Lessons from Burundi’s unrest

Current Affairs

Lessons from Burundi’s unrest

The unrest in Burundi is causing misery for many, and President Pierre Nkurunziza looks like he will succeed in his aim for a third mandate. Despite these facts, James Schneider argues that a closer look at the situation reveals some positive dynamics for both Burundi’s and the continent’s politics. 

Presented one way, what has happened in the last two months in Burundi reinforces all of the worst clichéd, stereotypical narratives about the African continent.

A country with a history of ethnically motivated civil war saw a president seek a third term of dubious constitutionality. Many protestors opposed the move and thousands fled the country. A coup was attempted when the president was out of the country. Factions of the army fought, the president’s loyalists won, and he is now back in control and has shut down independent media in preparation to run for his third term regardless of domestic and international condemnation.

However, as regular readers of New African will no doubt be aware, while the above facts are true, this isn’t all that is going on. There are other, more promising dynamics at play too.

Burundi is not just Nkurunziza’s fiefdom where the threat of ethnic violence keeps a people passive. In many respects, the way Burundians and then the (especially African) international community has responded to Nkurunziza’s plans provide a positive story of a country and a continental peace and security architecture that, while still far from perfect, are moving in the right direction.

Defending Arusha

Burundi suffered a horrendous ethnic civil war from 1993 to 2005. The 2000 Arusha Peace Agreement and subsequent 2005 constitution created the post-civil
war political system to balance forces and keep the peace.

The constitution provides term limits for the president, but perhaps more importantly specifically shares power between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi. In the National Assembly, Hutus have 60% of the seats and the Senate is evenly divided. There are two Vice Presidents: one Hutu, one Tutsi. All legislation requires a two-thirds majority. This system, with a few wrinkles along the way, broadly managed to defuse ethnicised political competition. 

It is in this context that Nkurunziza’s attempts at a third term, and the opposition to it, should be seen. The president argues that he can technically run for a third mandate because his first was appointed by a transitional legislature rather than directly elected by universal suffrage, as he was in 2010. The argument between those who support and those who oppose a third term for Nkurunziza is not fundamentally about the letter of the law or interpretations of the constitution. The dispute is between those who are happy to upset this careful balance and move to a new political order, dominated by one central political figure, and those who wish to keep the system that has broadly kept peace in the country for the past decade.

In March last year, Nkurunziza tried to change the 2005 constitution to remove many of the power-sharing elements that impede his power. The amendments would have removed term limits for the president, replaced the two vice presidents with a single prime minister and replaced the two-thirds majority requirement to pass legislation with a simple majority. The changes would have consolidated Nkurunziza’s personal power but also that of the Hutu, potentially upsetting the ethnic balance in the country.

The president needed an 80% majority in parliament to pass the constitutional amendments. He fell short by just one vote after a vigorous campaign by civil society to defend Arusha.

Despite the setback, Nkurunziza never seemed willing to leave power at the end of his second term. Civil society, which is well developed and highly active in the country, mounted a number of campaigns against the third mandate. However, mass protests weren’t seen on the streets of the capital Bujumbura until the president’s party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) announced on 25 April this year that he would compete in the elections originally scheduled for this month. Security forces killed over a dozen Burundians.

It wasn’t just the spontaneous response on the street, the more organised opposition from civil society and the just-over 20% of parliamentarians that stood firm against Nkurunziza. In February, the head of the intelligence service, General Godefroid Niyombare, wrote a ten-page memo arguing against a third mandate. The memo was leaked. Nkurunziza sacked Niyombare, a former military chief of staff, for his troubles. Dissent by Niyombare, who is a Hutu and fought alongside the president in the CNDD-FDD when it was a rebel group, demonstrated that Nkurunziza did not have the total unambiguous support of the army or all Hutus.

On 2 May, the defence minister, Major General Pontien Gaciyubwenge, underscored that the army was not united behind the third mandate. He said at a press conference, “There is no individual who will direct the army to go against the Arusha deal and the country’s constitution.”

Two days later, the Constitutional Court deemed Nkurunziza’s third term push legal. However, the vice-president of the Court, Judge Sylvere Nimpagaritse, fled the country claiming intimidation and death threats against the court’s judges to make them rule in Nkurunziza’s favour.

