Tag Archives: third term limit

Rwanda – President Kagame and constitutional reform

A major overhaul of the 2003 constitution of Rwanda is underway. What are the major proposed changes, and how will they impact President Paul Kagame and the 2017 presidential election?

A constitutional reform commission established by parliament and approved by President Kagame was seated in September 2015 and proceeded to make recommendations for changes to a number of articles, notably those affecting presidential term limits. Signed petitions from Rwandan citizens had been arriving for months at the lower house of the Rwandan legislature, requesting an amendment of article 101 of the constitution that limits presidential terms to two seven-year terms. By mid-August, parliament had reportedly received 3.7 million signatures, an impressive figure for a population of 12 million people and equivalent to 60 percent of registered voters. The expression of popular will, says the government; the result of manipulation and pressure, say its critics. Some skepticism seems warranted in a country with limited political pluralism and where civil liberties declined over the past year due to narrowing space for freedom of expression, according to Freedomhouse which rates Rwanda as “Not Free.”

At the end of October, the lower house adopted a draft amended constitution. Major changes included reducing the duration of presidential terms from 7 to 5 years, applicable after 2017. This means the candidate who wins in 2017 would still serve a “transitional” 7-year term, and then be eligible for two 5-year terms. This transitional period is according to Speaker Donatile Mukabalisa justified by “Rwanda’s unique context as the nation strives to achieve sustainable socio-economic transformation.” After this transitional period, the two-term limit in article 101 would be maintained.

Article 172 in the revised constitution states that “the President of the Republic in office at the time of commencement of this revised Constitution – that is President Paul Kagame in this case — shall continue to serve the term for which he was elected, and the provisions of Article 101 of this revised Constitution shall be applicable after the expiry of a seven-year term.” With these provisions, Kagame could potentially serve 17 years more in power after the end of his current term, till 2034.

The Senate adopted the draft amended constitution on November 17, after making substantive changes to 32 articles and formatting changes to 16 others, without changing articles 101 and 172. With regards to article 172 in particular, the chairperson of the committee on political affairs and good governance hon. Jean Nepomuscene Sindikubwabo stated that “it responded positively to requests of Rwandan citizens especially their wishes that triggered the amendment of the constitution.”

On November 23, the Chamber of Deputies met in plenary to approve the modifications made by the Senate to the draft amended constitution, thus marking the end of the constitutional review process at the level of parliament. Next step will be the organization of a national referendum for which no date has yet been set. The Democratic Green Party, by some accounts Rwanda’s only genuine opposition party and which has no representation in parliament, is the only party to have publicly opposed the elimination of term limits. The party unsuccessfully sought to block the constitutional review process through legal action and has declared its intent to wage a “no-campaign” for the referendum.

Unless Kagame decides he will not stand for reelection next year, the road appears to be paved for not one but three more terms in office for him. Donors have been fairly muted in their response. This is after all donor-darling Rwanda and not Burundi or the DRC. While expressing “grave concern” over the move to amend the constitution to allow Kagame to stand for reelection, the US State Department has refrained from threatening to cut aid, stating cautiously that if Kagame were to stay it could “impact US-Rwanda relations going forward.” The EU has no common position. During a visit in September, EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development Neven Mimica lauded the strong development partnership with Rwanda, while stating the EU supports “sovereign decisions taken by sovereign nations” with regards to the content of their constitutions.

Burundi – President Nkurunziza reelected, what now?

On July 21, 2015, President Pierre Nkurunziza was reelected for a highly controversial third term.  According to official results, he won 69.41 percent of the votes in a poll boycotted by some opposition candidates. The runner-up was Agathon Rwasa, leader of the National Liberation Forces (FNL), who garnered 18.99 percent. Despite the boycott by opposition candidates, their names remained on the ballot as ballot papers had already been printed before the boycott was announced. According to the election commission, the national average turn-out among the country’s 2.8 million voters was 73.44 percent, with a low of 29.75 percent in the capital Bujumbura (500,000 inhabitants) and much higher figures in the more populous rural areas (Burundi has a population of about 10 million people).

The vote took place following months of protests and violence triggered by Nkurunziza’s announcement on April 25th that he was standing for reelection [see previous blogpost on the third term controversy here]. Police used “excessive lethal force” and treated demonstrators and entire residential areas of Bujumbura as if they were part of an “insurrection,” according to a recent Amnesty International report, fueling further violence and pushing the country to the brink of conflict. Over 150,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries and more than 100 people have reportedly been killed.

