What you need to know:
- President’s refusal to play by the rules of the democratic game is disappointing, but not surprising
- The announcement that Pierre Nkurunziza intended to run for a third term as president of Burundi on April 25 triggered a wave of protests that have so far left around 12 people dead.
The vast majority of African countries now have constitutions that limit the number of terms that presidents can serve in office.
Some presidents have respected these limits, as in Kenya, but others have tried to get rid of them, often at great political and economic costs. Term-limits are important because countries in which they are respected are far more likely to witness a transfer of power. But where are term-limits most under threat?
The announcement that Pierre Nkurunziza intended to run for a third term as president of Burundi on April 25 triggered a wave of protests that have so far left around 12 people dead.
Nkurunziza’s refusal to play by the rules of the democratic game is disappointing, but not surprising. Ever since he came to power in 2005, his CNDD-FDD government has gone further and further down the path toward all out authoritarianism.
Despite a particularly inclusive constitution that creates ethnic quotas for the distribution of army chiefs, MPs, and civil service jobs, he has managed to alienate a large part of the country by centralising power around the presidency and distorting the political landscape to marginalise the opposition.
Nkurunziza is not alone in seeking to overcome presidential term-limits. Many other African presidents have already pursued this course of action, and a worrying number have succeeded.
This democratic disease has proved to be particularly contagious in East Africa. Following President Yoweri Museveni’s successful attempt to scrap term limits in Uganda in 2005, leaders in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda began to think about how they could do likewise.
As a result, the region is set for a period of heightened political tension and unrest, as “pro-democracy” groups — opposition parties, civil society and Western donors — seek to defend their constitutions.
President Nkurunziza’s first attempt to get a third term in office came in 2014 when his party introduced legislation to amend the constitution. However, he failed to take his own coalition with him, and so missed out on the number of votes he required by one.
Since then, the president has given up on changing the constitution, and instead has determined to flout it. Under great pressure, the Constitutional Court recently declared that the president could stand again on the dubious basis that in his first term he was appointed by the parliament, rather than being directly elected. Of course, this argument has little credibility, coming after Nkurunziza had already tried and failed to change the constitution, and after the Vice President of the Court had fled the country citing intimidation and death threats.
The president’s refusal to leave office has sparked the biggest crisis in Burundi since the end of the civil war in 2005. Against a backdrop of rising political tensions and low-level violence, opposition demonstrations threaten to spark wider unrest.
Yet rather than seeking to defuse the situation, the ruling party has responded by further entrenching existing divisions.
First, the government blocked social media, which it says is being used to coordinate the protests. Next, the Security Minister, General Gabriel Nizigama, took to the media to claim that “these demonstrations provide cover for a terrorist enterprise.”
He added that from now on the demonstrators would be treated as “criminals, terrorists and even enemies of the country”.
The deployment of the language of terrorism was a carefully calculated move by the ruling party to legitimise its activities by tapping into international concern about the spread of radical Islam in East Africa. But in this instance donors are unlikely to be duped — the main source of instability in Burundi is not terrorism, but the president himself.
So will Nkurunziza succeed? To date he has managed to curtail opposition to his rule through a mixture of coercion and co-optation, but this may be a bridge too far.
According to Afrobarometer survey data, the majority of Burundians support presidential term-limits, and this support has increased over time in response to the president’s attempts to change the rules. At the same time, support for the ruling party has waned since the heady days of 2005.
Although Nkurunziza won by a landslide in the last election, this was because he ran unopposed after an opposition boycott. If it came to a free and fair vote today, it is not clear that he would win.
The president’s declining popularity, combined with the mounting protests against him, will encourage him to retain power by force. But he is not particularly well placed to do this. On the one hand, the military is fragile and there is no guarantee that it would hold together if it was deployed on a large scale in a context in which the sympathies of many officers and soldiers would be with the opposition, not the government.
On the other hand, the memory of civil war, and of how to mount effective rebellions against the state, is still fresh in the memory. This combination is a recipe for political disorder and, worse, a resumption of civil conflict. For the sake of the country, it is time for Nkurunziza to follow the example of President Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso, and leave office before he gets more blood on his hands.
