By Matthew Ayibakuro
It would seem that relative stability has returned to Burundi after days of uncertainty on the leadership of the country and weeks of protests and violence over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in office. Majority of the alleged coup leaders are in custody and have already appeared before a prosecutor, whilst the leader of the coup, Godefroid Niyombare, a general and ex-intelligence chief, is said to be still at large.
A couple of days ago, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya asked his counterpart Nkurunziza to postpone the presidential election due next month, to create a conducive environment, but to ensure that the vote be held within the current electoral cycle in the country, which comes to an end in late August. Nkurunziza is back in the country and back in charge; three members of his cabinet were promptly dismissed while soldiers have been deployed to ensure that the protests do not continue. Only time will tell if the fires set alight by the recent events have finally been quenched.
Meanwhile in a rather dramatic twist, Nkurunziza, in his first speech back in the country chose to speak only about the country being under attack from the Somali-based al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab. No words are spoken about the over 105,000 Burundians who have reportedly fled the country because of the crisis, or about the many lives lost in the process. Whether or not al-Shabab’s refutal of the claims of any impending attack against Burundi is believed or not, the fact that this was the principal message in his first appearance in the capital after the now-referred-to-as-attempted coup is a clear indication that the President does not grasp the magnitude and implications of the situation and his actions. Perhaps he just does not care.
Third Term-ism and Perpetual Leadership in Africa and Beyond: Reaction of the International Community
Perhaps, he believes he is in good company in the context of political leadership in Africa. After all, just last month, Togo’s Faure Gnassingbe and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir were both re-elected as leaders of their respective countries. Whilst Faure is beginning his third term in office despite widespread protests, Bashir is a ‘veteran’ who has been in power since 1989. In fact, it is no news that there are similar long-serving leaders in Zimbabwe, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Cameroun Eritrea and Uganda.
This list could actually admit a few more countries and it is this profusion that probably emboldens leaders like Nkurunziza to believe they can get away with extending their tenures by any means necessary, including threatening supreme court judges into exile and shooting live ammunition at protesters. Outside Africa, countries like Iran, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Iceland and Syria also boasts similarly long-serving leaders. It is indeed a global phenomenon.
In terms of the reaction of the international community to events like those in Burundi, the United Nations and the African Union, as expected, would usually release press statements condemning the coup attempt, whilst at the same time “urging” members states to respect their constitutions. And so they did. The leaders of the countries in question are often called by the Secretary General of the UN or some other “powerful” leader, and we are informed that they have been told basically the same message contained in the press statements, making you wonder what was the essence of the call in the first place. Beyond this, whether or not anything more is done by the international community falls to the grey realm of conspiracy theories on reasons why countries like the United States of America or organisations like NATO invades one country to topple a government, and not the other. This is a subject for another day.
The Rise of the Masses
In the last decade, and especially since 2011, the masses in various countries are beginning to stand up against leaders who display a propensity to perpetuate themselves in office. The unprecedented events of the Arab Spring provides the most palpable instances. However, as recent as last year, Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso was forced to resign his office as President after 27 years at the helm amid violent protests against his continued stay in power.
Whilst the masses play their role, it is time for the international community, and especially the United Nations and regional organisations to start lay out a clear strategy and approach towards leaders bent on perpetuating themselves in office. It makes no sense to condemn the actions of Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi, while simultaneously asking Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled his country for 29 years, to intervene and help resolve the crisis in Burundi.
It is important for the UN and other regional bodies to establish unequivocally what the approach to this issue should be. There should either be clear condemnation of such leaders and actions to support same, or a straightforward acceptance of the situation on grounds of sovereignty or whatever makes sense. The approach of lukewarmness adopted over the years has borne little or no fruits in Africa and elsewhere.
ECOWAS Taking the Lead
Encouragingly, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has decided to take the lead on this as it pushes to consider a new clause that would prohibit presidents of members states from staying beyond two terms. If successful, this would be a welcome development that should be replicated in other regions of the continent, and indeed the UN, towards creating a lasting solution to the concern of self-perpetuating leaders.
Not oblivious of the challenge inherent in implementing a clause like this in the context of international law, ECOWAS intends to adopt a new legal regime for Community Acts that will make all ECOWAS decisions immediately applicable and binding on member states and eliminate the need for parliamentary ratifications.
Whilst one awaits the outcome of initiatives like that of ECOWAS, there is no doubt that the most significant step towards putting a stop to perpetual leaders remains popular uprising. There is nothing that will prove as successful as the masses themselves rising against such leaders. It proved successful against Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo’s bid for a third term back in 2006/2007. It pushed Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore out of office in 2014, and considering the masses have remained on the streets even after the failed coup in Burundi, it is safe to say that the last has not been heard of that particular situation.
The power-drunk leaders in Africa are slowly but surely coming to the realization that ‘kangaroo’ referendums, manipulated constitutional amendments and intimidation of the judiciary would no longer be enough to secure a life presidency.