by Natasha Hira. A British second year student who has mostly lived in Kenya, reading BA International Relations at the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
President Obama visited Kenya at the end of July for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit and Ethiopia to meet with the Ethiopian government and African Union. He spoke of how ‘Africa was on the move’ while simultaneously addressing various challenges facing the continent, from economic development to corruption, and the recent controversy of extending presidential terms.
Obama addressed the issue in Addis Ababa saying, “I am in my second term. It has been an extraordinary privilege for me to serve as President of the United States. I cannot imagine a greater honour or a more interesting job. I love my work. But under our Constitution, I cannot run again…I actually think I’m a pretty good President — I think if I ran I could win. But I can’t.” (1)
These words echoed loudly as President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi was sworn in for his third term. Burundi witnessed a civil war in 1993, which came to an end in 2003 with a power-sharing government under the Arusha Peace Accords (2). Various Western nations, as well as the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU) accuse Nkurunziza’s third term as being in violation of those peace accords. However, the Burundi Constitutional Court voted in favour of a third term as Nkurunziza claims he was elected in 2005 by parliament and not by voters. His third term holds grave consequences for the nation and the regional tide of term extensions.
As Nkurunziza serves his third term, there are six reasons we should keep an eye out for Burundi and the events unfolding in the country:
- Tugging At Strings of the Past: The UN estimates that over 100,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries (3), which is a growing source of instability for the Greater Lake Region. Burundi has previously been a victim of ethnic violence as has neighbouring Rwanda. The Arusha Peace Accord set ethnic quotas on Burundi’s government positions to overcome the concerns of a Hutu majority and threats to the Tutsi minority. Such quotas are jeopardized by Nkurunziza’s third term; adding salt to old wounds. The threat looms over the international community to act faster and more effectively than they did with Rwanda in 1994. Obama’s establishment of the Atrocity Prevent Board could be put to test as violence continues.
- The Precedent It Sets: Nkurunziza’s third term, however, has larger consequences as it sets off alarms for regional presidents also seeking extensions in their terms. As of 1990, 34 of Africa’s 54 countries had voted in favour of presidential term limits (4). Yet, the extension of terms through constitutional amendments is gaining momentum across the continent. Burundi is located south of Uganda, where President Museveni has been in power since 1986, and east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where President Kabila has been in power since 2001 and has attempted to delay the 2016 elections. The Rwandan parliament recently received a petition signed by four million citizens regarding the extension of Paul Kagame’s presidential term. Nkurunziza’s third term is being watched carefully by Kagame, as Rwandans go to the polls in 2017.
- Constitutional Weaknesses: Burundi highlights the problem of constitutional weaknesses. While constitutions are meant to uphold democratic values, they are undermined if the executive holds too much power. With weak institutions such constitutional amendments jeopardize the ability of a nation to create an environment that is conducive to fair and free elections. Kenya’s new constitution, which was voted in five years ago, sought to bring about such changes by minizimng the authority of the executive, and similar change should be advocated in Burundi today.
- The Question of Fair and Free Elections: The US State Department stated Burundi’s electoral results were a “culmination of a deeply flawed electoral process marked by violence and a disregard for the civil and human rights of the citizens of Burundi.” (5) President Nkurunziza has previously been accused of authoritarianism by attacking the media and opposition. In the last few months there have been a number of political assassinations to hard-liners such as Adolphe Nshimirimana, as well as human rights activists, such as Pierre Claver Mbonimpa and opposition leaders.
- The International Community’s Response: The international community must support the demand for stronger institutions, and fairer and freer elections. Having an “all bark and no bite” response won’t stop the tide of term extensions witnessed in the region. Condemnation won’t be strong enough to set a precedent but international action in the form of sanctions has proven to only affect the poor. International aid accounts for roughly half of Burundi’s official budget (6), and in response to sanctions the current government is turning to China and Russia who support Nkurunziza’s presidency.
- Voice of Civil Society: As words of condemnation and sanctions prove to be futile, greater action is needed in order to bolster democratically legitimate leaders and replace the Big Men politics present on the continent today. This must be demanded by the voters. Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term led to violent protests in April, followed by a failed coup in May led by General Godegroid Niyombe. The threat of civil war looms as Burundi’s civil society demand changes in their electoral results.
Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term thus sets of alarms for the citizens of Burundi, the region and the international community. It threatens to tug at the strings of the past, particularly with regard to ethnic tensions. It tests the voice of the civil society, questions the constitutionals weaknesses and presence of fair and free elections. More importantly, it provides a precedent for other regional presidents also seeking to extend. This demands attention and action from Burundi’s civil society and the international community, which is essential to prevent the tide of extending terms, now present and preserve democratic values in the region.