The failure of Burundi peace talks to take off this week should worry Africa. President Pierre Nkurunziza has distinguished himself as the reigning bad boy of Eastern Africa. This has not been without the abetment of his continental peers.
Africa’s ruling class looked on tight-lipped as Burundi’s pot began boiling over, about this time last year. Nkurunziza, to the dismay of many, announced that he would be in the presidential race later in 2015. That was contrary to wide expectation. It was understood that he was coming to the end of a statutory second and final term, in accord with the peace agreement that had rescued his country from the brink in 2005.
Nkurunziza, however, had other ideas and plans. He argued that his first term had been achieved not by popular vote, but through election by Parliament. He was therefore entitled to a second term by popular vote, making it three terms. Clearly, there was a loophole in the peace accord. Nkurunziza has exploited it to his advantage and to the detriment of his country.
Did Nkurunziza always know that he would someday exploit this loophole? Those crafting the peace accord failed to make it watertight. They did not state categorically that the two terms would include what became Nkurunziza’s first term. Regardless, Africa slumbered when ominous clouds began to gather over Burundi.
A power hungry class, Africa’s leaders remained studiously silent. Some must have hoped that they could in the future find their own strategies to rule forever. In Rwanda, they have recently changed the law and President Paul Kagame has already announced his candidature for next year’s elections. At the very minimum, Rwanda is stuck with Kagame for the next eight years. Across the border, Ugandans are stuck with President Yoweri Museveni for life.
Concern about limited presidential tenure in Africa is a factor of the flawed electoral processes on the continent. With very few exceptions, elections in Africa are exercises in democratic fiction and futility. In one situation, the incumbent pre rigs the exercise by making it impossible for the polls to be free and fair. They interfere with the voter registration exercise. Constituencies perceived to favour the opposition are denied the opportunity to register.
The incumbent beefs up the numbers in his core constituencies by registering even persons who are under age. Even the dead register and rise up from their graves to vote and go back thereafter. Elsewhere, pre-election violence and campaign season violence kicks in. Voter intimidation is rife and rampant. So, too, is vote buying and bribery.
Government and opposition alike shoo up ethnic hostility. They arm their tribesmen with machetes and other crude tools of war. Sophisticated weapons may also be used against “enemy tribes.” Kenya in 2008 and Rwanda in 1994 have demonstrated that “enemy tribes” can even be killed in houses of prayer. Nothing is sacred.
Electoral bodies are constituted in biased fashion and often take instructions from State House and from the military and security instruments. In the worst-case scenario, the voters’ statement remains silent inside the ballot box while the electoral body is made to announce completely different results. Stuffing of ballot boxes is normal, as are shortages of voting materials or delayed kicking off of voting in opposition areas. The Judiciary may be weaved into the conspiracy where its intervention is sought. The incumbent ensures that he controls the Judiciary.
The foregoing malpractices, and many more, render our so-called democratic elections in Africa completely useless. Without term limits, an African incumbent could rule forever. In the circumstances, presidential term limits are safety valves for our troubled nations. Without them, we will fight.
The least that institutions like the African Union and the East African Community can do is to protect term limits. But why should we expect them to do this? Don’t we hope in vain? For, African leaders have demonstrated that their unions are exclusive membership clubs for conspirators. They only talk when a member is in trouble, either at home or with the international community. The effort to mount peace talks in Burundi is not, therefore, about restoring normalcy in this troubled nation. It is about rescuing Nkurunziza.
Nkurunziza has meanwhile told his friends in the AU that he will accost their troops, should there dare set foot in Burundi as peace keepers. His government should be left alone to slay as it may. When he gets indicted before the International Criminal Court sometime to come, the same club will go allover the place chanting about “African solutions to African problems.”
Back in Kenya, the drums of war have begun beating. They ring with the unmistakable sound of 2006 – 2007, ahead of the disaster that would follow. The opposition says that the incumbents have begun rigging next year’s election. They say in law that res ipso dictum – which is to say that things speak for themselves. But even when things don’t speak for themselves, politicians engage in reckless talk that could sink society. Deputy President William Ruto goes to Kakamega to tell the people, “We beat these useless people when we were not in government. How do they imagine that they are going to beat us now that we are in government? That is impossible.”
You are still pondering over the wider significance of the Deputy President’s words when a Cord defector turned Jubilee zealot blurts, “We are going to win this election. No matter what, we will win. We will rig. And if we cannot rig, we will steal.” Consider that he says this in the presence of the Deputy President.
Put this together with hostile early campaigns. Disaster is not too far. If the political class cannot speak cautiously and sensitively, it should keep quiet. Religious leaders, NGOs, the media and the academic fraternity must protect the public from the injurious messaging of the political class.