Eight months of an escalating crisis in Burundi continues to raise deep concerns on the stability of Africa’s democracies. Nowhere else in the world is this concern deeper than within the East African Community (EAC), an economic bloc of five countries to which Burundi is a member.
The nomination of the incumbent president Pierre Nkurunzinza by his CNDD/FDD party to vie for a third presidential term in April sparked violent protests. Those opposed to the third term cite the Arusha peace and reconciliation agreement of 2000. The agreement signed to end many years of civil war in Burundi provided that one could only be elected president of Burundi for a term of five years, renewable only once. The agreement further provided that the first election would be indirect.
President Pierre Nkurunzinza was indirectly elected by members of the Burundi national assembly and senate in August 2005 for a five year term. He was later re-elected in 2010. It is however the first term that has generated controversy with supporters of the president insisting that the first term did not count given that the president was not elected directly by the people making him eligible for another term.
The confirmation of president Nkurunzinza to vie in the 2015 election by the constitutional court further worsened the violence. The run up to the July election was characterized by resignations of high ranking Burundi government officials including the vice-presidents of the electoral commission and the constitutional court.
The electoral commission of Burundi declared president Nkurunzinza the victor in the controversial July 21st presidential elections that were boycotted by most of the opposition candidates. The East African Community (EAC) Observer Mission to the Burundi election concluded that the electoral process ‘fell short of the principles and standards for holding free, fair , peaceful , transparent and credible elections as stipulated in various international, continental as well as the EAC principles of election observation and evaluation.
President Pierre Nkurunzinza went ahead to be sworn in for a third term promising to crush his opponents with ‘the aid of God’ and ‘scatter them like flour in the air’ in his victory speech.
The developments in Burundi are raising serious concerns on the commitment of the East African Community and African Union leaders towards ideals of peace, democracy and human rights on the continent.
The Burundi conflict has claimed at least 400 lives and caused the displacement of over 220,000 people. There are also thousands who are reportedly displaced internally.
A number of emergency summits by the EAC heads of state have failed to find a solution to the crisis. The Burundi mediation ship has hardly left port.
On 18th December, the African Union peace and Security Council authorized the deployment of an African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU), for an initial period of six months renewable. This decision was made in light of a deteriorating situation in Burundi characterized by human rights abuses. There are also fears that the response by the government has disproportionately targeted the Tutsis strategically manipulating the crisis and willfully pushing it towards an ethnic dimension. Arbitrary closure of some civil society organizations and media has further shrunk the democratic space in Burundi.
The deployment of MAPROBU is in line with article 4 of the constitutive act of the African Union which provides for ‘The right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.’
The Burundi government has continued to reject the African Union peacekeepers stating that troops were not needed since the country had a democratically elected government. The United Nations Security Council supports the deployment of the peace-keeping troops and warned that ‘alternative options’ might be considered if the mediation efforts did not start immediately.
The citizens of East African Community have moved to express solidarity with the people of Burundi. There have been demonstrations, vigils and lighting of candles in honor of the victims of the Burundi conflict. On 22nd December , an online dialogue forum dubbed #KenyansWithBurundi was organized to chart a roadmap towards peace in Burundi. The panelists for the forum were drawn from both Kenya and Burundi. The Burundi crisis was the most discussed topic on social media in Kenya that day and has remained a topic of great interest and concern in East Africa.
During the #KenyansWithBurundi forum, commentators from both Kenya and Burundi criticized both the African leadership and the international community for taking too long to intervene in Burundi. They called for President Pierre Nkurunzinza to be held accountable for atrocities reported in Burundi. The online users expressed concern that the humanitarian situation in Burundi was dire and worsening. The continuation of the crisis was termed as likely to undermine democracy and stability on the continent.
Buoyed by social media, the citizens of Africa are making their voices heard in a way that was unthinkable as recently as ten years ago. The wishes of the ordinary African citizen were previously articulated at the pleasure of the respective government. This old script appears to be changing. Pan-africanism seems to be getting a new meaning and image. While the concept of pan-africanism was founded on grievances borne out of the legacy of colonialism and later neo-colonialism, the young generation in Africa is keen to see a pan-African spirit re-born and anchored on the pursuit of peace, justice and democracy.
The debate on the extension of presidential terms in Africa is not new. It could appear that Burundi is on the dull end of a spectrum whose ‘less dark’ end is represented by Rwanda. On 18th December, Rwandans voted overwhelmingly in a referendum that gives Kagame the opportunity to carry on as president till 2034. In 2005, President Yoweri Museveni who earlier in his leadership had criticized African leaders who overstay in power changed the constitution allowing him a third term. President Museveni is currently serving a fourth term and will by vying for a fifth in 2016. Other presidents who have extended their stay in office include Paul Biya of Cameroon, Sam Nujoma of Namibia and Dennis Sassou Nguesso of Congo. The president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Campaore was ousted through popular uprising following plans to extend his term in 2014.
During President Barack Obama’s remarks to the African people delivered from Addis Ababa during the African Union summit in July, the American president stated that Africa’s democratic progress was imperiled by leaders who refused to step aside when their terms ended. He warned that extending term of office could be the first step towards strife. President Obama challenged African leaders to follow the example set by Nelson Mandela and George Washington who both left a legacy of transferring power peacefully.
Some notable African leaders who have been feted for leaving at the end of their terms include Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Festus Mogae of Botswana, Pedro Pires of Cape Verde and Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia. These five former leaders are laureates of the Mo Ibrahim prize which celebrates former African heads of state who were democratically elected, served their constitutionally mandated term and demonstrated exceptional leadership.
The Burundi crisis presents the greatest challenge to continental leadership since the Arab spring. The ordinary African citizen has chosen to identify with the aspirations of the ordinary Burundi citizen. An ideological rift appears to be developing between the cautious diplomacy of the older African leader and the energetic solidarity of the yo
unger generation. This rift represents the difference between the old and new spirit of pan-africanism.
NB : The article was first published in the February 2016 edition of ‘the platform kenya’ magazine
DR CHITAYI MURABULA.