Tanzanians are going to the polls this month, and the constitution will be one of the biggest issues. Here’s the problem: the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party had agreed to reform it in ways that would loosen its tight grip on power — but delayed a constitutional referendum scheduled for last April until after the October vote. The upcoming elections have therefore become a de facto referendum on the country’s future — and the future of its constitution, any nation’s blueprint for how to distribute political power. Tensions are high, and opposition groups are warning of possible election violence.
The case of Tanzania raises questions about how constitutions affect peace and democracy in a country. Are some forms of constitutional design better at managing conflict than others in Africa? That’s exactly the question that two recent political science books take on. Here are the five major takeaways.
1. Constitutional design is important — but very different kinds of constitutions can work
If you want to prevent and resolve conflict, a constitution needs to carefully manage the competition and tensions between different ethnic groups, which often flare up around elections. But how?
Political scientists who study this tend to fall into one of two schools of thought. Some support “inclusive” strategies, which try to build a sense of inclusion for all the competing groups by officially recognizing them in the power structure. For instance, a constitution might guarantee various ethnic groups a role in government through power-sharing arrangements or decentralized federal structures.
In Africa’s most extreme case of power-sharing, Burundi — a small country that borders Rwanda in East Africa — ethnic quotas are use to fill key positions in the civil service, while political parties are required to run candidates from the two main ethnic groups, which ensures that no one group is able to dominate political or economic opportunities. In Kenya, the creation of 47 new county governments, each with their own directly elected leaders, has meant that parties that lose nationally can still win locally, giving them a share in the political system.
Others believe in assimilating different groups into a common political structure that promotes a strong and cohesive national identity that lessens the pull of individual ethnic identities. This is the classic model of top-down nation-building famously practiced in France, in which citizens are expected to relegate their ethnic identities in favor of a broader national identity.
In the African context, Julius Nyerere, the first president of independent Tanzania, constructed a viable national identity by promoting Swahili as a common language and mainstreaming citizenship classes – which focused on the duties and responsibilities of the population to the state – through the education system.
In a new edited volume, “Constitutions and Conflict Management in Africa: Preventing Civil War Through Institutional Design,” Alan J. Kuperman argues that constitutions in Africa are overwhelmingly centralized — and that nearly 80 percent of all constitutions on the continent fall into this category.
Kuperman argues that if properly implemented, either model can effectively help manage conflict. Consider the fact that Ghana, a West African country with nearly 30 million people and a mix of ethnic groups, has a centralized and winner-takes-all political system, in which losing parties are effectively locked out of political decision making as a result of the powers of the presidency. The strong presidency, however, is checked and balanced by relatively strong democratic institutions, a combination that has led to the development of one of the continent’s most stable and open democracies.
By contrast, the system of extensive power sharing adopted in Burundi, which has suffered through years of extreme political instability and civil war, has, despite recent violence, helped prevent a return to large-scale ethnic conflict.
2. Political inclusion can bring great benefits … to a point
My (Cheeseman’s) recent book, “Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures, and the Struggle for Political Reform,” reports similar findings on Burundi. Given the country’s current violence over the president’s election to a third term — which violated the constitution — it may seem counterintuitive that Kuperman and I both view Burundi as a success. But considering the country’s history of mass ethnic violence, Burundi has made tremendous progress in overcoming its ethnic divisions.
It is true that Burundi’s constitution has not prevented a dangerous slide towards political conflict. But its power-sharing provisions and ethnic quotas have helped to reduce the amount of violence expressed along ethnic lines.
I go on to demonstrate that Burundi is one of a number of African countries in which more inclusive constitutions have brought real benefits. In Nigeria, for example, a federal structure that devolved power away from the executive helped to prevent a return to civil war. In South Africa, a temporary Government of National Unity, which temporarily gave power to a variety of parties, helped the country to peacefully negotiate an extremely difficult transition to majority rule in 1994.
In Mauritius, a “best loser” system, in which additional members of parliament are added to the legislature to ensure that it is more representative of the society it serves, ensures minorities are represented in parliament. That has led Mauritius to stability and peace, despite a number of close elections and transfers of power.
Eli Poupko’s database in the Kuperman volume also suggests that creative and peaceful approaches to power-sharing constitutions deserve further attention. While only a handful of African countries are listed as having power sharing or decentralized systems, those include Botswana, South Africa, Cape Verde and Mauritius — some of the most democratic and stable governments on the continent.
However, too much power-sharing can undermine competition and accountability — those stalwarts of democracy, which enable voters to kick out poorly performing parties and reward effective ones.
3. Power-sharing carries large risks, if not done right
Kuperman sounds a valuable word of warning on the risks of the power-sharing approach if not properly implemented, citing civil war in Burundi in 1993 and renewed conflict in Sudan after the 2005 peace agreement. Noting the outbreak or recurrence of civil war in Angola in 1992, Rwanda in 1994, and Liberia in 1997, he says that failed attempts of this approach “contributed to more than a million deaths.”
Kuperman urges international actors to scale back their current desires for far-reaching constitutional reform. He points to the risks of badly implemented power-sharing plans, the fact that constitutions that centralize power are widespread, and the fact that outsiders have limited influence. Instead, he urges incremental changes, along with the promotion of stronger checks and balances.
4. But failing to share power also has risks
But there’s also a high potential cost to the political systems that now predominate in Africa, which allow small groups to grab and hold a great deal of power. My book documents the link between constitutions that allow such exclusive holds on power and election-related conflict.
That’s true, for instance, in Cote d’Ivoire, where successive governments refused to allow opposition presidential candidates who threatened their hold on power to contest elections, contributed to the slide towards civil war. Similarly, in Kenya, the combination of a close election marred by fraud and a winner-takes-all political system that concentrated great power on the presidency led to violent ethnic clashes in early 2008. More than 1,000 people died.
5. There is no one-size fits all model for every country
So what are constitution-makers to do? There’s no single right answer, no foolproof constitutional template that can be adopted across Africa’s 54 countries and over a billion people. Different countries will need different levels of inclusion to achieve political stability, depending on their political history, demography, geography, language and so on.
African, regional and international actors may therefore be wise to adopt a more flexible, tailor-made approach to promoting constitutional reform in Africa, considering both the risk of political instability and the benefits of inclusion on a case by case basis.
Any upcoming efforts at constitutional reform in Tanzania will need to carefully balance inclusion and democratic competition — while remaining attuned to the realities of which constitutional design can be realistically implemented. Too much constitutional change too soon can destabilize young democracies. Not enough can sow the seeds of political instability and conflict.
Nic Cheeseman is associate professor of African politics at Oxford University and the author of Democracy in Africa. Alexander Noyes is a doctoral candidate in the department of politics and international relations at Oxford University. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexHNoyes.