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Togo has adopted major constitutional changes to give parliament more power: how it will work

ON 25 March 2024, Togo adopted a new constitution that transforms its presidential system into a parliamentary one. Under this new system, parliament has the authority to elect the president of the republic.

This major change will likely enable President Faure Gnassingbé, who has been in power since 2005, to extend his 19-year tenure by another term. This reform, adopted on first reading by MPs, sparked protests among opposition leaders who have denounced it as a constitutional coup. The law passed its second reading on 19 April.

Koffi Amessou Adaba is a lecturer and researcher who has worked on the democratisation of institutions in Togo, and on the separation of powers between the president, parliament and the judiciary. He explains the motivations behind the constitutional change, and how it will affect Togo’s power dynamics and democratic process.

What has changed in the Togolese constitution?

Looking at the current constitutional revision, the changes are so extensive that it’s more fitting to describe it as a radical change rather than a mere revision.

Basically, the changes to the constitution establish a parliamentary system that fosters close collaboration between the executive and legislative branches. Under this new framework, the executive branch is led by two figures. The president of the republic (head of state) has symbolic powers. The president of the Council of Ministers (head of government) conducts the nation’s policy and leads the parliamentary majority.

The changes extend to the broader institutions of the republic. The overhauled justice system is now under the authority of a court of cassation, as the Supreme Court has been abolished.

Among the independent institutions, the High Authority of Broadcasting and Digital Communication) has become the High Authority for Regulating Print, Broadcasting and Digital Communication. Its role includes regulating online platforms and social networks. The revision replaces the Mediator of the Republic with a Citizen’s Protector, tasked with safeguarding citizens against abuses by the public administration.

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The revised constitution has 100 articles, down from 159.

What are the main reasons for the constitutional reform?

This is Togo’s fourth constitutional amendment (2002, 2007, 2019 and 2024) in three decades. It’s also the second time the sixth legislature is making a constitutional amendment (2018 and 2024).

The proponents of this new amendment cite several reasons for the change. These centre on strengthening democracy, protecting citizen rights and freedoms, and improving the effectiveness and representation of institutions. They argue that the balance of power established by the previous system had become inadequate and that the new reform aims to achieve governmental stability. MPs say the reform fosters greater citizen involvement in political life and decision-making processes.

Are these arguments legitimate?

These reasons appear legitimate at first glance. One could also consider the general costs of elections and the potential benefits of reducing them. But it would be interesting to take stock of the implementation of the old constitution before proposing a new revision. This would allow for an evaluation of the advantages and challenges faced in implementing the old constitution.

For instance, the 2019 amendment was aimed at addressing the political crisis of 2017, particularly regarding presidential term limits. The extent to which the Togolese people have benefited from previous revisions is unclear, making it equally uncertain if they can expect benefits from a new constitution.

How do the constitutional changes affect the balance of power in Togo?

The new revision introduces a system of flexible separation of powers. Under the old constitution, the people directly appointed each branch of government. The legislature could dismiss the executive, and vice versa, for political reasons. This created a system that was neither fully presidential nor parliamentary.

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With the new revision, there’s a closer collaboration between the legislature and the executive in legislative matters. However, each branch of government retains the ability to terminate the mandate of the other.

Executive power is now divided between two institutions: the president of the council of ministers and the president of the republic. The president of the republic doesn’t govern independently but relies on the support of parliament for legitimacy. No act of the president of the republic is valid unless countersigned by the president of the council of ministers.

The judges of the constitutional court are now appointed by the president of the council of ministers, parliament and the supreme council of the judiciary. Each institution has a one-third quota. These judges serve a single, non-renewable nine-year term. They must ensure that both the legislature and executive comply with the constitution.

Is there a risk of conflict between the two heads of the executive?

I don’t believe there’s a significant risk of conflict between the two executive presidents. Their power is contingent on both respecting the roles defined in the new constitution. In addition, the president can be from any political party, no matter how small, as long as they are elected by the parliamentary majority.

However, in power dynamics, there is no such thing as zero risk.

How do these constitutional changes affect the democratic process in Togo?

Since independence from the French in 1960, Togo has formally proclaimed its commitment to democracy in all its constitutions. What has changed now is the fundamental shift in focus from presidential to legislative elections.

Under the new system, legislative elections will become more important to the Togolese population than presidential elections. Moreover, the multiparty system could undergo changes through collaboration among smaller political parties, potentially leading to the formation of larger political groupings.

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However, the fact that the president of the council will be elected not directly by the Togolese people but by their representatives suggests that the power of the people will be somewhat diminished in favour of their representatives.

Could the current president become president of the council and remain in power indefinitely?

This scenario seems quite plausible to me. It’s difficult to envision Faure Gnassingbé assuming the role of president of the republic under the new constitution. It holds no significant power and doesn’t require the support of the parliamentary majority. Meanwhile, the president of the council retains virtually all the powers previously held by the president. Therefore, it seems likely that Gnassingbé would aim to become president of the council.

This would provide him with several advantages. The disputes over presidential term limits that would affect him in 2030 would disappear. He could also remain in power for life as president of the council as long as his party remained in the majority.

Referring to the reform as a “constitutional coup” seems questionable to me, however. This isn’t the first time the Togolese parliament has amended the constitution. However, if the opposition perceives the revision as a total overhaul of the constitution, then it would be justified in labelling it a “constitutional coup” due to the lack of a referendum.

KOFFI AMÉSSOU ADABA, Enseignant et chercheur en sociologie politique, Université de Lomé

By KOFFI AMÉSSOU ADABA

Enseignant et chercheur en sociologie politique, Université de Lomé

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