The Legacy of the 1993 Democratic Transition of Seychelles

by | Apr 12, 2023

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About Georgia Delgado-Fitzgerald

Georgia Delgado-Fitzgerald is an international criminal lawyer, formerly at the International Criminal Court and the Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission of Seychelles. She currently works at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The Seychelles Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission has almost concluded its investigation into allegations of human rights violations committed in relation to the military coup in 1977, which was led by communist dictator France-Albert René. The Commission has considered over 400 human rights cases, covering issues as diverse as illegal property acquisition, including the acquisition of homes and businesses, and torture, homicide and enforced disappearances. This post considers the political context that has enabled the coexistence of such rights violations within a seemingly democratic regime.

During his decades-long rule, from the 1977 coup until his death in 2019, President René  introduced democracy to the political domain, beginning in 1993 with a new Constitution. Prior to this, Seychelles had been a one-party state, with the ruling Seychelles People’s Progressive Front holding a monopoly on political power. Part of the the Seychelles Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission’s mandate was to establish an objective historical record of René’s totalitarian rule over the country. A common thread found in testimonies and research in compilation was the return to multiparty democracy in 1993. René’s decision to institute democratic elections, while maintaining a tenacious grip on the state, merits closer scrutiny.

The 2020 presidential election in Seychelles was a watershed moment for the country, marking the first presidential victory for the opposition party in 42 years. Yet this milestone for Seychelles and its strengthening democracy remains haunted by the authoritarian regime of René’s one-party state, which officially lasted until 1993 but unofficially continued much longer. The coup and its long aftermath created a tenacious social climate of political persecution and human rights violations, with President René targeting individuals and their families for straying (or being perceived to stray) from the party line. Unjustified acquisition of property, forceful evictions, and wrongful dismissal from employment were common practices of the regime, as were grave human rights violations including unlawful killing, arbitrary imprisonment, and torture. Amongst harrowing testimonies, the Seychelles Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission – which was created to record and address human rights violations occurring under the one-party state – has received evidence that shows many Seychellois (both within the country and exiled abroad) felt that the new Constitution did not change the political climate post-1993.

René’s choice to institute a new constitution and legal structures to entrench democratic principles, whilst continuing to commit grave human rights abuses, appears contradictory. Yet there were several factors that contributed to René’s decision to return Seychelles to a multiparty state in 1992: political shifts in the former Soviet Union and the global trend towards multiparty democratic systems isolated Seychelles from the continuing economic support of more radical Marxist states. With economic and political support from the Soviet Union rapidly declining, economic ties to the West became ascendant. Considering this global political shift, reforms for René seemed unavoidable: Britain and France were beginning to cut their economic support to authoritarian states unless they became more democratic.

This political pressure abroad threatened Seychelles’ economic dependence on tourism from the West, through both visitors and foreign investments. In June 1990, one year before the announcement of a multiparty system, French President François Mitterrand addressed the importance of political progressiveness at the Franco-African summit, spotlighting Mauritius as a politically progressive country. At the same time, British political opponents were placing pressure on British politicians through successful meetings on the problematic nature of the one-party state. Within Africa, other countries were also beginning to transition out of one-party systems into multiparty democracies, and René was seemingly out of step with some of his neighbouring states.

However, many of the laws that René introduced continued to infringed on citizens’ human rights, including the State Security Act remained, which controlled who could enter Civil Service, as posting could be denied on the grounds permitted by René. As René continued to hold majority power, multiparty democracy was superficially introduced in a way that maintained the previous political system and power structures, whilst undermining potential challenges and ensuring authoritarianism through instruments such as the State Security Act. While the return to multipartyism provided avenues for redress, these existed within an unchanged legal-political system: the continuation of all of René’s party members, and René himself, as the executive within the new multiparty system was indicative of little genuine change. It is thus to be welcomed that the ongoing Commission is recognising the artificiality of democratic principles embedded in the Seychelles’ authoritarian political architecture, and the human rights abuses which have accordingly gone unpunished.

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