Constitutional reforms in Chad: Edging towards federalism?

By Dr Sioudina Mandibaye Dominique, 29 November 2017
An illustration comparing federalism with unitary structures (Photo credit:  FreedomWorks)
An illustration comparing federalism with unitary structures (Photo credit: FreedomWorks)

Despite initial indications from President Deby and preferences for federalism from the Christian minority in the south, the technical committee for constitutional reforms has recommended a decentralized unitary state. While the reforms include some innovations, such as presidential term limits and the establishment of a new senate, opposition groups and civil society groups have dismissed the process as an opportunistic strategy to allow the president to continue to cling onto power – writes Dr Sioudina Mandibaye Dominique. 

Following the campaign promise of President Idriss Deby Itno, who is serving his fifth term after winning the presidential elections in April 2016, to carry out constitutional reforms to better empower citizens and to improve the functioning of public services, the debate on the suitable form of the state has been reopened. In October 2017, the technical committee for constitutional reforms submitted its report recommending a highly decentralized but unitary state.

The 1996 Constitution of Chad establishes a decentralized unitary state. The 1993 Sovereign National Conference proposed this form of state as an intermediary solution between the supporters of federalism and those who favored a unitary state. The constitution decentralizes power to regional, departmental, communal and rural levels, but this has not been properly implemented. While the regions have been established, of the 463 communes provided for in the constitution, only 42 have been constituted (in 2012) and even these are not properly operational due to the lack of human and financial resources. Departmental and rural levels are yet to be established.

Parties with federal agendas increasingly enjoy the growing support of voters, particularly in the southern regions.

The unitary form of state was adopted in order to promote national unity, brotherhood and harmonious relations between the various ethnic groups and religious communities. Nevertheless, parties with federal agendas increasingly enjoy the growing support of voters, particularly in the southern regions, raising debates on the question of national unity and the continuity of the current state framework. 

President Deby came to power in December 1990 after overthrowing the dictatorial regime of Hissein Habre. The then new authorities proclaimed the establishment of democracy and the liberalization of public life. The 1996 constitution strengthened legislative and judicial powers and imposed a two five-year term limit on the presidency. Crucially, the constitution prohibited the amendment of these provisions. Nevertheless, following the end of the second term of President Deby, the Constitution was amended in a 2005 referendum to remove the two-term limit. For the supporters of this constitutional amendment, only President Idriss Deby Itno can guarantee the security of Chadians against terrorist groups. For opposition groups, the constitutional change was a serious setback for democratization and an affirmation of Deby’s self-interest in clinging onto power. 

A growing number of autonomy movements mainly from the southern Christian regions wish to have control over their own affairs.

In February 2016, during the presidential campaign, Deby promised, if reelected, to establish federalism as a new form of state, to reintroduce term limits on the presidency, to fight against corruption and to end impunity. While Deby was previously against federalism, the current form of state has shown its limits in terms of national unity. A growing number of autonomy movements mainly from the southern Christian regions wish to have control over their own affairs because of feelings of marginalization and accuse the current ruling regime of being too close to the Muslim north. According to the general census of 2009, Muslims represent around 55% of the population and Christians constitute 35%. For the federalist party of opposition leader Yorongar Ngarledji, which enjoys the broad support of voters mainly in the southern regions, only a federal constitution can provide the basis for the peaceful coexistence of the different cultural, linguistic and religious groups

While the Chadian constitution establishes a secular republic, peaceful co-existence between the two dominant religious communities, Muslims and Christians, is fragile. Considerable regional disparities between the Muslim north and the Christian south remain, provoking serious concerns.  For example, the impact of the oil revenue varies widely from one territory to another and there is no equalization process for the redistribution of national revenue. The start of oil production in Doba in the south of Chad has added to the sense of injustice felt by the southern population. Deby’s promise of instant wealth has not materialized, and since the construction of the pipeline to the Cameroon coast was completed, the project employs only a few local people.

Towards federalism?

