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date: 19 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

One reason why dictatorships flourished in Africa until the 1990s was that constitutions concentrated excessive powers in presidents. The democratic revival of the 1990s led to the introduction of new or substantially revised constitutions in a number of countries that for the first time sought to promote constitutionalism, good governance, and respect for the rule of law. A key innovation was the introduction of provisions providing for separation of powers. However, in many cases the reintroduction of multipartyism did not lead to thorough constitutional reform, setting the scene for a subsequent struggle between opposition parties, civil society, and the government, over the rule of law.

This reflects the complex politics of constitutionalism in Africa over the last 60 years. In this context, it is important to note that most of the constitutions introduced at independence had provided for some degree of separation of powers, but the provisions relating to this were often vaguely worded and quickly undermined.

Despite this, the doctrine of separation of powers has a long history, and the abundant literature on it shows that there is no general agreement on what it means or what its contemporary relevance is. Of the three main models of separation of powers, the American one, which comes closest to a “pure” system of separation of powers, and the British, which involves an extensive fusion of powers, have influenced developments in anglophone Africa. The French model, which combines elements of the British and American models but in which the executive predominates over the other two branches, has influenced developments in all civilian jurisdictions in Africa, particularly those in francophone Africa. The common denominator among the models is the desire to prevent tyrannical and arbitrary government by separating powers but doing so in a manner that allows for limited interference through checks and balances on the principle that le pouvoir arrête le pouvoir.

The combined Anglo-American (common law) and French (civil law) models received during the colonial period remain applicable today, but despite its adoption in the 1990s, the effectiveness of the doctrine of separation of powers in limiting governmental abuse has been curtailed by the excessive powers African presidents still enjoy and the control they exercise over dominant parties in legislatures. South Africa in its 1996 Constitution, followed by Kenya in 2010 and Zimbabwe in 2013, entrenched a number of hybrid institutions of accountability that have the potential not only to complement the checks and balances provided by the traditional triad but also to act where it is unable or unwilling to do so. The advent of these institutions has given the doctrine of separation of powers renewed potency and relevance in advancing Africa’s faltering constitutionalism project.

Keywords: constitutionalism, checks and balances, executive, hybrid institutions of accountability, judiciary, legislature, rule of law, separation of powers, African politics

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