Dear Mr President: it's time to let go

2015-07-22

This week, amid widespread fear and turmoil, blatant human rights violations, growing refugee flows and threats from opposition camps to instigate large-scale violence, Burundi is going ahead with presidential elections.

This is the third time the country is going to the polls since the signing of the Arusha peace accords ended a decade of war in 2002, and that is what all the fuss is about. Should Pierre Nkurunziza, the current president, be returning as a candidate for the third time – or has he exhausted the two-term limit mandated by the country’s post-conflict constitution?

Burundi’s ruling party has chosen to interpret the constitution in such a way that it allows Nkurunziza a third term, arguing that he was not elected by universal suffrage in 2005. The heavily intimidated constitutional court chose to validate this interpretation, and the rest is history.

Since he made it clear in April that he would not step aside, Nkurunziza’s intransigence and the popular protests it sparked have cost the Burundian population dozens of lives – many of them killed by the security forces. It has prompted 167 000 Burundians to pick up their belongings and flee to the uncertainty and danger of life as a refugee, and has occasioned numerous regional summits along with countless visits from international envoys hoping to find a way to end the current crisis.

Does the ‘right’ to stay on justify sacrificing a decade of hard-won stability?
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Nkurunziza’s decision to put his political career ahead of the lives of 10 million Burundians is hardly statesman-like behaviour. So, what is this in aid of? What exactly is the point of one individual insisting on staying in power? Does the ‘right’ to stay on justify sacrificing a decade of hard-won stability? Before becoming the ruling party in 2005, the CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy) spent a decade fighting in the bush. It is an old organisation, with a long history. In 2015, is there really no one else in the ruling party capable of running for president? Or do Nkurunziza’s supporters want him to stay on because he protects the interests of a cosy political and economic elite?

The pattern of dishonesty and intransigence is also visible in several other Central African presidents’ campaigns to extend their stay in power. In the Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou-Nguesso has spent a total of 31 non-consecutive years in power and is nearing the end of his second elected term in office. According to the 2002 constitution that brought an end to a decade of instability – during which he was also president – it’s time for Sassou to move on. But neither Sassou nor his ruling Congolese Labour Party (PCT) is ready to see him go.

To get around the article of the 2002 constitution that forbids amendments to term limits, Sassou and the PCT have introduced the idea that the country now needs an entirely new constitution so that it can ‘move towards a more modern political system.’ The PCT is now going through the motions of giving some legitimacy to this thinly veiled attempt to keep Sassou in power. Last week it held a National Dialogue to discuss the future of the country’s institutions (read: the constitution). Most of the political opposition boycotted the talks on the grounds that they were a pretence for extending Sassou’s stay in power. The outcome is due to be made public in coming weeks.

The political parties that support these candidates exist to feed off the presidency
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Across the river in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), President Joseph Kabila is having a decidedly harder time. The idea of extending Kabila’s stay in power was first mooted fairly discreetly two years ago, but vocal opposition from civil society – the Catholic Church in particular – political parties and the international community put paid to attempts to change the term limits. Since then, his strategy has changed. While the ruling coalition continues to deny that Kabila wants to stay on, his camp is now focused on delaying the electoral cycle – due to start with local elections in 2015 – and buying him more time in office.

Last week in Rwanda, Parliament accepted a petition, reportedly signed by close to four million Rwandans, asking President Paul Kagame to stand for another term. He has been in power since 2000, and has been elected twice – in 2003 and 2010. The Rwandan constitution allows two terms. The next step is a national referendum on this question. Given the severe restrictions on political freedom in Rwanda, questions have been raised about whether or not the four million signatures really represent the will of the Rwandan people.

All four of these countries have recently emerged from war and crisis. The constitutions of Burundi, the DRC and the Republic of Congo are less than 15 years old and were the result of long negotiations to end decades of instability. These constitutions, the institutions they created, and the term limits they imposed on heads of state were intended to mark a break with personalised power, political exclusion, corruption and the cycles of conflict this fuelled. These processes gave citizens hope for a stable and prosperous future.

Instead, just over a decade later, these heads of state are turning their backs on their populations and choosing their own futures over those of their country. Their efforts to manipulate texts and institutions, all the while claiming that it is in the interest of the country, are dishonest and self-serving. The political parties that support these candidates are not mature enough to have their own identity; they exist to feed off the presidency and to blindly support the individual in return. The message these presidents are sending to the political opposition, and to the armed groups that remain active in some areas, is that they will impose themselves no matter what the cost.

Many Burundians do not want the government to make their political choices for them
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That the hard-won gains in these countries can be undermined so quickly is an important lesson for all those involved in conflict-management and peacebuilding efforts, which have focused heavily on elections.

The AU has the means to sanction countries that manipulate legislation or institutions in order to extend a president’s stay in power. This applies in Burundi, as well as the Republic of Congo, the DRC and Rwanda. Even though the Burundi crisis was a key issue at the recent AU summit in Johannesburg, the bigger issue of third-term limits was not addressed. Disappointingly, the AU also failed to take strong action on Burundi – such as insisting on an indefinite delay of elections until conditions for free and fair polls could be restored.

But there is good news – very good news, and it comes from the people. In Burundi, the political opposition, civil society and the general population have said no and kept saying no, maintaining popular protests for two months – even when faced with increasingly brutal crackdowns. Many Burundians do not want the government to make their political choices for them, and they have shown that they are willing to make sacrifices to defend their rights.

In Kinshasa an electoral law that included a requirement for a time-consuming national census sparked three days of popular protests, and the government was eventually forced to withdraw the law. This was the first time that people in the DRC protested on this scale in over 20 years. Meanwhile, the neighbouring Republic of Congo has not yet witnessed popular protests, but the normally fragmented opposition has pulled itself together and is aligned against Sassou.

Twenty years after a wave of national conferences brought an end to the dominance of the single-party state in Africa, we may be seeing the beginning of a new era and a riskier, more forceful style of contestation between the state and its people – the outcomes of which could carry more legitimacy than many of the continent’s elections.

Stephanie Wolters, Division Head, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis, ISS

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