Africa’s ‘Third Term-ism': The fragility of democracy in Burundi

Thomas Lee

By Copyright World Economic Forum/Eric Miller, ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Pierre Nkurunziza.  Copyright World Economic Forum/Eric Miller, via Wikimedia Commons.

Pierre Nkurunziza has emerged as the latest case in a long history of African leaders refusing to step down when the constitution says their time in office is over.  This April, President Nkurunziza announced he would be seeking a third term in office as a candidate for the ruling CNDD-FDD, despite evidence that this would violate both the constitution and the Arusha Accords, the historic 2000 agreement that ended the 12-year civil war in which approximately 300 000 Burundians were killed.  His announcement on April 25th that he would seek a third term in an election due at the end of June sparked riots in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital.  That re-election bid is what protestors are determined the stop.  Conversely, the president’s loyalists argue that his first term in office, starting in 2005, does not count, as he was elected to his first term by parliament rather than directly by the people, as the constitution requires.  Mr. Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term has been approved by Burundi’s constitutional court, despite widespread allegations that judges were under heavy pressure to approve the presidential plan. So far at least 20 people have been killed in the unrest, with the number of refugees fleeing to neighbouring Tanzania, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) soaring to more than 110 000.  Burundi’s fresh history of genocide, civil war and refugee exodus provide stark reminder of what might follow.  

Despite mounting international criticism, Nkurunziza is consolidating his grip on Burundi.  In May, while the president attended a summit in Tanzania, a group of military officers tried to oust his government; they were foiled, however, by other army leaders, and several high-ranking officials now face trial.  The attempted coup has given the president enormous leverage to crack down on political dissent, undermining the legitimacy of political opposition and civil society groups that consider the third term bid unconstitutional.  With the plotters in detention or on the run, official state radio still broadcasting government messages and independent media silenced, the president was also quick to order opposition and activists to admit defeat and end their protests.  When protests returned to the streets, police and pro-government youth militia (the Imbonerakure) fiercely cleared most of them away.  Simultaneously, the President  began a heavy purge of his cabinet and made it clear that he will seek a third term in the June 26 election, despite condemnation by the African Union, United States, European Union and other African leaders.

With the president determined to hold on to power, the country is dangerously divided.  Even at the best of times, Burundi highly volatile and unstable, but Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term has plunged the country into its worst unrest since civil war, which pitted rebels from the ethnic Hutu majority against the then Tutsi-led army.  Since independence in 1962, it has been marred by coups, massacres and the killing of several presidents, against a backdrop of ethnic strife between the country’s ethnic Tutsis, who make up a tenth of the 10m-plus population, and the oft-marginalized Hutu majority.  The Arusha Accords led to the creation of an ethnically and politically integrated army, widely praised as a symbol of postwar reconciliation, but the political crisis has exposed deep divisions in Burundi’s army, sparking fears of ethnic strife.  Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare’s attempted deposition of the president is evidence of increasing division between political and military elites, with both sides possessing the capacity to mobilize loyalists and inflict violence.  With the army now torn apart by the coup and battle over the third term, the country is at risk of renewed civil war, which could drag in neighbouring countries.  East African political leaders have already opened the door to possible intervention.

The crisis in Burundi highlights the transformative nature of African political systems in recent decades.  At the beginning of 1989 there were just a handful of African states that were operating as relatively democratic, competitive multi-party systems, with the majority ruling by authoritarianism of single-party and military regimes.  By the early 1990s, powerful pro-democracy movements across the continent began demanding a coalescence of political participation from all levels of society.  It was at this time that the two-term limit became standard in Africa’s new democracies; at least 34 countries have put term limits on their presidents, usually giving them a maximum of two five-year terms, as in Burundi.  Yet despite a sustained and vigorous drive to achieve functioning democracy across the continent, the avaricious nature of African rulers has to a large extent impeded progress.  In the last quarter-century, 18 presidents have reached the two-term limit; only 8 of them have stepped down without first trying to amend the constitution or change the term limit.   Moreover, all the presidents who managed to change the constitution have also won the subsequent election. Nkurunziza could join other democratic defectors who haves had success in lengthening their rule, including Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, now serving 29 years and counting, or Paul Biya, who has ruled Cameroon since 1982.  Others, including Zambia’s Frederick Chiluba and Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo, stepped down only after failing to contrive extensions.  Such trends provide striking evidence to the authoritarian basis of Nkurunziza’s third-term bid. 

To restore Burundi’s democracy and prevent further atrocities, President Nkurunziza must be forced to abandon his re-election plans and make way for transparent elections. Burundi’s tenuous peace and modest economic stability in recent years has depended on the population’s confidence that interethnic killing is truly over, which in turn is dependent on observing the terms of the power-sharing deal between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups codified by the Arusha Accords.  By continuing to defy the accords and his country’s constitution, Nkurunziza risks a conflagration of Burundian society that could descend into civil war, or even another Rwanda-style genocide.  While the East African Community (EAC) and African Union have issued strong condemnations of the coup, they require international backing to help resolve Burundi’s conflict.  International efforts must be taken to restore Burundi’s democracy and prevent atrocities, such as imposing immediate travel and financial sanctions on anyone who incites ethnic hatred, while also supporting nonviolent opposition parties and activists in ensuring the Burundian people’s right to free, fair and well-monitored elections.  As soon as possible, the UN, the East African Community, the European Union and the African Union should send their representatives to facilitate the resumption of dialogue between the opposition and the government.  More, the handling of the Burundi situation will set a critical precedent for the region and wider continent.  

Africa’s democratic aspirations, empowered by recent surprise defeats of powerful incumbents in Senegal, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, now turn to Burundi, one of the world’s poorest nations.  If democracy can triumph here, it will send waves across Africa, accelerating a trend that has gained unexpected momentum in recent years.  But while the situation may stabilize, Burundi’s crisis could emerge as a catastrophic pandora’s box for a very fragile Great Lakes region.  If Burundian protestors are overpowered, or if the dangerous authoritarianism of the government persists, the consequences could be far-reaching.  It may encourage some of Africa’s most autocratic leaders to extend their rule through any means necessary.  It could trigger new refugee flows and revive old regional tensions and ethnic grievances, spilling across the country’s borders into one of the most volatile regions of the world, where millions have died in wars and genocide over the past 21 years.  Meanwhile, protestors continue to defy the government and take to the streets despite increasingly forceful crackdowns.  The instability and violence surrounding Bujumbura do not portend well for the prospect of a free and fair election this June. 

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