Burundi chaos shows anger against long-time Africa rulers, but Big Men are as dead set to fight back – and stay


The ouster of Compaore by protestors in Burkina Faso could turn out to be a fluke. Africa's strongmen are still more likely to win than lose.

THE riots and the now failed Burundi coup  that followed Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term highlight a rising trend in Africa of public protests against leaders who try to prolong their stay in office.

“People believe if they take to the streets they will be heard,” Yolande Bouka, a researcher on conflict prevention at the Johannesburg-based Institute for Security Studies, said by phone. African leaders “are now wary of using force to stifle dissent, as there is an international community watching.”

Using social media like Facebook and Twitter, activists have mobilised against incumbents, as in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where protests in January prompted President Joseph Kabila to withdraw an electoral bill that would have prolonged his term. In Burkina Faso, mass demonstrations forced Blaise Compaore to quit in October after 27 years in power.

At least 20 people died in weeks of protests that erupted in Burundi on April 26 after the ruling party nominated Nkurunziza to run in next month’s elections. 

 Compaore (R) greets French President François Hollande during a visit to Paris when he was still president. (Photo/AFP).

Although the Constitutional Court upheld his eligibility, his opponents say his candidacy violates a two-term limit stipulated in peace accords that ended a 12-year civil war in 2005.

On Wednesday a faction of the military announced a coup against Nkurunziza, who was in neighbouring Tanzania attending a special of the East African Community (EAC) on the crisis in his country.

By Thursday, after a day in which gunfire and explosions rocked the capital Bujumbura, the pro-Nkurunziza forces had prevailed. The presidency announced late Thursday that Nkurunziza, had returned to the country and would deliver a message on Friday. By Friday, too, most leaders of the coup, had surrendered or been arrested.

It was one of the ironies of the Burundi crisis, that though a week back the government had blocked social media sites Twitter and Facebook, Nkurunziza kept his fightback alive through regular updates on his official Twitter handle – thus the tool activists use to mobilise, also helped a strongman rally his troops.

‘African Spring’

The expansion of social media in sub-Saharan Africa has been driven by a growth rate that’s second only to developing Asia over the last 10 years, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and a youthful population. Of 22 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, 16 have a population where more than 40% of people are under 15.

“There is a fear of an Arab Spring-style African spring, as this sets the precedent for other presidents who want to extend their stay in power,” Thierry Vircoulon, Central Africa director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said by e-mail from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.

Burundi, has a $2.7 billion economy and is home to 10.2 million people. It’s the continent’s seventh-biggest coffee exporter and buyers of its beans include Starbucks Corp. The country also holds 6% of the world’s nickel reserves, according to the African Development Bank.

Nearly 100,000 refugees

In recent weeks, nearly 100,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries, scared off by the rising violence, according to the United Nations humanitarian agency.

Among other nations in the Great Lakes region, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Africa’s top copper producer, Rwanda and Uganda are all scheduled to hold elections by 2017.

 Backed down from a law that would have extended his rule in the face of protests early in the year, but not clear he has given up on remaining president all together. (Photo/AFP).

Both Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who’s been the effective leader of the country since the end of a genocide in 1994, and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, the nation’s ruler for the past three decades, have indicated they may seek another term.

On May 6, Rwanda’s parliament said it received a petition signed by 2 million people calling for a constitutional amendment that would allow Kagame to run for a third term.

Kagame said last month he was open to either keeping or relinquishing his post “depending on the interest and future” of the country, though he doesn’t support changing the constitution to scrap a cap on terms. Rwanda is set to hold elections in 2017.

Presidential limits

In 2005, Ugandan lawmakers removed presidential term limits, allowing candidates to seek re-election until the age of 75. Seventy-year-old Museveni, who’s won all four elections held since 1996, told the Associated Press on May 6 that he will consider running again if asked by his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).

But after having dispatched his party secretary and Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi in a bitter internal feud last year, for the crime of “having presidential ambitions”, and getting a delegates conference to endorse him as its sole candidate for 2016, Museveni is currently only going through the formal motions.

While those two leaders have succeeded in overcoming any opposition to their governments, the growing criticism elsewhere of indefinite rule by parties and leaders is a sign the public in Africa is taking a more active role in politics, said analysts such as Jason Stearns, an author and former head of the UN group of experts on Congo.

Sub-Sahara Africa fluke

A unified opposition in oil-rich Nigeria, which has Africa’s biggest economy, ended the 16-year hold on power by the People’s Democratic Party when Muhammadu Buhari defeated president Goodluck Jonathan in April elections.

Three years before, artists and civil society groups in Senegal led a successful campaign to vote President Abdoulaye Wade out of power after 12 years in office.

“Presidential term limits are being tested across the continent and what happens in one country will invariably have aftershocks elsewhere,” Stearns said by e-mail from New York. “It is becoming harder for leaders to edit their constitutions at will.”

Yet, before activists and democracy groups begin to win consistently, they have great odds to overcome. If nothing else, Nkurunziza showed how determined the rulers are to hold on.

Burundi’s four most popular media outlets, Radio Publique Africaine, Radio Bonesha FM, Radio Isanganiro and Radio Television Renaissance, were attacked and are unable to broadcast, the New York-based advocacy group said by e-mail Friday. Iwacu, the country’s main independent newspaper, suspended publication after being warned it may be targeted, it said.

Journalists in the country Burundi who spoke out against human rights abuses by the police, intelligence services and the ruling party’s youth militia during recent protests may be targeted in reprisal attacks, Human Rights Watch said.

 “Burundian journalists told Human Rights Watch they fear reprisals, since many are viewed by the president’s allies as sympathetic to the opposition,” Carina Tertsakian, a researcher at HRW, said in the statement. “Many human rights defenders have also gone into hiding, fearing for their safety.”

In Uganda, a controversial bill that will further restrict the activities and funding of civil society groups has been introduced in parliament ahead of the forthcoming elections.

In DRC, while president Joseph Kabila stepped from a power grab in February after violent protests, it is not clear he will not try to stand again. The African Union seems even more set against coups, no matter how popular they might be.

And in sub-Saharan Africa, countries like the USA don’t seem ready to be ambivalent toward coup makers the way they are in north Africa and the Middle East. Thus, though Washington had criticised Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term, it was more categorical in rejecting the coup attempt.

The ouster of Compaore in Burkina Faso last October, therefore, might just turn out to be a sub-Saharan fluke.

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