What Burundi Means for “Democracy”
Burundi, a small country in Central Africa, situated between the DRC, Rwanda, and Tanzania, isn’t often paid much attention. The fact that I feel the need to qualify its location is telling of how unfamiliar most people are with the country and its past. Noting its geographic coordinates alone may give a sense of its precarious past, but certainly wouldn’t highlight the importance that the country has for democracy on the African continent and prospects for designing representative democracies in the future. The current events in Burundi may be a harbinger for both.
Burundi’s past 20+ years have been marked by violence. The assassination of the first democratically elected president, Ndadaye (who was also the first Hutu leader of the country since independence) and the resulting mass violence that followed, against both the Tutsi and Hutu populations, though the deaths of the former was deemed a genocide a decade later. Even though the Arusha peace agreement was signed in 2000, civil unrest continued between the CNDD-FDD (Nkurunziza’s political party) and the FNL (a Hutu-representative rebel group/political party). Nevertheless, Burundi was seen as an important test case in designing power-sharing state regimes, particularly those coming out of conflict spurned on by solid identity divisions. This structuring of power, famously associated with Arend Lipjhart, has been considered as a way to ensure proportional representation of groups’ in politics and protection for minority groups through veto power.
Burundi’s current constitution and regime was established by the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, which helped ease the country out of violence, though one might be skeptical about its efficacy in doing so. The failure of this carefully constructed form of government — with the barring of strictly ethnic political parties and the negotiated representation numbers in the executive and legislative branches — demonstrates how difficult it is for a country to start afresh from conflict and instill an altered sense of how the political game is played.
The gathering of Burundians in the street have been sparked by the President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement that he will seek a third term in office, a move that many international figureheads, including Secretary Kerry, have roundly criticized. The President’s persistence in standing for another election in defiance of the calls to respect the country’s youthful constitution is the culmination of narrowed democratic space in the country. Last year, the government outlawed jogging and legislated the size of churches, both seen as moves to restrict the social spaces in which individuals assemble and converse. This restricted social space, the jailing of civil society and media figureheads, and the UN report of Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD party arming its youth supporters (and then booting the top UN official out of Burundi) furthers the sense of uncertainty of the future for democracy in Burundi, as these moves signal to the general population that representative democracy will not look out for the interests of the minority.
What happens in Burundi doesn’t just matter for the options that can be offered to other conflict-riddled states to transition to a more secure space. The developments in Burundi and the responses from the African Union, European Union, the United States, and the United Nations matter for the evolution of democracy across the African continent. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, Burundi’s neighbors, are both holding presidential elections in 2016. There is concern in both states that the current presidents, Kabila and Kagame, respectively, will stand for third terms, though readings of their constitutions state that both are barred from doing so. Beyond the potential impact on the state of democracy in the Great Lakes region, leaders of other countries across the continent with upcoming elections that could help deepen their electoral democratic tendencies (Angola, Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone) might well read the reaction of the international community (or lack thereof) as they calculate their own risks and benefits for pushing up against electoral restrictions in their countries.
Note: This post was drafted last week, before rumors of Nkurunziza’s removal from power. More to come on that soon!
Originally published at petersenposts.wordpress.com on May 14, 2015.