Street protests in the central African country of Burundi have grown this past week in response to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s intentions to seek a third presidential term in June, contrary to the country’s constitution. As Geoffrey York reports, at least 17 people have been killed and over 200 people injured in clashes with the police since the protests began on April 26. In response, the government has arrested several of the protest leaders indefinitely, and shut down the country’s television and radio stations, as well as social media, in an effort to clamp down on communication between the protesters.
Meanwhile, an estimated 40,000 Burundians have fled the violence to neighbouring countries, such as Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which are also dealing with issues of political authoritarianism and the legacy of recent civil war. Many in the international community are worried that if this conflict continues unabated, it could trigger more violence in the central African region, where ethnic and political scars still run deep. This worry has led international leaders such as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to pressure President Nkurunziza into meeting protestor demands to step down at the end of his second term. Perhaps more significantly, the African Union (AU – an international organization composed of representatives from all African nations) has applied pressure on President Nkurunziza to step down – whereas it would normally send observers to certify elections in its member states, the AU has announced that it will not send any election observers so long as Nkurunziza is still running in the upcoming election.
Burundi’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of the president running for a third term, but one of the court’s justices, upon fleeing the country, admitted that it had faced strong political pressure. Nkurunziza addressed the nation in a televised address on May 6, offering to release political prisoners and vowing to step down at the end of a third term, but these promises do not seem to have satisfied protesters to date. At the same time, a militant youth group, known as the Imbonerakure and primarily composed of ethnic Hutu youth, has been organizing violent counter-protests against the president’s opponents, threatening to tear open the wounds of recent ethnic warfare.
“Burundi: Reflecting on 10 Days of Unrest in Bujumbura” by Jean-Benoît Falisse (All Africa)
“Outcome of Burundian Protests Could Send Ripples across Africa“, by Geoffrey York (Globe and Mail)
“Protests in Burundi Sap President’s Power“, by Geoffrey York (Globe and Mail)
Africa’s democratic hopes, bolstered by the surprise defeat of powerful presidents in Nigeria, Senegal, and Burkina Faso, are now turning to this small country of 10.4 million in the heart of the continent, one of the world’s poorest, hungriest, and most war-ravaged nations.” – Geoffrey York
Burundi’s protests are the latest in a series of challenges to African leaders over the last few years, including the toppling of governments in Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria. In almost each case, an incumbent president sought a third term in office, contravening term limits specified in the recently-established constitutions of those countries (the one exception is Nigeria, in which the incumbent candidate Goodluck Jonathan was seeking a second term in office). In addition to these established revolutions, similar resistance is brewing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, where incumbent presidents will also be seeking a third term in office in upcoming elections.
The similarity of these situations is not a coincidence; several African countries emerged from military dictatorships and/or ethnic conflict in the 1980s and 1990s and adopt nascent forms of democratic government. Pressured by Western governments and international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (which wielded influence through the significant amounts of African government debt it held), these countries adopted similar, Western-based constitutions that included presidential term limits in order to prevent new dictatorships from re-emerging. However, these constitutions largely failed to establish the strong, independent institutions that form the building blocks of a mature democracy, including an independent judiciary and credible opposition parties. As a result, presidents now coming up against the end of their second terms often have little in the way of preventing them from amending their constitutions to prolong their rule, as witnessed most recently by the Burundian Supreme Court’s ruling enabling President Nkurunziza to do so.
A key actor to follow in these power struggles – and one distinguishing factor between the Arab Spring and the current round of African protests – is the African Union (AU). Established in 2001, the AU is a transnational institution to which all African countries belong (except for Morocco), and has quickly established itself as the principal guarantor of legitimacy to the continent’s nascent democracies. AU officials, and sometimes military troops, are deployed to monitor elections and ensure that they are conducted as fairly and transparently as possible. The current round of conflict in several of its member states poses a challenge to the capabilities of the AU, but also serves as an opportunity to help shape its defining purpose. So far, the organization has responded rather decisively in refusing to endorse the upcoming elections in Burundi. However, whether it will be able to help strengthen democracy in the long term depends in large part on how well it can contribute to independent, democratic institutions in countries that have historically relied on the military, or even ethnic warlords, to step in when a dictatorship fails.
How does the current round of African protests compare with/differ from the Arab Spring movement?
What role can the African Union play in resolving these conflicts?
What groups or institutions are most likely to benefit from an escalation in the resistance to incumbent presidents in these countries?