Seychelles: Independence and the one party state (1976-1993)

Updated March 2011

On the Seychelles gaining independence from the United Kingdom on 28 June 1976 the leader of the Seychelles Democratic Party (SDP) James Mancham became President and the leader of the Seychelles People's United Party (SPUP) Albert René became Prime Minister in a coalition government due to last until 1979 when the next elections were due. It was hoped that this arrangement brokered by the British government would reduce the high level of mistrust and antagonism that had developed between the two parties in the years preceding independence. Mancham spent much of his first year in office travelling abroad soliciting investment in the booming tourist industry and he was criticised by the SPUP for his "jet set" lifestyle, pro-Western foreign policy positions, single minded pursuit of economic growth through tourism development and neglect of the poor (Franda 1982, 15, 53; Ellis, S 1996, 167; Murison 2008, 1018). Mancham's frequent absence left the day to day running of the country in the hands of René who used the situation to plot and execute a coup d'état on the night of 4/5 June 1977 with Tanzanian assistance; the coup was undertaken by 60 Seychellois who had undergone military training in Tanzania and were transported to Mahé on a Tanzanian ship (Ellis, S 1996, 167; Franda 1982, 49). Mancham was in London at the time and remained in exile in the England (Franda 1982, 50, 55). René justified the coup by claiming that Mancham was planning to outlaw the SPUP and create a one party state (Franda 1982, 50). René suspended and then revoke the independence constitution, appointed a Constitutional Commission to draft a new Constitution to be implemented in 1979 and in the meanwhile ruled by decree (Hatchard 1993, 601; Franda 1982, 56).

In 1978 the SPUP reinvented itself as the Seychelles People's Progressive Front (SPPF) and defined itself as a 'socialist avant-garde Party', "which could accept anyone from any party" (Virtual Seychelles 2004; Campling et al 2009, 14) and in June René proclaimed that only the SPPF would be permitted to field candidates in the 1979 election; the SDP had not been banned, he said, but had "ceased to exist of its own accord" (Hatchard 1993, 601). The recommendations of the Constitutional Commission were accepted and were embodied in the Constitution promulgated by René in March 1979 and it came into effect in June (Hatchard 1993, 601, 602). In terms of the Constitution, the Seychelles People's Progressive Front (SPPF) was the only party permitted to be formed and was the "single font of political authority" (Franda 1982, 57, 58). Executive power was vested in the President who could appoint or dismiss all public officials including ministers and, effectively, judges (Franda 1982, 58, 59). The president was elected by universal adult franchise, but only the nominee of the SPPF was permitted candidacy in the election (Franda 1982, 59). Judicial review was abolished, no enforceable bill of rights was included and legislative power was vested in a People's Assembly, which was explicitly subordinated to the President and the SPPF (Franda 1982, 58). As may be seen in Presidential election results under one party rule, René never failed to obtain the endorsement of 90% of the vote in elections held in 1979, 1984 and 1989 nor did voter turnout fall below 90%.

The government, aware that it had easily been able to overthrow the previous government by force with foreign help, felt vulnerable to this being repeated (Franda 1982, 64). It create the Seychelles' first army in 1977, equipped by the Soviet Union, and passed legislation that enabled press censorship, surveillance of private mail and detention without trial (Franda 1982, 67, 69, 70). Security spending rose from US$13.4 million to US$50 million between 1975 and 1981 (Franda 1982, 115). The National Workers Union was established as the only trade union permitted on the islands, as were the National Women's Organisation for women and the National Youth Organisation for youth and all were affiliated with the SPPF (Franda 1982, 64).

The international situation did nothing to allay the government's security concerns. The coup by executed by mercenaries in the neighbouring Comoros in May 1978 fuelled insecurity (Franda 1982, 67, 68) In an attempt to maintain good relations with Western powers in the interests of the important tourism industry as well as the friendship of Soviet dominated countries with whom the SPPF was ideologically aligned, René maintained a position of nonalignment (Ellis, S 1996, 167, 168). The position was precarious in view of naval rivalry in the Indian Ocean between the United States and the Soviet Union and the active presence of the French; the latter was suspected of involvement in a coup plot uncovered in 1979 (Ellis, S 1996, 168). The government reacted to the coup plot by detaining 120 opposition supporters in 1979 and 1980 under the new legislation and a large numbers of dissidents were forced into exile (Franda 1982, 67, 68; Murison 2008, 1018).

