They sat around four wobbly, wooden tables. Around them old books, their pages yellow with age, were scattered throughout the room, some piles stacked two feet high. Two of them glanced over students’ essays, one peered through his thin-framed glasses into a computer screen, and the other flipped through an old notebook, scribbling notes in the margins.
All were professors at Burundi University. All were nervous, very nervous.
“If he wins the election that’s it,” said one, the heat of the June sun striking his back through a window. “There is war, we’ll have to leave. We’ll join everyone in Rwanda.”
“Yes, but you know if there’s insecurity in Burundi, there’s insecurity in Rwanda,” said his colleague, still staring at the computer screen.
“And in the Congo,” said another.
“Well then what?” the first said, laughing. “No democracy here, no democracy in Rwanda, no democracy in Congo. All because of these stubborn guys.”
Over a month has passed since the professors casual meeting, and with it a contested parliamentary and presidential election in Burundi. President Pierre Nkurunziza won the election last week, making him the latest in a string of African presidents to manipulate his country’s constitution to extend his time in office. Over the last decade, a dozen African leaders have tried to change their country’s constitution to lengthen their tenure, in what experts are now considering a worrying trend. And while certain “third termers,” as they are now referred to in the region, have failed in their attempts, leaders in Namibia, Gabon, Guinea, Togo, Chad and Uganda have succeeded, setting a worrying example for other presidents in a region with a number of elections scheduled in the coming years.
In his speech at the African Union (AU) yesterday, U.S. President Barack Obama touched on the issue, calling on the AU to ensure leaders respect constitutional term limits.
“Africa’s democratic progress is also at risk when leaders refuse to step aside when their terms end,” he said, eliciting loud cheers from the two-tiered auditorium. “Sometimes you will hear leaders say ‘I’m the only person who can hold this nation together.’ If that’s true, then that leader has failed to truly build their nation,” he continued.
As elections in the DRC, Central African Republic, Rwanda, and Benin approach, African leaders’ tolerance for dismissing term limits raises a concerning question: is African democracy in jeopardy?
According to David Zounmenou, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
“I think there is a crisis of democracy, a constitutional crisis,” said Zounmenou, speaking quickly over the phone. “And it’s gone incognito, nobody is lifting their hand to condemn what’s happening so we can expect to see the same trends in upcoming elections.”
The AU was set to discuss the issue at the 25th annual summit held in Johannesburg in June, but the event was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding South Africa’s failure to arrest Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and the violent unrest in Burundi.
In his opening remarks at the Summit, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe – currently Chairman of the AU – even questioned two-term limits, likening them to a “rope around the neck” for African leaders. Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for over 30 years.
But with the African Union taking a tolerant stance towards term limits, the possibility of this trend continuing in the continent’s upcoming elections weighs heavy on Zounmenou.
“If we are not careful,” he warned, “constitutional amendments will be the next cause of conflict in Africa.”
In East Africa, Burundi may be the spark of that instability. After last week’s disputed presidential election, many Burundians fear the return of a full-fledged civil war, the violence from which could destabilize what is already the most blood-soaked patched of the continent.
“If President Nkurunziza stays in power, there will be another genocide of Tutsi people for sure,” said Theirry Uwamaitoro, a 23-year old protest coordinator in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura. Sipping an orange Fanta outside his home, Uwamaitoro started nervously tapping the glass with his index finger. “I’m telling you, there will be war.”
And the third-term trend isn’t just putting stability in the region at stake. It’s impeding the development of young African democracies.
“Incumbency is important,” said Dr. Nicholas Cheeeseman, Associate Professor in African Politics at Oxford. “If you have a ruling party which is allowed to run a president they will win 85 percent of the time.”
When term-limits are enforced, though, and ruling parties run a new presidential candidate, the opposition’s chance of winning increases by 35 percent. For Cheeseman, this is no small phenomenon. It means networks of political cronies are dismantled, new policies can be introduced, and people’s support for democracy is strengthened – all necessary cogs of the democratic machine.
“What term limits do in terms of democracy is pretty big,” Cheeseman said. “Transfers of power remove authoritarian networks, and they keep the opposition from becoming excluded and marginalized. They’re such an important symbol of democracy.”
And when term limits don’t occur and incumbents stay in power, democratic progress takes a serious blow. According to Cheeseman, the longer presidents stay in office, the worse their policies become.
Burundi’s election was just the first of a number upcoming elections in East Africa, including in the DRC, Central African Republic and Rwanda. Leaders in each have suggested they will run for a third – and unconstitutional – term and in Rwanda, lawmakers have already voted in favor of a constitutional change to allow President Paul Kagame to run again.
But constitutional changes extending term limits isn’t the only trend sweeping the continent. People are also protesting these changes like never before.
“Many African people want a greater say over their economic and political lives,” said Zachariah Mampilly, whose book “Africa Uprising” chronicles the upsurge of protests in Africa. “The sense is that we are likely to see many more popular protests that are challenging ruling parties’ attempts to stay in power.”
When Senegal’s constitutional court ruled that President Adboulaye Wade could run for a third term in 2012, people took to the streets in outrage. Then in Burkino Faso last year, hundreds of thousands of people protested when President Blaise Compaore attempted to have president term limits removed so he could contest the 2015 elections. In the DRC in January, demonstrators successfully halted President Joseph Kabila’s attempt to change the constitution to extend his term beyond 2016.
But as protests in Burundi demonstrate, popular uprising doesn’t always stop incumbents’ political ambitions.
“The risk in Burundi was never that Nkurunziza would be removed from power because of mass protests,” Cheeseman said. “The risk is of widespread violence – it’s the same in the DRC.”
Elections are scheduled in the DRC for 2016, in Rwanda for 2017, and in the Central African Republic later this year. The lead-up to each is highly anticipated, as the decisions of these country’s incumbents could plunge the region into violence or forge a new path favoring democracy.
“It’s hard to be a prophet,” David Bilchitz, Director of the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law, said laughing quietly. “But if the African continent is going to grow and rise, especially East Africa which has the most potential, then African leaders need to recognize that its in their own interests to change.”