Following up on his campaign promise, in October 2016, Deby adopted a presidential decree  establishing a high committee in charge of institutional reforms. The committee is composed of government officials, members of parliament, and representatives of opposition groups and of civil society organizations. The committee has 21 members, three of whom are women, directly appointed by the president without consultation. Other than two members representing opposition groups and two from civil society organizations, all the other members belong to government ministries or are members of the ruling party in parliament. In fact, the main opposition groups and civil society organizations dismiss the representatives in the committee, including those supposedly representing them, as too close to the ruling party.

The main opposition groups refuse to participate in both committees and have called for the boycott of the consultation process.

A technical committee to conduct public consultations and to prepare draft provisions was established by the prime minister. A minister secretary heads the committee, which reports to the prime minster. The technical committee is composed of civil servants, representatives of the ruling party, opposition groups, as well as civil society groups. It is tasked with carrying out an analysis of the country's institutional system in order to provide appropriate proposals for reform while the high committee plays a political role. The main opposition groups refuse to participate in both committees and have called for the boycott of the consultation process.

Following public consultations with selected groups of people in all 23 regions of Chad and Chadians living abroad, in October 2017, the technical committee submitted a 189-page report entitled 65 actions to modernize our institutions. The report is composed of 10 chapters dealing with the form of the state, the legislative system, the judicial reform, the draft of a new constitution, etc. The technical committee submitted its final report to the prime minister on 25 November 2017 for validation.

The proposed amendments reinstate the two-term limit, but extend terms from five years to seven years. 

Five (5) of the regions (Mayo-kebbi East, Mayo-kebbi West, Logone Occidental, Logone Oriental and Middle Chari) from the south indicated their preference for a federal form of state. The 18 other regions opted for a highly decentralized unitary state with real transfer of powers and resources to the decentralized territorial communities. These results reveal that most of the southern regions of the country, unlike those in the north, are calling for the establishment of a federation. The five regions of the far south account for only about a tenth of Chad’s territory but about 45 per cent of its population.  Despite their demands for a federal system, the technical committee recommended the adoption and implementation of a more decentralized unitary system. Federalism was seen as opening the door for the danger of partition of the state. The extent to which the new system will be distinct from and address the challenges in the current framework will depend on the details, which are currently unavailable.

Other proposed reforms

This draft constitution proposes the extension of presidential terms from the current five years to seven and the reinstatement of the two-term limit. Crucially, the draft constitution prohibits not only the amendment but also the proposal of an amendment to these provisions. The new term limits will not consider terms that have already been served, allowing Deby to finish his current term and run for two more terms, if he so wishes.

The committee recommends the establishment of a bicameral legislature.

The technical committee also recommends the establishment of a bicameral legislature. Currently, Chad has a single legislative chamber elected from single member and multi-member constituencies. Furthermore, the draft constitution proposes the establishment of a dedicated court for the prosecution and punishment of financial and economic crimes, including corruption.

Despite initial indications favoring the establishment of the office of the vice presidency, which could have allowed Deby to groom a successor, this was abandoned as it did not receive support even among supporters of the ruling party. Under the draft constitutional amendments, in cases of vacancy of the presidency, the president of the senate would take over. Senate presidents must be at least 40 years old and hold a bachelor’s degree, which appears to exclude the sons of the current president of the republic.

Next steps

The constitutional amendment proposals were planned to be submitted to referendum, which was initially scheduled to be organized between March and June 2018. Under the Chadian Constitution, constitutional amendments must be approved by a 3/5 majority in the National Assembly and be supported in a referendum. Nevertheless, if the amendments are approved with a 2/3 majority in the Assembly, a referendum is not constitutionally required. It is not clear if the planned referendum will be organized even if a 2/3 majority is achieved.

The technical committee initially preferred the referral of the amendments to a referendum. 

Considering its dominance, the ruling party is likely to receive the necessary parliamentary majority to at least submit the proposed reforms to a referendum. The technical committee had from the beginning preferred the submission of the draft constitutional amendments to a referendum. Nevertheless, it has suggested that the amendments could also be passed through parliament, considering the economic hardship in the country. 

While the proposed amendments may lead to some commendable reforms, they are unlikely to check the continued dominance of President Deby. For the Chadian opposition and civil society organizations, the constitutional reform process is nothing more than an opportunistic strategy to allow the president to continue to cling onto power. 

Dr Sioudina Mandibaye Dominique is a lecturer at the University of N’Djamena, Chad.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.


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