Africa Watch

Burundi and the consequences of political intransigence

Pierre Nkurunziza, setting the wrong example
Pierre Nkurunziza.jpeg

The intransigence of the president of Burundi to observe the constitution is unfortunate, but, ironically, is stimulating the debate on improving and solidifying democratic governance in Africa.

The political unrest and violent demonstrations caused by the determination of President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi to change the country’s constitution, enabling him to stand for a third term, again highlight the problem of African leaders unwilling to leave office as the constitution demands.

Burkina Faso

Late last year the Intelligence Bulletin commented on a similar occurrence, the long-serving President Blaise Campaore of Burkina Faso’s failed attempt to prolong his 27 years in power by amending the constitution.  

Spontaneous public uproar forced Campaore not only to shelve his plan, but also to resign and go into exile in neighbouring Ivory Coast.

At the time the international media speculated that the reaction of the people of Burkina Faso could be a turning point in Africa’s response to leaders that tried all kinds of tricks to stay in power and argued that it could be the beginning of Africa’s “Black Spring”.   

While such a comparison is somewhat overstated, it is an undeniable fact that across Africa the voting public is maturing politically and is fed up and disillusioned with the authoritarian and dictatorial rule of long-serving ‘presidents-for-life’.

This truth is well illustrated by a recent survey conducted by Afrobarometer, showing that most Africans support the restriction of presidential terms.

Survey findings     

Afrobarometer found that about three-quarters of citizens in 34 African countries are in favour of limiting presidential mandates to two terms. The average support for presidential term limits was 73%.

In South Africa, 68% of respondents were in favour of term limits – one of the lower percentages in the report, with even Zimbabwe having a 74% support for limited presidential terms.

Only Algeria, with a 41% support for such limits, was below the 50% mark, with only Madagascar and Burundi below the 60% mark. In 80% of the countries surveyed the support for limited terms was above the two-thirds mark. 

These high support levels include countries that have never had term limits and those that have removed them in the past 15 years.


Regardless of the outcome in Burkina Faso, it was predicted that similar situations were set to be repeated and proven correct by President Nkurunziza’s tampering with the constitution.

He is not alone. Not only are there rumours that Benin’s President Thomas Boni Yayi is considering similar plans, but concern is growing that two of Burundi’s neighbours want to embark on the same route.

It is said that in Rwanda strongman Paul Kagame is also contemplating amending the constitution and that President Joseph Kabila of the DRC is harbouring a similar idea.

Against the backdrop of developments in Burundi, internal and foreign pressure is set to mount on both Kagame and Kabila.

The political uncertainty caused by President Nkurunziza’s refusal to relent has already led to a failed coup attempt, many civilian deaths and nearly 100 000 Burundians seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. If this is replicated in Rwanda or the DRC, it will have devastating consequences for the Great Lakes region in central Africa – a scenario Africa can ill afford.


With Burundi the latest example of the patience of ordinary people wearing thin with leaders regarding themselves as indispensable and the glue that keeps their countries together, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria warned that African leaders’ attempts to change constitutions to allow them to stand for third terms “will become the next big threat to peace and security on the continent”.

Even more ominously, the ISS warns that if left unchecked, “the third mandate issue will be the next cause of war in Africa” and concludes, “African leaders must speak out quickly and decisively against bids to extend term limits”.

In an interesting observation, the ISS further concludes that although the frequency of coups was declining in Africa – in part, perhaps, because the AU has outlawed them – third-term bids are on the rise. They have become a major new source of conflict and instability on the continent, and could therefore be regarded as Africa’s ‘new coups’.

The seriousness of the matter is best illustrated by the fact that out of 16 such attempts, 10 were successful and six failed.

The ISS is of the opinion that the “third term issue” should be put on the AU agenda for the organisation’s June meeting in Johannesburg, and expressed the hope that the AU would take a committed stand to evoke the AU African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

The Charter condemns major forms of unconstitutional change of government and spells out undemocratic ways to acquire and maintain power, and how these should be avoided.


Even if the AU decides to discuss the “third term issue”, the enforcement of any decision remains problematic, particularly in the absence of enough support or pressure from regional bodies to uphold the commitments of the AU.

It also seems unlikely that the AU will commit itself to a decision that will reflect badly on the person of the current AU chairperson and master manipulator of his own country’s constitution, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

It somehow also seems unlikely that long-serving heads of state such as Angola’s President Eduardo dos Santos, Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya and Chad’s President Idriss Deby will respond with much support and enthusiasm to any decision that could jeopardise their own positions.

Pleasant surprise  

It did come as a pleasant surprise that President Zuma at the World Economic Forum spoke out in public against political leaders attempting to extend their stay in power. He even suggested that Africa should resolve not to tolerate any attempt by presidents on the continent to seek a third term in office.

Despite South Africa’s dented image, the country remains highly influential in the African context and in this regard the views expressed by the South African president do carry some weight.

Many South Africans, particularly the 68% that expressed their preference for a two-term presidency in the Afrobarometer survey, will also give a collective sigh of relief in response to President Zuma’s statement.

If he remains true to his word, it means that South Africa will be spared the ghastly possibility of another five years under a Zuma presidency.

by Garth Cilliers

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