Category Archives: Burundi

Burundi – New constitution, new president?

Burundi adopted a new constitution on May 17, 2018 by referendum, with 73 percent voting in favor. The adoption of a new fundamental text was seen by opponents as a move by President Pierre Nkurunziza to extend himself in power by resetting the term limit clock to zero, while by the same token doing away with power sharing provisions from the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. The campaign period was tense and, according to Human Rights Watch, at least 15 people were killed. The opposition called for the outcome to be annulled due to vote-rigging and intimidation, but was overruled by the constitutional court that validated the results.

Against all expectations, at the ceremony for the promulgation of the new constitution, on June 7, President Nkurunziza declared on national TV that he will not stand for reelection in 2020, when his current mandate ends, stating that “This constitution was not modified for Pierre Nkurunziza as the country’s enemies have been saying. It was amended for the good and better future of Burundi and the Burundian people.”

Nkurunziza, in power since 2005 at the end of the civil war that killed 300,000 people, stood for and won a highly controversial third term in 2015 [see previous blog post here]. A failed coup and crack-down against opponents followed, and it is estimated than 400,000 Burundians have since fled the country, out of a population of 10 million. Under investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC), Burundi became the first country to leave the ICC in 2017.

So what are some of the main changes included in the new constitution? As it appears, a number of provisions for ethnic power sharing have been maintained, while some requirements for power sharing between parties have been eliminated:

  • Burundi returns to semi-presidentialism (the country was previously semi-presidential from 1992 to 1994) with a prime minister as head of government, accountable to both the president and the legislature. The candidature of the prime minister must be approved by both chambers of parliament voting separately (Art. 130), and he or she can be dismissed by a two third majority vote of members of the National Assembly (lower house) – though the president in turn can dismiss the National Assembly (Art. 208). There are no constraints with regards to the ethnicity or the party affiliation of the prime minister.
  • The length of presidential terms is extended to 7 years from five (Art. 97); also, the provision regarding term limits now states that no one can serve more than two consecutive terms – which would seemingly leave open the door for a Putin-like come-back as president after a stint as prime minister.
  • There is now only one vice-president instead of two, who assists the president in the exercise of his or her functions. The vice-president must be approved by both houses of the legislature and must belong to a different ethnic group and party/coalition than the president. Previously, the two vice-presidents had to be from different ethnic groups and parties [from each other, not necessarily from the president]. The First Vice-President was responsible for the coordination of the political and administrative domain, and the second Vice-President for the coordination of economic and social affairs. In the new constitution, the role of the vice-president is left at the discretion of the president.
  • The provision for proportional representation of parties in the cabinet having earned more than 20% of the vote has been removed. The ethnic and gender representation requirements that, overall, at most 60% of cabinet ministers can be Hutu and at most 40% can be Tutsi, and at least 30% must be women (Art. 128) remain in place. Also maintained is the requirement that the Minister in charge of National Defense is not from the same ethnic group as the Minister responsible for the National Police (Art. 135).
  • The parliamentary majority required to pass legislation is reduced from a super majority of two thirds to a simple majority (Art. 180).

While streamlining governing processes – by introducing a prime minister as head of government, removing one vice-president and eliminating the requirement for a super majority to pass legislation – the constitutional changes also eliminate some of the power-sharing provisions enshrined in the 2005 constitution, in accordance with the Arusha Accords. As noted in a previous blog, these power-sharing arrangements had been successful to the extent that: “Today, political competition in Burundi no longer coincides with ethnic cleavages. Furthermore, the dominant party CNDD-FDD, while rooted in a Hutu rebel movement, is no longer perceived as an exclusive Hutu party. In fact, most Tutsi members of parliament are members of the CNDD-FDD and many presidential advisors are Tutsi” (Vandeginste, 2009 p. 75).

However, in the new constitution the representation in government of either of the two majority ethnic groups is still capped at 60% and 40% for Hutus and Tutsis respectively; this does maintain pressure on political parties to be ethnically inclusive (Hutus account for around 85% of the population, Tutsis around 19%, and Twa people around 1%). So not all power-sharing provisions are lost.

The constitutional changes do remove some constraints on the president’s powers and clearly provide greater opportunities for extended stays in the presidential palace. So it is intriguing that Nkurunziza has stated he will not run again in 2020. According to critics, 2020 is still far away, however, leaving Nkurunziza “room to maneuver” in response to “popular pressure” for him to extend his stay in power. That would certainly not be an unexpected development.

Africa – Presidential term limits and the third term tragedy

Africa is currently in the middle of a third term crisis. As presidents come up against the presidential term-limits included in many multi-party constitutions, a significant number are refusing to leave power gracefully. Instead, a number of leaders have sought to secure a third term. So far, this trend has taken in countries as otherwise diverse as Burkina Faso, Burundi, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, and now, it seems, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In most cases, they have tried to do so through official channels, in other words by changing the law or appealing to the judiciary, rather than simply suspending the constitution and ruling by fiat. One reason for this is that there is strong domestic and international support for presidential term limits. Afrobarometer data suggests that typically over two-thirds of Africans support term limits, although there is considerable variation, with a high of 90% in Benin and a low of 44% in Algeria. As a result, leaders feel compelled to tread carefully, and to legitimise their strategies by pursuing them through formal channels.

