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Burundi: A case for fixed terms of office

Elections are to be held in August, leaving little time to assess how fair elections might be promoted
Elections are to be held in August, leaving little time to assess how fair elections might be promoted

Burundi is heading to the polls next month after months of violence. In this week's guest blog, Kim considers the state of African democracy and why free and fair elections are essential for the health of the state and the security of the populace.

The situation in Burundi has become increasingly volatile throughout the spring after President Pierre Nkurunziza stated that he would seek a third term in office which triggered protests, a failed coup and has led to at least 20 deaths. Free speech has been further compromised and people are unable to find a way to make a living have been leaving, mostly for neighbouring Tanzania or Rwanda, with over 90,000 leaving in the last month.

The President was put under pressure from African and Western governments to delay the elections and allow for stability to return. It was announced last week that elections have been postponed until 26 August which leaves Burundi, and other African nations, precious little time to assess the state of democracy and how the right to free and fair elections can be better protected.

Africa and fixed-term parliaments

Africa is blighted by the precedent of leaders assuming power and then passing measures which allow them to retain that power indefinitely. For example, Robert Mugabe came to power in Zimbabwe in 1987 and is still in charge today with similarly lengthy presidential terms to be found in Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Cameroon and many more.

Under one person, power is centralised, which opens the door to authoritarianism, media bias and control through the military – although the Egyptian and Tunisian militaries confirmed that they can act as both the making and breaking of a government when they helped protestors overthrow oppressive regimes in their respective countries.

Governments such as this sideline and criminalise their population, and a similar situation can be seen to be emerging in Burundi with President Pierre Nkurunziza branding protestors as terrorists. Such statements are not words alone, the creation of ‘terrorists’ in this way usually give police and security services carte blanche to detain, interrogate and, in extreme circumstances, kill protestors.

Fearing change

Parallel to the rhetoric we heard in the run-up to the UK elections, many African leaders claim they need to secure third or fourth terms for themselves so that they can “complete the excellent work they have started”. The problem with imposing your own scale of achievement on a presidency is that it leaves the populace little room to doubt or question and creates a culture of fear surrounding change.

The key component is length of term of office and the number of terms one president can serve. Limits exist to ensure power never becomes too authoritarian and centralised, something most in the Global North take for granted, in many countries, such limits do not exist or are surprisingly easy to change. The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, ensuring that elections happen every 5 years, only came into law in the UK in 2011.

Leaders need to respect term limits and to transfer of power quickly and fairly. This was most recently witnessed in Nigeria which held the first free and fair election in its history. We can only hope that the message of this election will be heard beyond Nigeria’s borders and could influence other countries as they transition to more democratic elections.

Problems in Burundi

Burundi exhibits many warning signs that indicate a failing political system – centralisation of power, marginalisation and criminalisation of opposition and ethnic quotas within the military and police forces. Leaders who create a creeping slide towards authoritarianism alienate their own people and make it difficult for opposition groups, charities and community-led activism to exist.

The pervasive authoritarianism which poisons so many African countries needs to be addressed to allow charities and communities to build confidence and opportunity, without this, we are condemning another generation to inescapable poverty.

Without the guarantee of democracy and free and fair elections, how can people across Africa find hope? Organisations which seek to empower communities without waiting to be granted political approval might be the best way forward in allowing people to regain control of their lives.

Green shoots: Tackling the powerlessness of poverty

Shoots of new growth are appearing through the unrest and uncertainty in Burundi. The Burundian social enterprise, Adisco, were recently awarded the King Baudouin Foundation’s African Development Prize. Adisco aims to empower communities through sustainable agriculture and self-sufficiency and by showing the value of local skills and instilling new sense of self-worth and confidence in people.

While Adisco and others like them are making incredible steps to changes attitudes, livelihoods and outcomes in Burundi, these pockets of excellent work are few and far between and the current political turmoil threatens to further destabilise the country. If this happens, organisations like Adisco will suffer and their message of community empowerment could be undermined.

Burundi is one of the poorest on earth with around 70% of people living below the poverty line. Free and fair elections could herald a new era of cooperation, opportunity and engagement, factors which ultimately help to pull people above the poverty line and give them a new sense of hope.

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