Why it’s not business as usual for leaders south of the Sahara

Protesters march against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in Bujumbura, Burundi. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

The violent and chaotic events in Burundi have once again brought into sharp focus the perennial problem of leadership change in sub-Saharan Africa.

Triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza seeking a third term of office, they follow the familiar narrative of political leaders’ unwillingness to unclench their grip off the leavers of power when it is prudent.

To place this absurdity into perspective, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, Yuweri Museveni of Uganda and until recently Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso and Teodoro Nguema of Equatorial Guinea have collectively ruled their countries for 194 years.

Why does Burundi’s Nkurunziza, like many African leaders before him, find it difficult to leave office? The events of the Arab spring should have served as a wake-up call to leaders reluctant to give up the comforts of presidential office.

It appears some believed there would be no “African spring”, that Africans were too insulated from events to the north. But it is not business as usual south of the Sahara.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is grappling with president Joseph Kabila showing signs of having been afflicted by the “ordained to rule” syndrome. Rwanda, Burundi’s neighbour to the north, is similarly discussing whether Paul Kagame stays on or relinquishes power while Yuweri Museveni of Uganda, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, Faure Gnassingbe of Togo, among others, have already successfully negotiated this predicament by hanging onto their seats.

To understand this reluctance, I have sought to find some explanations within three specific strands.

The role of elites

A lot of scholarly ink has been spent on interrogating the role of elites in bringing about democracy, constitutionalism and limitations on incumbency.

These studies claim that it is the primarily the middle class, and specifically the elite, who determine if democracy is to take root. It follows, therefore, that the reluctance to leave is partly due to complicity of the elite.

The elites have much to gain through the all-pervasive system of patronage from powerful African presidents. But the Nkurunziza case is perhaps different.

Nkurunziza’s emergence as Burundi’s leader was the outcome of a delicate compromise. This was struck between his National Council for the Defence of Democracy party and other warring factions within the framework of the Arusha compromise that brought an end to the country’s bitter civil war.

His rise to the top, and long hold on power, had nothing to do with popularity. In fact, the events of the past few weeks point to his failure to co-opt the elite and gain civil society support for his third term.

While the constitution can be interpreted differently regarding his eligibility to stand again, it was becoming clear that Nkurunziza was increasingly unable to command wide support beyond party sycophants.

Most notably, the Catholic archbishop Simon Ntawana strongly rebuked the regime. The church has strong links to a broad section of civil society, which it has been able to mobilise.

The increased harassment of the opposition and civil society leaders exacerbated an already tenuous situation, which then deteriorated into violence.

Weak institutions

The institutionalisation of democratic norms and building strong institutions to safeguard democracy have been ongoing projects in sub-Saharan Africa, including Burundi. Constitutionalism has been at the core.

Democracies are often as good as their own institutions. The Burundi case, like many others before, has demonstrated that constitutional frameworks remain vulnerable to manipulation.

A well–used tactic is to reinterpret constitutional provisions or change them to fit the whims of leaders reluctant to depart office. Coercion of the judiciary, as alleged by the vice president the Burundi Supreme Court, or the subversion of parliament are other notable tools of the trade.

Events in Burundi point to a fundamental weakness in the country’s attempt at constitutionalism. The court ruling in favour of a third term for Nkurunziza points to weaknesses in institutions designed to hold the executive to account.

It is instructive that the military in Burundi and Burkina Faso not only led the coup, but symbolised an emerging pattern of the military as the guardians of democracy.

The phenomenon of the military removing reluctant leaders from power is a throwback to the 1980s, when military interruption of civilian rule was not the exception but the norm.

The people have made their presence felt

The masses have been crucial in thwarting the Nkurunziza project.

For the last few weeks, mass protests have put pressure on the president despite deadly clashes with police, arrests and the muzzling of the independent press.

The protesters remained resolute even as the region grew increasingly nervous because of the escalating violence and growing numbers of refugees fleeing to Tanzania and Rwanda. They were also emboldened in their defiance by growing international pressure on Nkurunziza.

The mass protests in Burundi and recent ones in Burkina Faso against undemocratic regimes are a mirror image of the “Arab spring”. Others who still harbour ideas of clinging to power beyond their sell-by-date would do well to take notice.