Soon after Macky Sall was re-elected for a second, and final, presidential term he signed a decree that scrapped the office of the Prime Minister.
The argument for this decision was that it would simplify the decision-making process and boost efficiency within the executive.
Having changed Prime Ministers three times, between 2012 and 2014, this move may not come as a surprise. But some see it as an overreach, designed to concentrate more power in the hands of the president, and therefore problematic.
On the one hand it undermines democratic processes and principles. It also highlights the liberties that politicians in Senegal tend to take once elected into office. In this instance, the decision was not submitted to a referendum, as called for by the opposition and civil society organisations. Instead it was passed behind closed doors by a parliamentary majority that is largely under the sway of the President.
The office of the Prime Minister has often been seen as a potential threat to the Presidency. The Prime Minister is usually second in command of both the government and the president’s party. This makes him or her a potential successor to the president. In the history of Senegalese politics, the presence or absence of a Prime Minister has always been a determining factor in governmental stability and political succession.
However, given that the longest serving Prime Minister on record was Mohamed Boune Abdallah (from April 2014 to April 2019) under Macky Sall’s regime, the reasons for what some have called a “step backwards for democracy” (to quote former Prime Minister Abdul Mbaye), seem to lie elsewhere.
Changing Prime Ministers
Frequent changes of Prime Ministers are not unsual in Senegalese politics. In the 43 years between 1957 and 2000, Senegal had six Prime Ministers. In the past few years however, these changes have become more frequent. Between 2000 and 2014 there were nine. The office of the Prime Minister has also been scrapped twice – between 1963 and 1970 and from 1983 to March 1991.
Over these same periods, the country had 30 socialist governments – that is, an average of 1.43 governments per year – against ten Liberal governments (2000 to 2012) – an average of almost 1.4.
In the past, the scrapping of the office of Prime Minister was influenced by factors that are unrelated to a specific political regime or president. Here, we will look at three in particular.
The first relates to the crises in the top levels of government.
This often happens because of the country’s fragmented multiparty system. In Senegal, the number of parties rose from 41 in 1981 to 258 in 2016.
It could also happen when a president fails to tend to their close relationships or when a Prime Minister is thought to overshadow the president, and is scheming for a succession plan.
In 1963, President Léopold Sédar Senghor – who served as the country’s first president – organised a referendum which allowed him to get rid of the Prime Minister’s office. Senghor was convinced that an executive power with two leaders was a dangerous thing for a young and still fragile nation State. The two-headed executive was said to have led to a confusion of duties between the President and his Prime Minister.
Yet, Senghor held a second referendum in 1970, this time to make Abdou Diouf the head of the government. Had he suddenly ceased to fear the effects of a two-headed executive on a presidential regime, or was he paving the way for his political successor?
The second factor relates to the way governments are formed and reshuffled, rewarding or punishing allies based on their electoral performances.
One example of this was the sacking of Prime Minister Aminata Touré in 2014 following her defeat at the municipal election in Grand Yoff, Dakar, a stronghold of the city’s former mayor Khalifa Ababacar Sall.
Thirdly, government teams are formed under the influence of internal political struggles, even more so since power passed from the hands of the ruling party to a coalition formed at the end of the presidential term in 2000.
An office seen as a threat
Though these factors are very different, the trend has been to favour strategies that preserve the head of state’s power and that of their entourage.
Given the already considerable powers held by the Senegalese President, this need for control could be more about succession than anything else.
With this in mind, it should be acknowledged that although democratic transitions have often been transformative, in the Senegalese case, they have also paradoxically led to a weakening of the country’s institutions.
The need to reinvent institutions and reinforce the separation of powers has rarely driven the reforms carried out over the last three decades. This is clearly illustrated by the aberrant discrepancy between the longevity of presidential careers and the ephemeral nature of governmental teams.
Translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast ForWord.
Written by Amy Niang, Visiting Professor at the University of Sao Paulo and Senior Lecturer in International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand