Burundi: The Arithmetic’s (mostly the lack of it) of Two Terms in Bujumbura

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Two years ago, the celebrated columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo penned down an opinion piece in the East African titled, Why Burundi needs a sex scandal to be noticed. As expected this piece did not go down well in Burundi though it did ask an quintessential question;

What can Burundi do to get East Africa’s attention?

It seems the President of Burundi unwittingly and all for the wrong reasons decided to put Burundi squarely on the world map!

In the last couple weeks we have heard and seen disturbing news emanating from Burundi which has been precipitated by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s attempt to run for a third term. Though I am not an expert in the affairs of the great lakes region I have tried to keep myself a breast with the events leading to this situation, as most of us have been. This has been made much easier by my friends and YLF alumnae who are living this horrendous ordeal. We can only hope this situation ends soon so that they can go back to their usual life.

What is more baffling has been the response (mostly the lack of it) to this crisis from the neighboring countries and Africa at large. The current crisis in Burundi did not ‘just happen’ as one would put it, the writing has been on the wall for a considerable amount of time. The regional and continental bodies in which Burundi is a member have been passive to say the least in trying to address the unfolding crisis. Which makes one question the role and need of such institutions – the AU has an early warning mechanism yet its hands seem to be tied in proactively addressing situations such as this when they are unfolding.

Initially, when the issue came to the fore the African Union through its president announced on Twitter that it preferred the issue of the third term to be addressed through the constitutional court (the Senate had taken this matter to the court for interpretation). The African Union had come under considerable criticism especially on its response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa and this time it tried to show where it stood on this matter. However, as would have been expected, and the African Union should have known better! The administration in Bujumbura exerted pressure on the court and as such a ruling (unanimous for that matter) was struck in favor of President Pierre Nkurunziza.

As this was happening people have been fleeing the country, mostly relocating to Rwanda and Tanzania. It is only after reeling to the unfolding humanitarian crisis have the two countries come to the fore on this crisis. One might not be privy but perhaps the East African countries were trying to reach out to President Pierre Nkurunziza through diplomatic channels.
However, the quintessential question which begs is when does the sovereignty of a country end and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle set in? Although Nkurunziza administration has cut down access to social networks, the citizens of Burundi like in any other country in the world have found means of by passing these restrictions.

Now one might ask why a president who has already served two terms would be interested in extending presidential term limits (through dubious interpretation of the constitution) so that he can serve another term. Aren’t there qualified people in his party who are a position to take the reins? If not why did he not mentor a successor?

Equally baffling has been the international community response to the crisis, case in point was the recent request by the United Nation’s Secretary General. The UN Sec. Gen. requested Uganda’s President Museveni to intervene in the ongoing crisis. In my concerted opinion, the UN Sec. Gen should have requested the Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete to mediate the crisis since the presidency of the East African Community currently rests with him. We have also seen the foreign affairs ministers of EAC going to Burundi and currently COMESA seems to have sent elder’s to access and possibly intervene.
The problem with this is, if there are many focal points trying to mediate then chances of success are minimal since the president might be bidding his time till it is too late. This concept is well laid down in Back from the Brink – the 2008 mediation process and reforms in Kenya.

This week the EAC heads of state will meet in Arusha to deliberate on the crisis in Burundi. One can only hope that the EAC leaders will come up with a road map to the current crisis in Burindi and that they are able to appoint one focal point to handle the crisis. If the EAC leaders are not in a position to convince President Pierre Nkurunziza to rethink on his candidacy the one can expert more volatile times in the great lakes region.

Recommended readings
1. An idiot’s guide to the Burundi crisis by Daniel K Kalinaki – The East African
2. Raila wants East Africa Community, world leaders to act on Burundi by Moses Njagih – The Standard

The author of this piece is a blogger and a cultural practitioner in Nairobi. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of FES