Fred Muvunyi, a former chairman of the Rwanda Media Commission, is an editor at Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster.
Burundians voted Thursday in a violence-marred constitutional referendum that, if approved by more than 50 percent of all voters, could keep president Pierre Nkurunziza in power at least until 2034. He will then join the ranks of President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Idriss Déby of Chad and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, leaders who have expressed a desire to stay in office for the next two decades.
Tensions are high. Unidentified attackers armed with machetes and guns carried out a massacre last Friday in the rural northwest near Congo in which 26 people were killed, many of them children. Two weeks ago, the government suspended the BBC and Voice of America.
Sadly, what’s happening in Burundi is a replay of events in the Great Lakes Region under the West’s watch. Most dictators in the region are sponsored by Western nations. The aid money poured out into autocratic regimes is often used to sponsor the henchmen and to buy equipment used to spy on their critics.
The United States and its allies in Europe have a long history of supporting despots who, in return, can protect their strategic interests, such as plundering oil and other natural resources or keeping Muslim extremists in check while putting aside concerns over human rights and democratic principles. A vivid example: Uganda’s Museveni has dispatched thousands of soldiers to Somalia to fight al-Shabab militants. Chad’s Déby has added his men to a West African force fighting Boko Haram insurgents in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. Both correspondingly enjoy strong Western support despite their dismal records on human rights.
The United States and the European Union have no strategic interests in Rwanda, but they do use the country to access resources from Congo. Kagame has also contributed soldiers to United Nations peacekeeping forces across Africa, and he has been praised for making good use of aid money from the West by lifting 1 million Rwandans from poverty. The West sees in him a rare symbol of progress on a continent that has many failed states and a record of rampant corruption. When Kagame opted to change the constitution, Washington and Brussels gave their blessing through their inaction.
Burundi’s Nkurunziza has been asking himself why he should serve only two terms while so many of his peers have been allowed to stay on as long as they want. Nkurunziza is copying Rwanda’s playbook, and that’s why he dreams of leaving office in 2034 — the same time Kagame plans to quit (assuming that he actually does, of course).
In Africa, where rules are far too easily tweaked or broken, despots are using all the tools at their disposal to change term-limit provisions or ignoring them to stay in power. So far, dictators have succeeded in doing so in Congo, Congo Republic, Rwanda, Burundi, Djibouti, Cameroon, Chad, Uganda, Gabon and Togo. As they do so, the rule of law and respect for basic human rights continue to recede.
I’m still optimistic that the West can help to avert this trend. In October 2017, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley met with Joseph Kabila, the president of Congo. After that meeting, Congolese officials announced they would hold elections later this year. It appeared that one punch from the United States and local pressure groups could make dictators think twice. But that was it. The Trump administration has nothing left to say on the state of democracy in Africa.
In 2015, Nkurunziza ran for a third term and went on to win it in a bloody political conflict that left more than 1,200 Burundians killed and led 400,000 to flee the country. The international community, or rather the West, saw this coming — but they did nothing when Burundians were slaughtered by their own government.
Now I’m wondering how many enough people must die in Burundi before the West feels compelled to take action. There’s no sign that Nkurunziza will stop his madness without pressure from outside. Since a coup attempt in May 2015, he has bunkered himself in the presidential palace, refusing to leave the country to appear at international summits. He has no trust in his military. Instead, he has opted to pay and equip a militia group from his party to keep him in office.
In the last decade, many Africans had to rely on the West’s understanding of democracy and rule of law. But now Washington is silent. The values that made the United States a powerful nation are waning thanks to President Trump, who fits well in African governing style. Western Europe is also busy dealing with Russian aggression. Little attention is given to African countries.
African dictators are seizing the opportunity to strengthen their grip on power.
It’s high time for Africa’s young people to start seizing the initiative. They must stop waiting for Western salvation. That ship has sailed. The people of the continent must take charge of their own destinies — or die trying.