Burundi coup shows Africa’s democratic challenges

Burundi coup shows Africa’s democratic challenges

After a failed coup in Burundi by Major General Godefroid Niyombare, President Nkurunziza returned to the country and secured his power. The crisis should be seen as just one of the many examples of the serious challenges to the development of inclusive democracies on the African continent.

After three weeks of street protests in Burundi against President Nkurunziza’s unconstitutional candidacy for a third term in office, Burundi’s Major General Godefroid Niyombare stated on 13 May that he had removed the President from his duties. The coup leaders conducted the insurrection when Nkurunziza travelled to Tanzania for a summit of the East African Community, convened by regional heads of state to discuss the dire security situation in Burundi.

Burundi suffers due to ruling party factionalism

Niyombare, the leader of the coup, is a member of the ruling party’s security elite. A former army chief, Niyombare was dismissed by Nkurunziza in February after he advised him not to run for a third presidential term. Disgruntled by the president’s strategy, he became part of a group of coup plotters who mostly came from within the ruling party’s inner circle.

In the 48 hours following the coup, heavy fighting between loyalists and supporters of the coup within the military continued to take place. The fights largely revolved around the building of the state radio RTNB, with both parties trying to control official communication regarding developments in the capital.

Less than 48 hours after the coup was announced, President Nkurunziza was able to return to the country. The coup-makers lost, and at the time of writing, the majority of them, including second-in-command Cyrille Ndayirukiye, had surrendered. The military men behind the coup were put in prison, except for their leader Niyombare, who is allegedly still on the run.

General Niyombare’s rebellion failed to win public support from Burundi’s political opposition, even though they share the aim to prevent an unconstitutional third term for President Nkurunziza. It is probable that this was due to Niyombare’s involvement in repression activities as a member of the national security services.

Secondly, due to a unique freedom of the press in the country vis-à-vis other countries in the region, an incorrect impression had been created that “the people of Burundi” were revolting against the president’s decision to seek a third term in office. The heavy protests were mostly conducted by only a couple of thousand protestors, almost exclusively in certain areas in the capital, Bujumbura. In other neighbourhoods of the capital, as well as on the countryside, the president still enjoyed widespread support from the population.

Consequently, it seems that the coup was more a bold attempt of dissatisfied members of the ruling CNDD-FDD to capitalize on popular discontent than a popular revolt itself. The “people’s revolt” offered these members the perfect smokescreen to try their luck with a coup. The “triumph” of coup perpetrators Godefroid Niyombare, with a few thousand cheering Burundians in central Bujumbura, created the image of a popular coup.

Consequences on the national and international levels

The only one who seems to get stronger out of this crisis seems to be president Nkurunziza himself. Having affirmed his strong position vis-à-vis the security services, which proved their loyalty during the uprising, it seems likely that he will get what he wants.

With incumbent parties having already experienced serious challenges in Burkina Faso and Nigeria earlier this year, Burundi is yet another bad example of Africa’s struggle to enforce peaceful transitions of power. The Burundi case will certainly have spillovers to other countries in the Great Lakes region and the African continent.

To begin, Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Kabila also aspires an unconstitutional third term in office. He tried to amend both the constitution and the electoral law in January but failed to do so, facing strong opposition including from within his own party.

However, the latest DRC report by the International Crisis Group notes that the January mini-political crisis, triggered by proposed changes to the electoral law, provoked deadly violence and repression against pro-democracy activists, and could escalate in the run-up to local elections this year and national elections in 2016.

In stark contrast to Burundi and DRC, two million people in neighbouring Rwanda have petitioned parliament to amend the constitution to allow Paul Kagame to extend his rule for a third seven-year term in 2017. Given the lack of space for genuine opposition in Rwanda and the string of recent disappearances of Kagame critics, it is unlikely that Rwandans will follow the example of their Burundian neighbours and protest if the president does seek to stay in power. Consequently, a genuine opposition is unlikely to develop in Rwanda in the short and medium term.

Pressure on democracy

Other countries in Africa will face serious challenges regarding democracy, as well. With the recent reelections of Togo’s Faure Gnassingbe, where opposition protests failed to bring about constitutional changes to term limits, and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who has spent 25 years in power, there is no real proof of the development of robust multiparty systems on the continent.

During the upcoming years, it is possible more extreme cases could pop up in Zimbabwe, Angola and Equatorial Guinea, where incumbent presidents have been in office for more than three decades. This will most certainly cause in-party succession struggles and increased activism from opposition parties, resulting in street protests, political violence and harsh repression.

Political systems on the African continent are still works in progress, and building an active and peaceful democracy is a long process. Today’s struggles could be seen as an opportunity: with the recent example of a peaceful transition of power in Nigeria, the end of terms of ruling leaders could trigger the institutionalization of multiparty systems where power is shared, paving the way for peaceful transitions.

Hopefully, Burundi’s case will be perceived as a warning sign and not as a precedent for ruling leaders to extend their power unconstitutionally. In any case, Burundi has proven that the international community should keep a careful eye on Africa.

About Author

Nick De Vlaminck

Nick De Vlaminck has worked for the Belgian Embassy to Senegal, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and the Gambia, as well as for the European External Action Service where he worked in the Horn of Africa, East and Southern Africa, Indian Ocean Directorate. He holds a Master’s Degree in European Union Studies from Ghent University and an Advanced Master’s degree in Diplomacy & International Relations from the University of Antwerp, and has spent semesters abroad at the Marmara University in Turkey and the University of Coimbra in Portugal. Nick is proficient in Dutch, English, French and Portuguese.