Under pressure by the East African Community (EAC), the presidential election was postponed twice, from June 26th to July 15th and then to July 21st, to give negotiations a chance. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni (who has ruled his country for three decades) tried but failed to broker an agreement between the government and opposition. His efforts focused on the creation of a “government of national unity” following the presidential poll. Museveni also urged the “political class” of Burundi to focus less on “controlling government” and more on “the private sector” [unclear how that would have helped resolve the immediate political deadlock]. The United States State Department urgently called on “all parties in Burundi to commit themselves to constructive dialogue to resolve peacefully the political impasse that threatens to unravel the peace and stability ushered in by the implementation of the Arusha Agreement over a decade ago.”

Dialogue failed to materialize before the polls and Burundi now has a president whose legitimacy is in question. The EAC Observer Mission to Burundi concludes in its preliminary statement of July 23rd 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.” A conclusion echoed by the UN observers in their preliminary statement of July 27th. The EU and US agree that the election was not credible.

What is the way out of the impasse? While everyone, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is calling for a resumption of dialogue, the EAC suggestion of the creation of a government of national unity is the only concrete proposal on the table. Opposition leader Agathon Rwasa supports forming such a unity government, if its primary function is to organize new elections within a year. The president’s camp is also open to discussing a unity government, but has rejected the idea of cutting short Nkurunziza’s third mandate as “impossible.”

Who will tire out first, the opposition or Nkurunziza and the ruling party? As the newly elected parliament sat for the first time on July 27th, parts of the opposition took up their seats while others declared they will not – which could be a sign of weakening opposition cohesion. On the other hand, the government of Burundi depends on donor funding for 52 percent of the national budget. The EU is looking into asset freezes and travel bans targeting Burundian government officials considered responsible for violence and for hampering political dialogue. The US will be reviewing its assistance – which includes 80 million USD a year for Burundi’s military and security forces – over the next couple of months.

Hopefully a protracted stand-off will not result in renewed large scale violence and the fanning of ethnic flames from the 12-year long civil war that ended in 2005. Some opposition leaders living in exile, such as Alexis Sinduhije, have threatened to take up arms, while the Burundian government has expressed concern at allegations that the government of Rwanda is supporting armed groups. The next potential trigger for violence is the official enddate of President Nkurunziza’s current mandate, August 26th. After that date, according to the Forum for Strengthening the Civil Society (FORSC), Nkurunziza will be “an ordinary citizen” and can no longer “pretend to be the president of the people who did not appoint him to represent them.”

Credible and productive dialogue to end the stalemate would require a “moral chief mediator” accepted by both parties, playing the role of “facilitator” as Nelson Mandela did during the Arusha peace process (Mason 2008, p. 21). The regional countries have yet to find a statesman of the same stature and with a similar personality to play that role.

Burundi – Will the election postponement fix the crisis?

At the conclusion of an emergency summit on Burundi held in Dar es Salaam on Sunday, heads of state from the East African Community (EAC) called on the government of Burundi to postpone legislative and presidential polls by at least a month and a half. The postponement would allow the EAC under the leadership of its chairperson, President Kikwete of Tanzania, to “consult with all stakeholders in Burundi on the way forward.” The EAC leaders also called for the “urgent disarmament of all youth groups allied to political parties,” an indirect reference to the Imbonerakure, the youth branch of the ruling CNDD-FDD party. An internal communication from the UN Office in Burundi (BNUB) to UN headquarters in New York alleges a distribution of weapons to the Imbonerakure, an allegation denied by the government.

The government of Burundi quickly “welcomed” the recommended election postponement. The electoral calendar, with parliamentary and local elections scheduled to take place on June 5th, followed by presidential polls on June 26th and senate elections on July 17th is thus likely to slide. The revised electoral calendar should be issued by June 5th.

Burundi has seen extensive turmoil – including an attempted coup d’etat – since April 25th, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was running for reelection for a third term. According to Art. 96 of the 2005 constitution, “The President of the Republic is elected by universal direct suffrage for a mandate of five years renewable one time.” The CNDD-FDD argues Nkurunziza’s first term doesn’t count as he was indirectly elected by parliament. His opponents, in turn, point to the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement which brought the civil war started in 1993 to an end; the agreement states unambiguously in its Art. 7, section 3 that “No one may serve more than two presidential terms.” On May 5, 2015 the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the presidential camp’s interpretation of the constitution and allowed Nkurunziza’s candidature to go forward, but only after the vice-president of the Court had fled the country citing “death threats.”