In November 1981 a group of 50 mercenaries attempted to land on Mahé to execute a coup planned for early November 1982, but the plot was uncovered and the mercenaries fled to South Africa, whose government had assisted the coup attempt (Franda 1982, 66; Ellis, S 1996, 169, 170). In 1982 a mutiny in the army was suppressed (Murison 2008, 1018). Recognising the difficulties of his situation, René took active steps to establish friendly relations with the United States, France and South Africa (Ellis, S 1996, 174). He was rewarded in 1983 when the South African government uncovered another coup plot and expelled those involved (Ellis, S 1996, 174). Dissent with the SPPF leadership emerged leading in 1984 to the expulsion from government and exile of Dr Maxime Ferrari (Murison 2008, 1018). In August 1986 a London based plot involving South African intelligence agents was leaked to the Seychelles government by the South African government (Ellis, S 1996, 174). This attempt to overthrow the government was orchestrated by the United States intelligence and aimed at replacing René with his own Minister of Defence, Ogilvy Berlouis (Ellis, S 1996, 189; Murison 2008, 1018).

The focus of the SPPF government was the reduction of poverty and the high level of inequality that was prevalent in 1977 and the means was a series of national development plans aimed at accelerating economic growth, redistribution of wealth and social upliftment (Campling et al 2009, 14). René had been critical of Mancham's focus on the development of tourism to the exclusion of all else and aimed to diversify the economy, stimulate income growth and reduce unemployment through the development of agriculture and fishing (Franda 1982, 53). The tourism industry continued to form a major part of the economy, despite a downturn in the early 1980s as a result of the oil crisis and the rapid increase in the cost of air travel, competition from elsewhere, the poor international image generated by the coup and subsequent events and the government's downgrading of tourism amongst its priorities (Gabbay & Ghosh 2003, 105; Michel 2002, 95).

The government acted to arrest the decline by establishing Air Seychelles in 1983, repositioning the industry upmarket by upgrading and expanding tourist facilities, legalising gambling, improving transport between the islands and establishing the Seychelles Tourist Board to aggressively market the country (Gössling & Hörstmeier 2004, 206; Gabbay & Ghosh 2003, 105, 106). As a result the industry recovered quickly and expanded rapidly, despite a brief downturn during the First Gulf War in 1991 (Gössling & Hörstmeier 2004, 206; Gabbay & Ghosh 2003, 106). As a consequence, employment in the hotels and restaurants sector of the economy rose from 14% in 1976 to 23% of the workforce in 1991 (Campling et al 2009, 71). The share of the industry's contribution to GDP declined from 36.1% in 1979 to 22.7% in 1982 before recovering to 33% in 1990 as a result of the government's measures, before declining once more to 25.1% in 1993 as growth slowed in this sector of the economy and quickened in others (Gabbay & Ghosh 2003, 106). As a result of the expansion of the tourist and related sectors of the economy urbanisation accelerated; the urbanisation rate increased from 26% in 1970 to 41% in 1980 and just under 50% in 1990 (Campling et al 2009, 52).

Catering to the tourist industry required an increase in the imports, which rose from US$44.8 million in 1975 to US$100 million in 1981 (Franda 1982, 112).The islands had been dependent on food imports since the 1840s and in 1980 the government embarked on a programme to reduce food imports by encouraging local food production through the establishment of marketing cooperatives (Franda 1982, 79, 80, 82). However, low agricultural earning relative to those in other industries made agriculture unattractive so that much of production growth was concentrated in the development of state owned ventures and coconuts continued to be agriculture's main export earner (Franda 1982, 82-84). A 200 mile exclusive economic zone was declared in 1978 and the Seychelles National Fishing Company was launched to assist small fishermen in acquiring boats, construct canneries and cold storage facilities and undertake marketing of seafood products (Franda 1982, 85, 86). Foreign companies were also licensed to fish within the country's large exclusive economic zone, but the government lacked the capacity to patrol and enforce its fishing rights so that large scale illegal fishing by Korean and the Japanese took place (Franda 1982, 86). In 1987 a tuna canning factory, created through a partnership between the French and Seychelles government, began production and in that year canned tuna became the Seychelles' largest single earner of export earnings (Sparks 2008, 1022; Campling et al 2009, 13). Despite the government's efforts at stimulating production employment in the Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing sector of the economy declined from 20% of the workforce to 9% in 1981 before recovering steadily to 15% in 1991 (Campling et al 2009, 71).

