Debates, Controversies and New Developments
To Maintain or Revise Article 37 on Presidential Term Limits?
In the 1990s, most new democratic regimes in Africa provided their constitutions with the principle of term limits, in an attempt to guarantee the fundamental principle of political change. In Burkina Faso, the Constitution provided that a presidential term of seven (7) years was renewable only once. This principle has been subject to various changes because of the political situation of the country. In 1997, enjoying an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly, the ruling party initiated a procedure to amend the constitution so that the inalterability of term limits as provided in Article 37 of the Constitution was removed. Following this initiative, Burkina Faso experienced a socio-political crisis in 1998 as a result of the assassination of the prominent journalist Norbert Zongo and three of his companions. An accusing finger was pointed at the regime of Blaise Compaoré since just before his assassination the journalist was investigating a case in which the younger brother of the president seemed heavily involved. Indeed, the driver of the president’s brother was killed under extremely irregular circumstances. He had been tortured by members of the presidential security guard on the orders of the president’s brother.
The murder of Norbert Zongo plunged the country into an unprecedented social and political crisis. In order to rescue his struggling regime, Compaoré created an institution to reflect on the structural and economic causes of the crisis, the Collège des Sages. This institutional body consisted of highly respected authorities within the community. Archbishop Anselm Sanou, the Bishop of the Diocese of Bobo Dioulasso and highly respected by the national community, was appointed at the head of the Collège. The Collège met with all the major actors of social and political spheres to gather their opinions regarding the causes of the crisis. At the end of this dialogue process, the Collège produced a report and one of the prominent recommendations was to restore the clause limiting presidential terms. This was done in 2000 through a constitutional amendment.
At the time that the clause limiting presidential terms was introduced, President Compaoré was in his second term which was supposed to end in 2005. During the 2005 presidential election, a legal debate arose regarding the interpretation of Article 37 limiting the number of presidential terms. A group of opposition parties and lawyers argued that the incumbent President could not stand for another term because he had already served for two terms. While supporters of the regime maintained that the constitutional revision was not retroactive because the revision was made when the president had already begun his second term. This legal controversy was brought before the Constitutional Court.
Candidates for the 2005 presidential election called for the invalidation of Blaise Compaoré as a candidate for the presidential elections. They did not win the case. The Constitutional Court based their decision on the principle of non-retroactivity for constitutional amendments. The president was elected in 2005 and was reelected in 2010. Under the current constitutional provisions, he can no longer run for presidential office. In principle, the Burkinabè people should expect the first experience of political change as a result of elections in 2015.
Until the next election, the socio-political history of the country will undergo turbulence. Indeed, two social crises already rocked the county in the first quarter of 2011. The first followed the death of a student after he was tortured in the confines of a police station. There were outbursts of youth asking for justice throughout the territory. In addition to this crisis, there was a mutiny within the army, part of which demanded better living and working conditions. The president was assaulted by some of his own guard and was forced to flee the presidential palace to take refuge, according to some sources in his village Ziniaré which is located about thirty kilometers from the capital. This was the first time something had happened like this in the history of the country since democratic transition.
To contain the devastating effects of these destabilizing events the president called for dialogue and created a framework which aimed to propose social and political reforms. This framework, the Conseil Consultatif sur les Réformes Politiques (CCRP) was boycotted by the opposition and civil society. The issue of presidential term limits is subject to discussion within the CCRP. Unsurprisingly, the ruling party was placed in a minority on this issue. Members of the CCRP overwhelmingly recommended maintaining the limitation clause regarding presidential terms. After having received the report by the CCRP, the President only implemented the consensual decisions. Supporters of President Compaoré have not yet admitted defeat. They continue trying to remove presidential term limits and judge the term limits unconstitutional at all costs. However, a break occurred at the very heart of the presidential majority whose members are now opposed to this constitutional amendment on presidential term limits since the creation of the CCRP.
Since the combined elections on December 2, 2012, some people believe that the debate over Article 37 will be put on the agenda of some ruling regime’s supporters which would attempt to submit the matter to a referendum. One can read in the press recurring positions of government supporters on a referendum regarding the annulment of presidential terms limits. Some opposition parties, including the one of the new leader of the opposition, have already stated in the media that they will do everything possible to prevent the occurrence of such a referendum.
Many Burkinabè think that any revision of the constitution on the presidential term clause could sink the country into an unprecedented crisis. In a sub-region severely affected by the 2012-2013 crisis in Mali, there are concerns that Burkina Faso may, in turn, plunge into instability. It is clear that many Burkinabè will demonstrate against another attempt to alter the constitution. Many analysts expect that President Compaoré, as a mediator in many socio-political crises in the sub-region, will be wise enough to stick to his current constitutional term. In addition, the current sub-regional, regional and international contexts constitute disadvantages for all heads of state who may want to remain in power for life. Perhaps this is where the salvation of democracy in Burkina Faso resides!
Useful links and documentary resources
- L’observateur, Mardi 02 Avril 2013. « Juliette Bonkoungou et l’article 37 : ‘Je m’en remets à la sagesse du président» : http://www.lobservateur.bf/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=24244
- L’observateur, Jeudi 07 Février 2013. « Alpha Yago sur l’article 37 : ‘Il n’y a pas démarche plus démocratique que le référendum’». http://www.lobservateur.bf/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=22099
- Lefaso.net, dimanche 3 mars 2013. « Velléités de modification de l’article 37 : L’UPC appelle ses militants à la vigilance » : http://www.lefaso.net/spip.php?article53092&rubrique2