The EAC heads of state – among whom Yoweri Museveni of Uganda who has been president for nearly 30 years – did not address the third mandate issue. The position of the EAC leaders was uncharitably labeled as a “non-decision” by a diplomat present in Dar es Salaam. Following the summit, a spokesperson for the Burundian government indicated that the government considered the debate on the third mandate “closed.” Opponents of a third term have, on the other hand, called for demonstrations to resume today, Tuesday June 2nd. More than 30 people have already been killed during over a month of demonstrations, see daily updated map with incident reports verified by UK-based NGO Peace Direct.

Will the election delay give peaceful elections a chance? Burundi has been backsliding for a while. Fortunately, the crisis is at heart political, not driven by ethnic divisions. Fixing the crisis requires a negotiated solution to the key issue dividing the CNDD-FDD and opposition groups: President Nkurunziza’s candidature. There are two possible solutions: either the opposition accepts his standing, or he withdraws from the race.

Without a negotiated agreement, it is difficult to see how peaceful and credible elections can take place before August 27, 2015, the end date of Nkurunziza’s mandate. Major donors have suspended their funding for elections, the EU and Burundian civil society have adjourned their election observation efforts, and two out of five members of the independent election commission (CENI) have resigned and left the country due to the prevailing security and political conditions. The CENI thus lacks the required quorum to appoint new leadership for many of its regional and local branches after the Catholic Church withdrew its priests from those positions. Access to independent media also remains a challenge after the destruction of several private radio stations.

Burundi has come very far since 2000, succeeding in blurring ethnic divisions between Hutu and Tutsis and securing peace for over a decade. A peaceful and credible presidential poll would cement progress achieved and avoid the risk of the political crisis reawakening old demons. The ICC is watching closely.

Benin – Democracy battered

Not all is well in Benin. The country is rapidly losing its status as an exemplary democracy in West Africa. Socio-economic turmoil, increasing corruption and mounting opposition to the president’s suspected desires for a third term have rocked an otherwise stable nascent democracy.

Recently, a nearly four-month general strike threatened the school year. Four of six unions involved lifted their participation in the strike on April 15, following partial satisfaction of their demands, but maintain their call for the departure of the prefect and the police chief of Cotonou. The two officials are seen as responsible for the violent repression of a December 27, 2013 march demanding better governance and the respect of democratic freedoms.

Since Yayi took power in 2006, the country has been hit by a series of economic scandals, including its own “Madoff” pyramid investment scheme that defrauded Beninese citizens of 150 million Euro. At the end of December 2013, the United States removed Benin from the list of countries eligible for funding from the Millennium Challenge Account, citing increasing levels of corruption.

According to Freedom House, the media has suffered since Yayi’s election, as legal and regulatory structures have been used to restrict media freedom. For example, the director of a private television station was charged with criminal defamation in September 2012 for authorizing the broadcast of comments considered defamatory toward the president. In 2008, the country’s freedom of the press status was degraded from ‘free’ to ‘partly free.’

Reelected in 2011, Boni Yayi has surrounded himself with family members and members of the Pentecostal church of which he is a fervent devotee.  Three of his children serve in the presidency, and his wife’s older brother is Minister of Development, while the Ministers of Justice, of Labor and of the Environment are members of evangelist churches. Family members are not necessarily above all suspicion, as demonstrated by the bizarre alleged attempt by the president’s niece, his family doctor and a former financial sponsor to poison Yayi, in 2012. The niece, the family doctor and the head of the presidential security guard are all in prison, while the business man and former presidential financier, Patrice Talon, has taken refuge in France.

As he approaches the end of his second term in April 2016, his opponents suspect President Yayi of wanting to change the constitution to stay on for another term. A constitutional revision introduced by the government in June 2013, though not touching the two-term presidential term limit, was seen as intended to reset the term clock, by initiating a new republic and thus allowing the president to run for office again under the new constitution. In September 2013, the law committee of the National Assembly (which includes members of Yayi’s party) declared the proposed revisions inadmissible, with reference to procedural irregularities. The bipartisan rejection of the amended constitution is an indication of Yayi’s eroding political support.

Benin has thus far remained on the democratic path since its February 1990 ‘national conference’ which transitioned the country to multi-party democracy and initiated a wave of such conferences in Francophone Africa, modeled on the French États Généraux held in 1789 on the eve of the French revolution. Hopefully, Benin will again set the example by resisting pressure for doing away with presidential term limits, at a time when countries such as Burkina Faso, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) seem to be headed down that path.