You may remember several months back, when there was a popular uprising in Burkina Faso over then-president Blaise Compaoré’s decision to try to buy himself another term in office despite the fact that he’d already served 27 years of a maximum 10 year presidency. Due in large part to public outcry, Compaoré was removed from office in what was effectively a soft military coup, whose leadership changed hands once before transitioning to a “civilian” government that just happens to be led by the same military guys as before.
Something similar seems to be on the verge of happening in Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza has decided that even though his two terms are up, his first term in office (2005-2010) shouldn’t really count and he should be allowed to run for reelection again this year. You might think it would be difficult for Nkurunziza to try to disappear his first five years in office down a memory hole, but thanks to the way Burundi’s 2005 constitution was written, he actually has a point, albeit a painfully legalistic one. Apparently the constitution says that Burundi’s president is limited to two terms as popularly elected, but Nkurunziza wasn’t “popularly elected” in 2005; he was installed by a vote of parliament as part of the political transition out of Burundi’s terrible 1993-2005 civil war. So if you split hairs just right, you can actually make the case that Nkurunziza is eligible to run again. Working against Nkurunziza’s argument here is the fact that he tried (and failed) last year to amend the constitution to remove term limits altogether, which suggests that even he really knows that his two terms are up under current law.
The problem is that there appear to be a lot of Burundians who don’t want Nkurunziza to run again, enough that they’ve taken to the streets in mass protests over the possibility. At least 11 people have died in periodic clashes between the policy/army and protesters over the past week and change, and Nkurunziza’s government is making ominous noises about an “insurrection” and “cover for terrorism” that suggest a much more proactive response to the protests is being planned (and, to be fair, the protesters have instigated some of the violence themselves). It’s not clear what’s motivating the protesters, a genuine love of the 2005 constitution or frustration at Burundi’s crippling poverty, but either way they want Nkurunziza out, and given that his 2010 re-election can charitably be described as a farce (he ran unopposed and won 91% of the vote), they probably see term limits as the only way to force him out. Although now, on cue, Burundi’s defense minister is talking about the army’s responsibility to uphold the constitution, a not-so-subtle hint to Nkurunziza that he could wind up on the wrong side of a coup if the situation persists.
Institutions matter, and the international community is missing opportunities to strengthen democracy by not paying attention to core state institutions.
In March of last year, President Pierre Nkurunziza narrowly lost a vote in parliament that would have abolished term limits and allowed him to run for a third term (another reminder that we should take African parliaments seriously). The period immediately after the vote offered an opportunity for the international community to rally around the Burundian elite to ensure that the norm of term limits stuck, sufficiently isolating Nkurunziza and his allies. In a country of Burundi’s size, how the international community engages with local issues matters a great deal for the domestic conduct of politics. If Burundi’s neighbors, the Unites States and others focus solely on the president and presidential elections, then that is where power will be concentrated. Diplomats might have better luck in promoting democracy by engaging core state institutions — such as legislatures — in a manner that reinforces the principle of horizontal accountability.
The lack of strong democratic institutions explains part of the failure of the Arab Spring to bring anything but violence to places like Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Bahrain, and it also helps to explain the collapse of Baghdad’s control over northeastern Iraq. That’s not to place all the blame for what’s happened in those places at the feet of the international community, but we do tend to say “mission accomplished” when one particularly contemptible leader is removed from power, without realizing that things like constitutional governance, respect for the rule of law and human rights, and functional political parties really matter and take a long time to build up. These are areas where NGOs and other international actors could maybe play an important role in helping (not guiding or dictating, but helping) to establish real democracy, which can then help ultimately bring about real stability (maybe they can’t and I’m wrong here, but it seems like it would be worth a good-faith effort to find out). Too often the rest of the world only notices places like Burundi or Libya when it comes time for the airstrikes to start, and then we don’t really care who winds up in power as long as they play ball with the right countries and don’t make any big waves. We ought to realize by now what an unfortunate, and ultimately self-defeating, attitude that is.
One reason why Burundi in particular matters is its location in one of the most unstable spots on the planet, the African Great Lakes/Congo region. That 1993-2005 civil war I mentioned above was the product of ethnic fighting between Burundi’s Hutu and Tutsi populations, and was in fact precipitated by a 1993 genocide by the majority Hutu against the Tutsis. No, I haven’t confused Burundi with its northern neighbor. That genocide happened a year later, though it followed generally the same contours, with Hutu massacres of large Tutsi populations followed by a counterattack by the Tutsi that killed many Hutus and sent many more running. Things have been fairly stable in Burundi for a decade now, mostly through the use of strict ethnic quotas in filling state institutions, but the ethnic fault lines still exist both there and in Rwanda. The displacement of large numbers of Burundian citizens (which has already started) has the potential to destabilize both Rwanda and, as the Rwandan genocide did in the 1990s, the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west.