On 30 October, Ivorians vote in a referendum on their new constitution. Reforming the constitution was one of Côte d’Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara’s main campaign promises when he was re-elected in October 2015.
This is the second constitutional referendum; the first was in August 2000 after the coup of 1999. The conditions of eligibility for the presidency set out in the 2000 constitution exacerbated the various crises experienced by Côte d’Ivoire
The aim of the latest reforms, according to authorities, is to implement a clear, modern, and balanced law that guarantees the rights and responsibilities of all Ivorians. An examination of the new text, however, shows a particular focus on reinforcing the power of the executive.
The text approved by Members of Parliament on 11 October provides several important changes. First, Article 35 of the 2000 constitution stipulating that any presidential candidate must be born of a father ‘and’ mother of Ivorian origin is being eased. From now on, according to Article 55 of the draft, any candidate must be of Ivorian nationality, born of an Ivorian father ‘or’ mother. This is to prevent the exclusion of candidates on the basis of their origin, as was the case with Ouattara in 1995 and 2000.
Article 55 of the draft creates a new position of vice-president. This reflects the need to prevent a power vacuum and enable the state to continue functioning in the absence of the president. Article 40 of the 2000 constitution does, however, deal with this issue. It states that in case of death, resignation or absolute impediment of the president, the speaker of Parliament will be the interim president for 45 to 90 days while a new president is elected. The risk of a power vacuum under the current constitution is therefore unlikely.
The president’s desire to maintain some influence over the executive, even in his absence, may explain this proposal. Under the new constitution, the president will choose both a vice-president and a prime minister. And although Ouattara announced his intention not to run for a third term, the suspension of the age limit in the draft text would give him the opportunity to run again for president. Together, these changes suggest an attempt to monopolise power in the office of the president.
The new constitution also proposes creating a Senate composed of Ivorians recognised for their expertise and skills. Article 87 says that, in addition to sharing legislative power with Parliament, the Senate’s role will be to represent local authorities and Ivorians living abroad. Legally there’s nothing wrong with an institution of this nature, but the method of appointing senators further reinforces the president’s power because the president will appoint a third of the senators.
The need for these amendments is unclear to Ivorians because there was very little real explanation and consultation with the public and opposition parties prior to the drafting. The public discussions that did take place were described by the opposition and civil society as brief and superficial.
As a result, on 14 October the Alliance of Democratic Forces of Côte d’Ivoire (AFD) – which represents 12 opposition parties including the Popular Ivorian Front (FPI) and the Ivorian Workers Party (PIT) – called for a boycott of the referendum as part of its campaign to mobilise against the new constitution.
This followed a call in mid-September by a group of 15 Ivorian non-governmental and international organisations for the postponement of the referendum until the first quarter of 2017 to enable the meaningful participation of all stakeholders.
Proper consultation with all sectors of society is essential considering the ongoing reconciliation process in Côte d’Ivoire since the 2010–2011 post-election crisis that cost the lives of 3 000 people. Establishing a more representative commission instead of using a group of experts to draft the new constitution would have done more to ensure an inclusive process that reflects national aspirations.
To make matters worse, Ivorians have had less than a month to examine the draft text. This tight timeframe will severely impede the public’s ability to properly understand the text ahead of their vote this weekend.
Ultimately, these constitutional reforms presented an opportunity to address the root causes of the various crises experienced by Côte d’Ivoire. For this to work, however, all sectors of society should have been able to participate.
A consensual approach based on an informed and inclusive debate would have produced draft text less open to criticism. This in turn would have eased political tensions and given new impetus to the reconciliation process.
Patrick Olivier Gnonsekan, Junior Fellow, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis division, Dakar Office