The economic difficulties of the early 1980s, especially in the tourism industry, resulted in falls in national income with GDP shrinking by an average of 2.2% a year between 1980 and 1983 before resuming growth and posting 5.9% on average annually between 1984 and 1992 (IMF 2008a). The population growth rate fell below the 2% of 1977 to 1% in 1987 and 1.2% in 1994 (Campling et al 2009, 12, 13). As may be expected, with moderate population growth rates but falling national income, per capita income declined by an annual average of 2.7% between 1980 and 1983, but once income growth rates resumed so did per capita income growth and an annual average growth rate of 4.8% was recorded between 1984 and 1992 (IMF 2008a). Unemployment remained a problem, rising from 10% in 1977 to 15.5% in 1987 before declining more rapidly to 10.2% in 1994 (Campling et al 2009, 75).

To give effect to its policy of social upliftment and poverty eradication the government's national development plans focused on extending the education, healthcare services and other social services to the population. A government study found that 56% of children aged 1-4 were malnourished and 32% of children over 14 years had dropped out of school (Franda 1982, 94). To tackle these problems the government established compulsory day care centres for children aged 4-7, voluntary centres for those aged 1-4, a school feeding programme and a nationalised health service as well as programmes to assist the handicapped (Franda 1982, 97, 113). A further concern was poor housing standards where only 48% of houses had running water and 33% adequate sanitation, but by 1987 69% of the population had access to treated water and this increased to 83% by 1994, while flush toilets were available to 62% of the population in 1987, increasing to 78% by 1994 (Franda 1982, 97; National Statistics Bureau 2008, 19). By 1994 90% had access to electricity, up from 62% in 1987, while the proportion of households in poor quality housing fell from 19% in 1977 to 8% in 1994 (National Statistics Bureau 2008, 19; Campling et al 2009, 77).

The modest healthcare facilities available were concentrated on Mahé with small hospitals on Praslin and La Digue and eight district clinics elsewhere (Campling et al 2009, 64). To make healthcare accessible to all the government increased healthcare spending and rolled out a free and decentralised primary healthcare network in the 1980s that focused on maternal and infant health, health education, immunisation and family planning (Michel et al 2001, 21; Campling et al 2009, 65, 66). Improvements in income, living conditions and in healthcare led to declines in general, maternal and infant mortality rates and rises in life expectancy (Michel et al 2001, 21, 22; Campling et al 2009, 65). Infant mortality fell from 17.5/1000 live births in 1980 to 13/1000 in 1990 while life expectancy at birth increased from 67.9 years in 1977 to 71.6 years in 1994 (Campling et al 2009, 65).

The educational system inherited was orientated towards the needs of the small social elite and was ineffectual at creating widespread literacy (Campling et al 2009, 59). The government focused on providing an education for all that emphasised the acquisition of practical economic skills through expanding education facilities at every level to enable nine years of free compulsory education (Campling et al 2009, 59). The government's egalitarian policies led to the closing of the two private elite schools in the country offering secondary education in preparation for university in the early 1980s and instead a two year voluntary National Youth Service was implemented (attempts to make it compulsory led to student rioting), centred around a campus sited at Port Launnay on Mahé, which focused on teaching vocational skills within the framework of military style regimentation and discipline (Franda 1982, 93-95; Campling et al 2009, 59). A National Pedagogical Institute was founded to enable some graduates of the National Youth Service to spend two years preparing for university while others were to study at the various vocational technical institutions that were newly established or upgraded (Franda 1982, 94, 113). In the 1981 Kreol was adopted as a national language and as a medium of instruction for the first four years of education (Moumou 2005, 47; Campling et al 2009, 59). Literacy increased from 57.3% in 1971 to 86.5% in 1990 (Campling et al 2009, 60). The consequences of the government's socio-economic development programmes was that the proportion of people living in poverty declined from 30.7% in 1984 to 19.7% in 1993 and those living in absolute poverty from 11.6% to 6% in the same period (Campling et al 2009, 78).

Despite violet attacks, disappearances and murders of activists, the opposition members in exile were able to organise and consolidate themselves in a number of organisations (Murison 2008, 1018). Former government minister Maxime Ferrari's Rassemblement du Peuple Seychellois pour la Démocratie (later renamed the Seychelles Christian Democratic Party) established a coalition with four other political groups under the banner of the United Democratic Movement (UDM) while Mancham drew his supporters together in a Crusade for Democracy (Murison 2008, 1018, 1019). The end of the Cold War and the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe on the one hand and pressure from donor countries, especially the United Kingdom and France on the other, forced the SPPF leadership to reconsider their commitment to a one party state (Hatchard 1993, 602; Murison 2008, 1019; Houbert 1992, 482). In 1990 René expressed reluctance to change the political system, but by June 1991, as the Parti Seselwa (PS) of Wavel Ramkalawan emerged as an open internal opposition, he proposed a referendum on the issue leading to the return of Ferrari from exile (Hatchard 1993, 602; Murison 2008, 1019). In November René invited all opposition members to return from exile and in December announced a programme of the SPPF for a return to multiparty democracy that included the legalisation of other parties, the election of a national commission to draft a new constitution, the submission of the draft to the electorate for approval and the holding of multi-party presidential and legislative elections (Hatchard 1993, 602; Murison 2008, 1019; Houbert 1992, 482). Mancham returned to reestablish the Seychelles Democratic Party as the Democratic Party (DP. Houbert 1992, 482).