TERM-LIMITS UNDER THREAT
If Nkurunziza does succeed, he will become the latest in a long line of leaders who have managed to overcome the term-limits introduced in multi-party constitutions.
The first president to remove this constraint was Namibia’s President Sam Nujoma, who successfully held a referendum to remove a constitutional clause that would have prevented him from standing for the presidency for a third-term in 1999.
Leaders in a number of other countries have since followed suit, including Angola, Chad, Djibouti, Gabon, Niger and Togo.
The reasons that presidents give for changing the constitution are varied but often include the claim that they need more time to complete their “good work”, and make reference to the value of continuity and its contribution to national stability.
Neither of these arguments is particularly persuasive.
Few of the presidents that have tried to extend term limits can actually point to a great record of development.
In the case of Burundi, Chad, Djibouti, the DRC, Niger and Togo, we are talking about leaders who have spent more time and energy on trying to keep themselves in power than on improving the lot of their citizens. The notion that presidents should be allowed to stay in office indefinitely to maintain political stability is also hard to sustain.
After all, it is precisely the efforts of political leaders to prolong their tenure that called protesters to the streets in Burkina Faso and Burundi.
The real reason that presidents find it so hard to leave office is of course rather less altruistic.
What these leaders have in common is that they greatly benefited financially from their time in office, and do not trust the people who might succeed them to protect their interests.
In many cases, they have good reason to be fearful. In Burundi, Chad and the DRC, for example, it seems likely that an opposition electoral victory would lead to investigations into the abuses committed by the previous regime.
There is also a realistic chance that new governments would seek to exclude their predecessors from political and economic opportunities. In other words, what President Nkurunziza fears most is that a new leader will do to him what he has been doing to his rivals for the past decade.
This is why it is so hard to persuade poorly performing presidents to leave power. They have everything to lose and, the $5 million Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership notwithstanding, little to gain.
BREAKING THE IMPASSE
Despite the considerable authority wielded by African leaders, they do not always get their way.
In a number of countries such as Kenya and Tanzania, presidents have respected term-limits. In others, leaders tried to remove them but failed. This is what happened to both President Frederick Chiluba of Zambia and President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria.
These cases suggest that there are three main ways that presidents can be persuaded to abandon third term campaigns.
The first is when the strength of opposition is simply overwhelming and the security forces are overrun. This was the case in Burkina Faso, and it may yet be the case in Burundi.
The second is when presidents face opposition from within their own government and the military. This may appear to be an unlikely scenario in countries where presidents tend to dominate their own parties.
However, it does happen because MPs have a good reason to support term-limits: many of them want to be president themselves.
In both Zambia and Nigeria, for example, members of the ruling party refused to back plans for a third-term, and subsequently competed to replace the outgoing president.
When presidents enjoy the unanimous support of their parties and the armed forces they are incredibly difficult to defeat, but when divisions occur pro-democracy groups often carry the day.
The second factor that can make a difference is when incumbents are promised a “soft landing” in which they are guaranteed an income and a degree of status. This often appears to be unfair, because it involves rewarding presidents for bad behaviour. For example, many Kenyans were amazed when Daniel arap Moi — implicated in ethnic clashes that led to the death of thousands of Kenyans and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more — returned to political life as a Peace Envoy to Sudan. But such injustices may be necessary to remove bad leaders and strengthen democratic institutions.
These conditions are not always present, but where they are term-limits can be protected. This is important because term-limits are worth fighting for.
They prevent leaders from embedding themselves in power and constructing corrupt networks that can undermine development and democracy.
Moreover, when term-limits are respected and key political institutions get stronger over time, transfers of power become more likely, as the examples of Nigeria and Zambia testify.
This is significant, because research by Michael Bratton has shown that transfers of power tend to breathe fresh life into stagnant political systems, significantly increasing support for democracy.
Nic Cheeseman teaches African politics at Oxford University and is the founder of www.democracyinafrica.org