which seeks to change or bypass these protected clauses — is null and void. This could even be elevated to the level of high treason. To counter the arguments of those who might insist on the dynamism and adaptability of constitutions, the provision could have a time limit of several decades.
The inclusivity of the new constitution’s consultation and drafting processes will be key in determining its legitimacy well after the transition has ended. But the real test is still to come — the commitment of post-transition leaders to the constitution and its provisions. This will be the surest guarantee for its sustainability and internalisation by Guineans.
To achieve this, officeholders in the legislature and judiciary must fiercely protect their independence and act with integrity. The executive should commit to respecting this independence, with conscious and organised citizens playing an important watchdog role. DM
Issaka K Souaré, Regional Advisor, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin.
This article is part of a series on preventing coups in West Africa and the Sahel. Research for the article is funded by Irish Aid and the Bosch Foundation.
First published by ISS Today.