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How Central African Leaders Turned to Constitutional Changes to Cement Power

Burundi president’s power grab is latest by a number of regional leaders to have raised term limits or bolstered their powers

Voters in Burundi have backed wide-ranging constitutional changes that will reinforce the power of the president, Pierre Nkurunziza, potentially allowing him to rule for up to 14 more years after his current term expires in 2020.

The measures were approved by 75% of voters, with 17% opposed, on a reported turnout of 98%.

Presidential terms will be extended from five years to seven and there will be changes to the distribution of senior government posts according to ethnicity. Critics fear this will upset a delicate balance between communities that has preserved peace since the end of a civil war.

The result reinforces a broader trend in the central African region where a series of rulers have lifted limits on their terms or otherwise bolstered their powers.

“It is a negative trend and we need to ask what factors are behind it,” said Patrick Hajayandi, of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. “One is that many people currently believe democracy brings instability and are looking at other political models. China and other eastern nations seem to be developing very fast and have the stability that Africa needs.”

Tensions in Burundi have been running high for months and there has been a wave of alleged detentions and killings of the government’s perceived opponents.

The main opposition leader, Agathon Rwasa, said he rejected the “fantasist results”. He said: “The electoral process has been neither free nor transparent, nor independent and still less democratic.


The EU and the US have denounced intimidation, repression and harassment of opposition supporters, while Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly documented widespread abuses by security forces and government-sponsored organisations. Burundi’s government has said the charges are malicious propaganda spread by exiles.

Nkurunziza, a former teacher and rebel leader who is the son of a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother, has been in power since 2005.

Nic Cheeseman, a professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and an expert on African politics, said Nkurunziza had learned from other leaders in the region. “Leaders are getting more and more strategic and clever about how they package democratic backsliding for domestic and international audiences,” he said.

Paul Kagame, the president of neighbouring Rwanda, won re-election last year for a third seven-year term, after a constitutional changes that waived a previous two-term limit were approved in a referendum.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, has ignored the end of his second mandate and is yet to give an assurance that he will not seek a third term in polls scheduled for December. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, 73, recently brought in a law waiving a presidential age limit of 75 and allowing him to run for a sixth term in 2021.

Analysts say such tactics are common across Africa, though some regions are less prone than others. “Some regions, such as [the Economic Community of West African States], are more willing to address the issue and understand its implications for stability … but there is a serious problem,” said Stephanie Wolters, an expert at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.

“Burundi and DRC are both on their third post-conflict election and that tends to be the one that is problematic because the elite doesn’t feel like leaving.”

Nkurunziza, a born-again Christian who won some support with public displays of faith, was re-elected unopposed in 2010 after the opposition boycotted the vote. In 2015 he triggered a crisis by pursuing a third term. Since then more than 1,000 people have died in political violence and more than 400,000 have fled the country.


Written by How Africa

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