All of this very public opposition to Nkurunziza’s plans transcends ethnic divides. Burundi’s civil society, institutions, and population have thus far failed to stop Nkurunziza’s third mandate but they have put up a fight, showing impressive commitment to the principles of peace, shying away from ethnic interpretations of the political dispute.

People demonstrate against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for the 3rd term in Nyakabiga neighborhood in Bujumbura on May 16, 2015. Burundi's government was Saturday accused of launching a campaign of reprisals and repression against independent media, the day after loyalist troops defeated an attempted coup against the central African nation's president.  AFP PHOTO / JENNIFER HUXTA

Strengthening the African response

The resolve of those Burundians so publicly opposing the third mandate has helped place the Burundi situation prominently in the international eyeline.
Their actions helped put pressure on other African actors to be more unambiguously and proactively against the instability Nkurunziza is bringing to his country.

When Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso was trying to extend his stay in office by changing the constitution, there was little uproar from other African leaders. Likewise, when Congo-Brazzaville’s Denis Sassou Nguesso announced earlier this year that he would look to change the constitution to run for yet another term in office, the international response was muted at best. However, with Burundi, other African leaders have shown a lot more willingness to express concern.

The presidents of the East African Community (EAC) countries have been firm, if not entirely unambiguous, with their brother leader. Jakaya Kikwete, who is stepping down as president of Tanzania in October following his completion of two terms of office, warned, presciently, in March of violence if “people decide to violate the constitution and the Arusha peace agreement”. Rwanda, which has a similar ethnic makeup to Burundi and has been receiving thousands of refugees from the country since March, has likewise expressed concerns over the situation. These Rwandan concerns have, perhaps understandably, more focused on stability and violence rather than term limit violation. It is widely thought that President Paul Kagame will change his country’s constitution to seek a further seven-year mandate in 2017.

The EAC leaders condemned Niyombare’s coup, as they diplomatically must, but have echoed international calls to delay the elections and have been lukewarm at best in their support for Nkurunziza.

Former Vice President of Kenya Kalonzo Musyoka, who was one of the negotiators of the Arusha peace deal, has called on Nkurunziza to be an “African statesman” and not run in elections.

South African President Jacob Zuma, who when deputy president also helped to negotiate Arusha, has been unequivocal in his opposition to a third mandate for Nkurunziza. Zuma said in early May that the Burundian president should reject his party’s nomination and withdraw from upcoming elections.

Perhaps the most significant African response has come from Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the African Union Commission, who said, “there shouldn’t be a third term”. Her comments conveyed a clarity and firmness that have been rare in the continental body and set a possibly crucial precedent for future attempts to subvert constitutions by leaders to stay in power.

Her words, and some of those from other African leaders, point to a more responsive peace and security architecture on the continent and growing constitutionalism. The norm of term limits appears to be developing on the continent. It seems to be most secure in West Africa. Thirteen of the 15 members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have term limits in their constitutions. When Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaoré tried to change his country’s constitution last year, he was forced from power by a popular uprising. This pressure, along with political leadership from Senegal’s Macky Sall, who is willingly applying term limits to himself, pushed ECOWAS leaders to discuss making term limits mandatory for all members at a meeting last month. The motion, vigorously opposed by Togo and Gambia, which don’t have term limits, failed. Nevertheless, limits are seen as normal and inviolable in more and more African countries.

Threats remain

The situation in Burundi is clearly not good. Nkurunziza is in control. Independent media is under attack. The Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD, are a threatening force that could unleash violence on communities seen to be opposing the third mandate. Nkurunziza has sacked Gaciyubwenge and two other ministers who appear to have opposed his continued presidency. Protestors still face violence from police. At the time of writing, Niyombare is in hiding.

However, despite these obvious difficulties, and the likelihood that Nkurunziza will remain in power, with Burundians facing the consequences of the possible sanctions or reduced aid that will follow, the dynamics from the picture are not all negative. An autocratic president may get his way but with enormous difficulty that was nearly fatal to his regime. A mass of popular and institutional opposition has been placed in his way. His actions have brought strong responses from some African leaders.

Although the forces of constitutionalism inside and outside the country may fail in the immediate term, the Burundi crisis may be looked back on as a turning point in contemporary African history. It is a moment where the spectre of revolution – let us not forget Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Burkina Faso – combined forces with a new generation of more democratic-norm-minded leaders to point the direction of a continent’s future politics. 

Related Posts

Unmissable Past Stories