13 May 2018

Africa: Anxious Burundi, Hopeful Mozambique

Photo: @BurundiSecurity/Twitter
Voters queue in the 2018 referendum.
opinion

In typical fashion, Burundi has in the past few months been embroiled in mounting anxiety as a controversial referendum looms.

According to the country's electoral commission, more than five million people have registered to take part in the exercise, slated for May 17.

However, the plebiscite is widely viewed as a ruse to enable current President Pierre Nkurunziza to clutch onto power until 2034.

To do so, like many other perceived or real African despots he will need to seek a constitutional change allowing him to seek two more seven-year terms in office.

Having been in office since 2005, the former rebel leader seems to be bent on doing away with the current constitutional limit of two five-year presidential terms.

REFERENDUM

Not surprisingly, most of the parties that have been authorised to campaign and take part in the referendum are aligned with the ruling CNDD-FDD party.

And although the official launch of campaigning for the controversial referendum was announced about two weeks ago, the country's opposition feel they are being hoodwinked.

According to them, the whole exercise can only benefit President Nkurunziza and his supporters while prolonging the country's current state of instability.

The developments in Burundi come at a time when Mozambique is still mourning veteran opposition leader Afonso Dhlakama.

The rebel-turned-politician, who was the long-term leader of the opposition Renamo party, died on May 3 at the age of 65 at his hide-out in the Gorongosa mountains. Dhlakama was buried a week later, on Thursday, at his ancestral home in Mangunde village southwest of Beira, following an elaborate funeral service in that city.

BRUTALITY

Having led Renamo for nearly 40 years, Dhlakama was held responsible for the brutality of his often young soldiers during a civil war that claimed about a million lives.

Dhlakama played a central role in Mozambique politics after it gained independence from Portugal in 1975 and led Renamo since its creation in 1976.

After waging a deadly civil war against the Marxist-inspired Frelimo government that ended in 1992, he gradually transformed Renamo into an opposition party.

The party however failed to wrestle power from the ruling Frelimo party through elections, and again took up arms between 2013 and 2016.

Not surprisingly, in some quarters Dhlakama was viewed as reactionary and was often compared to the late intransigent Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.

That notwithstanding, an apparently reformed Dhlakama announced a surprise truce with the government in December 2016, a move considered crucial in bringing peace to the long troubled and divided country.

TRADITIONAL RULER

A legendary figure and the son of a traditional ruler, some of Dhlakama's disciples claimed he had magical powers that enabled him to escape danger.

His faults aside, before his death Dhlakama had been trying to clinch a peace deal with the government, reportedly making progress during secretive talks with Mozambique's president, Filipe Nyusi.

Following Dhlakama's death, the latter reportedly referred to Dhlakama in salutary terms, describing him as "a citizen who always worked for Mozambique."

Alluding to the national peace process that has been going on for some time, the president added that he hoped Mozambicans would continue "to do everything so things do not go down".

However, given the late politician's unquestioned supremacy in the opposition, he has reportedly not left any successor, which puts the still unconcluded peace process in jeopardy.

Back to Burundi, days before the Thursday referendum the country's exiled opposition has called for a boycott of the looming exercise.

Describing the referendum as a "death knell", the oppositionists have argued that it will roll back any gains following a peace agreement that ended a long-drawn civil war in the country.

That war raged between 1995 and 2003 and left more than 300,000 people dead, with hordes of others fleeing Burundi.

POLITICAL CRISIS

Ironically, a political crisis once again shook the central African country when Nkurunziza decided to run for his current third term, which will incidentally come to an end in 2020.

Justifying his decision to seek the third term during the July 2015 polls, he argued that he had only been directly elected by the people once, and had therefore not served two constitutional terms.

The cost of his seeking re-election was massive, with clashes erupting between protesters and security forces in the capital, Bujumbura, with the ensuing violence leaving at least 1,200 people dead and more than 400,000 Burundians displaced.

Amid the chaos The Hague-based International Criminal Court undertook to probe alleged state-sponsored crimes against humanity in the country. In an act of defiance, in 2017 Burundi became the first country to leave the court.

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