Yet despite this, attempts to secure a third term have often triggered political unrest and in some cases widespread civil conflict. In both Burkina Faso and Burundi, efforts by unpopular presidents to stay in power come what may triggered mass protests and ultimately (very different forms of) military intervention. At the time of going to press, a further crisis appears to be brewing in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the President, Joseph Kabila, looks set to pursue an unconstitutional third term in office. On Thursday 5 May, the former Governor of Katanga, Moise Katumbi, announced that he would be contesting the presidency as the candidate of the three main opposition parties. Just hours later he tweeted that the president – his former ally – had sent the police force to surround his house and that he had appealed to the United Nations mission in the country to protect him. Unconfirmed local reports later suggested that it was only the intervention of UN soldiers that prevented Katumbi’s detention.

If so, the DRC has had a lucky escape. Opposition supporters have already been involved in violent clashes with the security forces in protest against the prospect of a prolonged Kabila presidency. The arrest of Katumbi would raise the political temperature yet further, increasing the prospects for conflict in the coming months. As allegations and rumours circulate unhindered, the threat of a broader political rupture becomes ever more likely.

The growing number of third term tragedies on the continent raises three important questions. First, when do presidents seek a third term and when do they not? Second, when are they successful? Third, when are a president’s attempts to serve a third term most likely to result in political conflict?

Should I stay or should I go

Despite the recent headlines it is important to remember that considerably more presidents have respected term limits than have broken them. For every Uganda there is a Zambia, for every Burundi there is a South Africa, for every Rwanda there is a Kenya. There are a number of factors that appear to encourage presidents to seek third terms. First, the quality of democracy matters. Presidents in less democratic states who face weaker institutional checks and balances are more likely to try and break – or at least change – the rules. Good recent examples include Congo-Brazzaville and Djibouti.

Second, it is more feasible for presidents who govern countries that are more politically and economically independent from western influence to ignore international protests. As a result, leaders who enjoy greater international leverage because their countries feature valuable natural resources or are of considerable geo-strategic importance, try to secure a third term much more frequently than those that are much more dependent on Western trade. This is one of the reasons that President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, a country that recently found large oil reserves and is a key ally of United States in the war-on-terror, is able to stay in power indefinitely.

Third, presidents who enjoy greater political control are more likely to judge that it is possible to secure a third term, and hence more likely to risk pursuing one. Political control comes through two main routes: the ruling party and the security forces. Presidents are far more likely to try and secure third terms in dominant-party states in which the ruling party secures over 60% of seats in the legislature, such as Namibia and Rwanda, and when they have tight control over the army and police, as in Djibouti and Uganda. Under these conditions, it is often possible to both change the constitution through the legislature and silence any opposition to this strategy.

You can’t always get what you want

Of course, presidents do not always get it right and a number of third term bids have been unsuccessful. In countries such as Nigeria and Zambia, presidents failed in part because they could not take their own parties with them. As a result, they struggled to pass the necessary legislation, and, facing strong opposition from civil society groups and other parties, abandoned their plans. Rather than undermining democracy, this process can actually give it a short in the arm, and deter future presidents from pursuing similar strategies.

However, unsuccessful attempts to stay in power can also have far more problematic consequences. In Burkina Faso and Burundi, leaders overestimated their political control and underestimated the strength of opposition. As a result, they struggled to push through their third term ambitions. In Burundi, for example, President Nkurunziza lost a critical vote in the legislature to change the law, which forced him to put pressure on the judiciary to interpret the constitution in a way that would allow him to stand again. Although the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in his favour, it was immediately apparent that it only did so as a result of high levels of intimidation, further undermining the president’s credibility. As a result, the verdict did little to dampen opposition protests against his actions.

Limited political control undermined the position of President Nkurudiza in a second way. In the midst of the public protests in May 2015, a group of army officers launched a coup attempt. Although it appears to have been a poorly coordinated effort and was eventually put down, the mutiny demonstrated the lack of unity within the armed forces, and the potential for the president’s limited control over the security forces to contribute to political instability.

The bigger they are the harder they fall

To date, presidential term limits have not tended to be the source of major political conflict when presidents have either a) been willing to give up on their ambitions in the face of widespread opposition (Nigeria, Zambia) or b) have enjoyed the political control needed to be able to force through their will with relatively little resistance (Uganda, Rwanda). The “problem category”, for want of a better term, is those cases in which conditions are not favourable to a third term bid but leaders try and force one through regardless.

In turn, this is most likely to happen in states in which presidents have most to gain from staying in office, and most to lose by giving up power. Good proxies for the benefits of office are the level of corruption and the presence of valuable natural resources, the combination of which can make a leader extremely wealthy. A decent proxy for the costs of leaving power is whether a country has a history of political violence, which tends to decrease the level of trust between rival leaders, and increase the potential that the head of state will be prosecuted for human rights violations when they step down.

This is not great news for the DRC, which is a highly corrupt resource rich state with a history of political conflict. Unless President Kabila bucks the continental pattern, he is unlikely to step down voluntarily. And if he proves to be willing to risk everything to stay in power, sending the police to surround Katumbi’s house is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg.


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.