Jerome Delay / AP

Burundi unrest marks democratic backsliding in Africa

The protests in Bujumbura could have costly consequences for the Great Lakes region

May 6, 2015 2:00AM ET

On April 25, Burundi's ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy, nominated the incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza as its presidential candidate. The move prompted a widespread outcry from the country’s opposition and civil society groups, who claim that Nkurunziza’s plan to seek a third term violates the constitution.

Protesters took to the streets in the capital, Bujumbura, the next day. At least three civilians have been killed and scores wounded in clashes between police and the protesters. The government has cracked down on media and ordered all social media networks to be shuttered. The unrest has led to an outflow of Burundian refugees to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.

On Tuesday, as the protests entered a second week, Burundi's constitutional court approved Nkurunziza's plan to seek a third term. While the decision will certainly exacerbate Burundi’s unrest, it may also contribute to a worrisome democratic backsliding in the region. The international community should do more to stop this trend.

End of the democracy pretense

The debate in Burundi concerns the specific language of the constitution. It stipulates that the president “is elected by universal direct suffrage for a mandate of five years renewable one time.” Nkurunziza’s first term in 2005 came on the heels of a brutal civil war and he was appointed president by parliament. He won re-election in 2010 with 91 percent of the vote following the opposition’s boycott of the elections.

But Nkurunziza’s triumph in the current protests may serve as inspiration for regional leaders such as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, both of whom face upcoming elections. While a third term for Kagame would be unconstitutional, no successor seems apparent. And during an appearance in Boston last year Kagame suggested that he would seek to extend his term of office beyond 2017. Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania are all nominal multiparty democracies, with de facto one-party rule. Museveni, who served as Uganda’s president since 1986, has also expressed interest in running for a fifth term in the 2016 elections.

The election of Nkurunziza and Kagame to a third term, which seems inevitable — especially given the oppositions’ threat to boycott the Burundi’s elections and Rwanda’s muffled political opposition — would signal the end of even the façade of democracy in the two countries.

There is strong evidence that the repetition of elections is one of the most important factors for democratization in Sub-Saharan Africa. “A sequence of elections tends to expand and solidify de facto civil liberties in society,” says Staffan Lindberg, a leading scholar in democratization and African studies. Elections create a positive feedback loop and reinforce democratic behavior with democratic values such as free speech, freedom of association and pluralism. 

Recently, Tanzania adopted a law that makes it illegal to use any statistic not authorized by the National Bureau of Statistics.

Burundi is but the latest African nation to face anti-government protests opposing efforts by an incumbent administration to remain in power by changing constitutional term limits. In October 2014, protesters ousted Burkina Faso’s leader of 27 years President Blaise Compaore after he attempted to amend the constitution to abolish presidential term limits. In January, similar protests spread through the Democratic Republic of the Congo in response to a proposed law that would have delayed presidential elections until a census was conducted — a measure that opponents said was intended to extend President Joseph Kabila’s time in office.

In a study of popular movements in Africa, political scientists Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly recorded more than 90 popular uprisings on the continent in the past decade. These confrontations reflect the growing discontent with weak democratic institutions and the local activists’ capacity to organize against governments partly because of their improved access to technology. However, despite such populist sentiments, democracy appears to be backsliding across Africa along with what journalist William J. Dobson calls “the dictator’s learning curve,” in which autocracies adopt policies that have allowed other regimes to consolidate power without isolating themselves from the international community or jeopardizing access to foreign aid.

A regional contagion

Burundi is hardly alone in facing increasing authoritarianism in the Great Lakes region. There is a growing regional trend toward restrictions on free speech, the persecution of opposition and the silencing of civil society. In recent years Tanzania, one of the freest countries in the region, according to the Freedom House, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for press freedom and civil liberties, has taken measures to narrow the country’s political space.

In 2013, two of the country’s most popular and respected newspapers were forced to suspend production for several weeks, on charges of  “writing news and features that are inflammatory and hostile with the intention of causing citizens to lose confidence in state organs, and as such putting the country’s peace and cohesion in danger.”

Recently, Tanzania adopted a law that makes it illegal to use any statistic not authorized by the National Bureau of Statistics. Such measures will reduce intellectual freedom in the country, in addition to making genuine debate on the government’s policies nearly impossible ahead of the October elections. The lack of international pressure has allowed for the erosion of press freedom and threatens the region’s democratic transition. Burundi’s recent order to restrict access to social media and the closing of three radio stations was so swift in part because of the lack of an international response to similar measures throughout the region.

While the international community cannot dictate the domestic policy choices of African countries, they wield enormous influence over the Great Lakes region. For example, in Uganda, where nearly 25 percent of the country’s budget comes from foreign aid, last year the United States cut aid to Uganda and cancelled a joint military exercise protesting its controversial anti-homosexuality bill. Under intense internal and external pressure, the Uganda’s Constitutional Court annulled the bill a few months after it became law. Observers say the defeat of Uganda’s anti-gay bill may have stymied the proliferation of similar homophobic laws across the region.

Ultimately, the protests in Burundi cannot be treated as isolated events confined to the small country’s borders. They risk sanctioning a regional contagion and allowing for a continued democratic backsliding. 

Hilary Matfess is a research analyst at the National Defense University’s Center for Complex Operations. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U. S. government.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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