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Senegal: a constitution out of the blue

On February 13, the Commission nationale pour la réforme des institutions (CNRI) presented its report to the President of Senegal, Macky Sall. After conducting numerous public consultations across the country, the CNRI has proposed a series of institutional reforms to “improve the functioning of institutions, consolidate democracy, deepen the rule of law, and modernise the political regime”. The CNRI’s biggest surprise was the delivery of a whole new draft constitution of 154 articles.

The CNRI originated in the Assises nationales, a consultative body set up in 2008-09 by 74 organisations opposed to former president Abdoulaye Wade. The coalition sought “consensual solutions” to the most serious problems confronting Senegal, including food insecurity, corruption, poverty, and the failure of public policy to mitigate these problems. Institutional reform to promote economic development and political stability remains high on the agenda of President Sall – and was very much to the fore when he asked donors and investors in Paris for €4.6 billion at the end of February.

Majority support

The man charged in March 2013 with directing the CNRI was 93 year-old Professor Amadou Mahtar Mbow, a former director-general of UNESCO who also led the Assises nationales. His approach was highly participatory and the CNRI only adopted proposals backed by a clear and demonstrable majority of citizens.

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Among other things, citizens demanded greater consultation by the government on major decisions and greater accountability through, for example, the obligatory adoption of participatory budgeting at the local level. Citizens were equally vocal about the “presidentialisation” of the administration, recommending that the president should forfeit the role of party leader following election.

As for the constitution, the report recommends:

  • its translation into the national languages of Senegal
  • that any changes are subject to public consultation by referendum or other means,
  • the creation of a Constitutional Court, which would replace and have more far-reaching powers than the existing Constitutional Council
  • limitations to the president’s capacity to dissolve parliament
  • that certain articles concerning the separation of powers and the maximum tenure of a president should become immutable

Before submitting its final recommendations, the CNRI consulted groups of experts including representatives of political parties and members of civil society. However the report emphasised that greater weight was accorded to the majority views of citizens.

Changes to the party political system have also been proposed. In future, it is suggested, parties must be able to demonstrate that they have more than 10,000 members in total in a minimum of 10 of the 14 regions of the country, and at least 700 members in each region. To combat corruption, the CNRI has also called for an assessment of the viability of providing public funding for all political parties.

Presidential silence

The draft constitution has sparked little international interest and the reaction at home has been subdued – perhaps surprising given the fervour of the population for upholding the country’s democratic credentials. Journalist Mehdi Ba has observed that the main opposition to the CNRI’s report has been articulated by some in the presidential camp. Critics have accused the CNRI of having exceeded its mandate by proposing a new constitution. A reaction is awaited from the president – who owes his election to the voters of a very broad coalition.

by Olivier Milland, Research and Communications Assistant