The alleged attempted coup in Burundi this week was symbolic of the way in which many African leaders have used democratic institutions to entrench their power, an action which brings about political and social instability.
An already fragile Burundi erupted into political unrest after its president, Pierre Nkurunziza, sought to amend the country’s constitution so that he could serve another term. His bid was approved by the Constitutional Court.
Now, with thousands dead and manyBurundians scattered across the region as refugees, Burundi has tumbled backwards after 10 years of peaceful transitioning.
According to Dr Yolande Bouka, researcher in the conflict prevention and risk analysis division at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Nairobi, said many governments in Africa create an environment where it becomes near impossible to hold free and fair elections.
“Having elections doesn’t mean that you have a democracy, and that is the impression that has been created.”
She explained that while constitutions can indeed be changed, the amendments must be based on the will of the people.
“There needs to be more attention paid to the reasons for leaders changing the constitution,” she said, adding that the African Union (AU) must be clear on its view on constitutional integrity and the ability to rotate leaders periodically just as it has been clear on its stance against military coups.
Bouka highlighted that the AU has been slow in reacting to situations like the one in Burundi. As the protesting gained momentum, there were warnings issued about the potential crisis in Burundi and unfortunately the AU did not receive the threats and warnings with the robust reaction that it should have.
In fact, according to Bouka, the organisation “lost complete legitimacy in the case of Burkina Faso where the last president, Blaise Compaore, was overthrown and there was no intervention from the AU”.
To date, the organisation has issued a few statements, calling for people to remain calm amidst the riots. AU chairman, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has publicly condemned the violence. But, with grim foresight of more hands on intervention, it risks facing the same fate of illegitimacy once again.
While she highlighted that the situation is not a unique one. “This is a trend we’ve seen in CAF, Bukina Faso, Senegal to name a few.”
She stressed that the African community in its entirety needs to make a concerted effort to ensuring peaceful transitions of governments. Bouka assures that it is possible, citing Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa as examples.
“What you need is a very clear stand from regional actors about where they stand on constitutional integrity.” Bouka highlighted though, that for Burundi, it could be too late as it faces a civil war.
Meanwhile, according to reports, Nkurunziza is now back in Burundi after he had left for a regional conference and struggled to re-enter the country during the alleged coup. Since his return, Nkhurunziza has urged soldiers to disassociate themselves from the coup and not face prosecution.