Just under two months before a general election, Burundi has erupted in street protests against the president’s decision to run for a third term in office. The protests have been met with great force by police. At least seven civilians and three security officers have been killed. Below are five things you should know about the unfolding political crisis in Burundi, with insights on how the international community might respond.
- Institutions matter, and the international community is missing opportunities to strengthen democracy by not paying attention to core state institutions.
In March of last year, President Pierre Nkurunziza narrowly lost a vote in parliament that would have abolished term limits and allowed him to run for a third term (another reminder that we should take African parliaments seriously). The period immediately after the vote offered an opportunity for the international community to rally around the Burundian elite to ensure that the norm of term limits stuck, sufficiently isolating Nkurunziza and his allies. In a country of Burundi’s size, how the international community engages with local issues matters a great deal for the domestic conduct of politics. If Burundi’s neighbors, the Unites States and others focus solely on the president and presidential elections, then that is where power will be concentrated. Diplomats might have better luck in promoting democracy by engaging core state institutions — such as legislatures — in a manner that reinforces the principle of horizontal accountability.
- The risk of a coup in Burundi just went up.
Reuters is reporting that Burundi’s defense minister, Maj. Gen. Pontien Gaciyubwenge, has issued a statement that the army will not support a violation of the country’s constitution. Over the past couple of days, there have been reports of police clashing with military officers (with the latter protecting civilians). One military officer was reportedly killed by an intelligence officer — a clear signal that there is a rift within the country’s security forces. It is also important to note that a quota system in the military has served to limit the influence of the president over this institution, unlike the police. At the beginning of the year, political scientist and forecaster Jay Ulfelder ranked Burundi as having the 26th highest risk of experiencing a coup in 2015 among nations worldwide. Gaciyubwenge’s statement magnifies the risk.
- The East African Community will wait this one out.
Among the five members of the East African Community (EAC), only Kenya and Tanzania have solidified the norm of term limits. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni successfully did away with term limits in 2001. Paul Kagame of neighboring Rwanda also has been equivocal about term limits. Kagame is legally scheduled to leave office in 2017, but he says it is up to the people of Rwanda to decide his fate. This puts the EAC in an awkward position because a push for constitutionalism in Burundi would necessarily mean acknowledging that Museveni (and possibly Kagame) are in the wrong. It is no wonder that the best the EAC has done so far is to call for dialogue.
- Even if Nkurunziza succeeds, it would be unwise for states to isolate him.
Of the five EAC states, Burundi is the poorest and least integrated. Closer integration of Burundi is a strategy that, in the long run, could lead to the diffusion of norms of openness and term limits that exist in other EAC countries, notably in Kenya and Tanzania. Research shows (see here and here) that being part of a regional community can foster democratic consolidation. Furthermore, integration – through the various initiatives of the African Union and the Africa Development Bank – will be good for the Burundian economy. Burundi is landlocked and so relies on other EAC members to access the international market. Research shows that although economic development does not directly cause democratization, once adopted, democratic institutions are more likely to endure in relatively wealthier countries.
- As bad as things look right now, Burundi is not going to hell in a hand basket.
The current situation is both tense and tragic. Apart from the more than half-dozen dead, tens of thousands have fled the country and are in refugee camps in Rwanda. But Burundi will most probably pull through this crisis. As NYU political scientist Cyrus Samii’s research shows (ungated), Burundi has been one of the more successful post-conflict reformers. For example, its military’s quota-based integration strategy reduced the salience of ethnicity in the armed forces. And so while the ongoing political crisis has ethnic overtones, it is unlikely that the country will collapse and descend into civil conflict. The signals from the military supporting constitutionalism are particularly encouraging for democracy.
Ken Opalo is a PhD candidate at Stanford University. This fall he will be an assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.