The Constitution was amended to provide for the registration of political parties and the appointment of an independent Director of Elections to oversee the election of the member of the Constitutional Commission whose Office undertook the registration of voters (Hatchard 1993, 603). The Constitutional Commission was to be constituted by proportional representation with a 5% entry threshold with each party receiving a representative for every 4% of the vote it garnered (Commonwealth Observer Group 1993, 4). Elections were held on 26 July 1992 and 84% of registered voters turned out to vote; the SPPF obtained 58.4% of the vote, the DP 33.7%, the PS 4.4% and the other five parties participating shared the remaining 3.5% (Commonwealth Observer Group 1993, 4; Hatchard 1993, 604). Only the SFFP and the DP met the minimum 5% of the vote and were represented on the Constitutional Commission, receiving 14 and eight seats respectively (Commonwealth Observer Group 1993, 4; Hatchard 1993, 604). Mancham disputed the fairness of the election, but international observers disagreed (Hatchard 1993, 604; Houbert 1992, 482). Despite calls by René and Mancham for national reconciliation and consensus on the new democratic order, the old antagonisms between the SPPF and the DP reemerged during the Constitutional Commission proceedings (Commonwealth Observer Group 1993, 5; Hatchard 1993, 605). The DP walked out in late September leaving the SPPF, whose numbers were sufficient to constitute a quorum, to finalise the draft Constitution by themselves, which was submitted to the electorate at a referendum held on 12-16 November 1992 (Commonwealth Observer Group 1993, 5; Hatchard 1993, 605).

The opposition campaigned for a "no" vote, supported by the Catholic Church which rejected its provisions for abortion (Commonwealth Observer Group 1993, 5; Hatchard 1993, 606). The voters endorsed the draft, with 53.7% of registered voters voting "yes" to 44.6% "no" (the remaining 1.7% being spoilt ballots), but since ratification required an endorsement of 60% of all votes cast the opposition had won the day (Commonwealth Observer Group 1993, 5; Hatchard 1993, 606). The Constitutional Council reconvened in January 1993, with renewed calls for consensus by René and Mancham, and by 7 May the new draft was adopted unanimously and a referendum was held on 15-18 June (Commonwealth Observer Group 1993, 5; Hatchard 1993, 606). The SPPF and the DP campaigned for acceptance of the draft and the remaining opposition parties for its rejection while the voters ratified it with 73.9% of the votes cast (Commonwealth Observer Group 1993, 5; Hatchard 1993, 606). The Constitution provided for an executive President, limited to three five year terms of office, directly elected through universal adult franchise (see Constitution for details). The unicameral Parliament was constituted through a parallel mixed member system. The National Assembly was to be comprised of 22 members elected by a plurality from single member constituencies and up to 11 members allocated to parties by proportional representation (this balance was changed in 1998 to 25 constituency and up to 10 proportional representation members by a constitutional amendment in July 1996). The Constitution also included a comprehensive bill of rights (Campling et al 2009, 42).

In the run up to the presidential and legislative elections that were held on 20-23 July 1993 the Parti Seselwa (PS), Seychelles Christian Democratic Party (SCDP), Seychelles National Movement and the National Alliance Party formed an electoral alliance, the United Opposition (UO. See Presidential results and National Assembly results for details). In the presidential election René won 59.5% of the valid votes to Mancham's 36.7% while the UO candidate obtained only 3.8%. The SPPF won 57.5% of the vote in the National Assembly election, but gained 21 of the 22 constituency seats and was allocated six proportional representation seats, giving it 82% of the seats in the legislature. With 32.8% of the vote the DP won only a single constituency seat and with its four proportional representation seats it had but 15% of the seats in Parliament. With 9.7% of the vote the UO had only one proportional representation seat, or 3% of the seats in the National Assembly. René was able to constitute a SPPF government that commanded a large majority in Parliament.


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