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Comoros: Planned Constitutional Referendum on Presidential Term Limits Leads to Crisis

(July 30, 2018) On April 29, 2018, Comoros’s President Sem Azali Assoumani declared that a referendum on amending the country’s Constitution would be held in July 2018. (Les conclusions des assises soumises au référendum au mois de juillet [Assembly’s Conclusions to Be Decided by Referendum in July], GOUVERNEMENT DE L’UNION DES COMORES [GOVERNMENT OF THE UNION OF COMOROS] (May 2, 2018).) In his address announcing the referendum, President Assoumani indicated that the purpose of the changes was to “consolidate national unity, peace and stability, and strengthen and preserve [Comoran] socioreligious values that are foundational to [the nation’s] faith and identity.” (Discours à la nation de Sem Azali Assoumani, Président de l’Union des Comores [Address to the Nation by Sem Azali Assoumani’s, President of the Union of Comoros], HABARIZA COMORES (Apr. 29, 2018) (translation by author).)

Background on Proposed Amendments

Since its independence in 1975, Comoros has endured political instability through several political crises and coups d’état. (The World Factbook: Comoros, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY (last updated July 12, 2018).)  In 2001, in an effort to unite the people and promote stability and power sharing within the nation, representatives of the Comorian government, along with political forces from Comoros’s constituent islands, signed the Fomboni Agreement, whereby the parties agreed to a “unified solution based on inclusivity of all parties and interest groups from the three islands.” (Accord cadre pour la réconciliation aux Comores [General Agreement on Reconciliation in Comoros] (Feb. 17, 2001), UN Peacemaker website.)

The signing of the Agreement eventually led to the adoption of a new Comorian Constitution in 2001, which provides that the federal presidency would rotate between each of the islands of Comoros. (CONSTITUTION DE L’UNION DES COMORES (International Labour Organization (ILO) website [CONSTITUTION OF THE UNION OF COMOROS] (Constitution Project website) art. 13.)  On June 4, 2005, a federal law was adopted to reaffirm the constitutionalized rotation system in the Union and detail voting procedures as well as presidential candidates’ eligibility criteria. (Loi organique N° 05-009/AU du 4 juin 2005, relative aux conditions d’éligibilité du Président de l’Union et aux modalités d’application de l’article 13 de la Constitution [Law No. 05-009/AU of 4 June 2005 Regarding the Conditions of Eligibility of the President of the Union and the Rules of Application of Article 13 of the Constitution], ILO website.)

In 2009, the Comorian population approved a constitutional referendum to amend article 13 of the Constitution and extend the term of the president from four years to five years. (The World Factbook: Comoros, supra.) The upcoming referendum would amend the Comorian constitutional term limits by allowing the president to run for a second consecutive term, thus effectively eliminating the constitutionalized rotation system currently in place. (Projet de révision de la Constitution de l’Union des Comores [Bill to Amend the Constitution of the Union of Comoros], Dec. 23, 2001, as revised in 2009 and 2013, art. 52, Comoros Government website.)

Another proposed amendment would change the provision in the Fomboni Agreement to state that the Constitution takes precedence over the Fomboni Agreement. (Accord cadre pour la réconciliation art. 29; Projet de révision art. 116.)

Criticism of Referendum and Amendments

If the referendum passes, President Assoumani, who took office in 2016, indicated he would be holding a vote next year. (Ali Amir Ahmed et al., Comoros to Hold Referendum on Presidential Term Limits on July 30, REUTERS (Apr. 30, 2018).) If reelected, he would remain in power beyond 2021 even though his current term would otherwise end by then because, under the current constitutional rotation system, he is limited to a single five-year term. (Id.) This move has been widely regarded as an attempt by President Assoumani to extend his term, which has angered his political opponents. (Comoros Opposition Rallies Against ReferendumSEYCHELLES NEWS AGENCY (June 3, 2018).)

Several demonstrations have erupted against the referendum, following which President Assoumani decided to suspend the constitutional court and place under house arrest former president and current opposition leader Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, who had encouraged protests against the vote. (Id.)

Opposition spokesperson Mohamed Abdou Soimadou specified that the people want the “re-establishment of democratic institutions, notably the constitutional court, before any idea of a referendum.” (Id.) The opposition party argues that the suspension of the constitutional court constitutes “an abuse of power” and that Assoumani is, through his actions, deliberately delaying the appointment of judges to the court. (Comoros President Eyes Controversial Second Term, ENEWS CHANNEL AFRICA (Apr. 30, 2018).)

Prepared by Sarah Ettedgui, Law Library intern, under the supervision of Nicolas Boring, Foreign Law Specialist.