21 May 2018

Burundi Referendum - Who Will Stop Pierre Nkurunziza?

Photo: @BdiPresidence/Twitter
President Pierre Nkurunziza and First Lady Denise Nkurunziza on voting day in the Burundian referendum.

With the newly approved constitution in Burundi, President Nkurunziza can rule until 2034, joining a club of dictators in Africa. It's high time that African youth stood up against tyranny, DW's Fred Muvunyi writes.

Burundi's electoral commission announced Monday, May 21, that 73 percent of all eligible voters approved a new constitution that will scrap presidential term limits and allow President Nkurunziza to stay in office until 2034 if he is elected.

Ahead of Thursday's referendum, more than a dozen people were killed, and women were raped, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Burundi is no doubt heading along a terrible path, leading to renewed violence.

Last Friday (11 May 2018) unidentified attackers, armed with machetes and guns, butchered people in the rural northwest near Democratic Republic of Congo. They killed 26 people, many of them children. Days before that, the government suspended international broadcasters, namely the BBC and Voice of America, and international reporters were denied visas to cover the referendum.

It's a shame that one power-hungry man, President Pierre Nkurunziza, is tearing the country apart under the eyes of the African Union, the European Union and the United States.

Sadly, what's happening in Burundi has happened elsewhere in the Great Lakes Region under the West's watch. Europe and the US have long sponsored African dictators. The aid money poured into autocratic regimes is often used to sponsor their henchmen and to buy equipment used to hunt down dissidents.

The United States and its allies in Europe have a long history of supporting despots who, in return, can protect their strategic interests, like plundering oil and other natural resources, or keeping Muslim extremists in check while putting aside concerns over human rights and democratic principles. Two examples: Uganda's President Museveni has thousands of soldiers in Somalia to fight the al-Shabab militants. Idris Deby of Chad has added his men to a force with a strong West African component to fight the Boko Haram insurgents in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad.

In Africa, where rules are easily bent, despots are using all tools at their disposal to change term-limiting provisions or simply ignoring them in order to stay longer in office. So far, leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Djibouti, Cameroon, Chad, Uganda, Gabon and Togo have succeeded. Parallel to this, the rule of law and respect for fundamental human rights continue to recede. As these despots butcher their people, lock up their opponents and stifle the press, the best the West managed to do was to issue "statements of condemnation." But nothing tangible has been done to deter political violence in the region.

I'm still optimistic that the West can help put an end to this trend. In October 2017, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, met the president of DRC, Joseph Kabila. After that meeting, Congo officials announced elections would be held later this year. It appeared that one punch from the US and local pressure groups could make dictators think twice. However, that was it: the Trump administration has become reticent or perhaps African issues no longer matter to them.

In 2015, President Nkurunziza ran for a third term and went on to win in a bloody political conflict that left over 1,200 Burundians killed. Four hundred thousand more fled the country. The international community, or rather the West, saw this coming, but they decided to remain tight-lipped when Nkurunziza's men slaughtered fellow Burundians. How many more people must die in Burundi before the West intervenes? For now, there is no sign that Nkurunziza will abandon his obsession with power. But his situation is unenviable. Since a coup attempt in May 2015, he has locked himself in, making only one trip to Tanzania as he fears being toppled by his aides. He has no trust in his military; instead, he has opted to pay and equip a militia group from his CNDD-FDD party, the Imbonerakure, to keep him in office.

As current African despots seize the opportunity to strengthen their grip on power, it is time for young Africans to stand up against tyranny without waiting for western support. The West has its own problems to deal with. The US has Donald Trump, Europe has Vladimir Putin and Turkey has Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Africans, especially young Africans, need to seize the initiative without waiting for outside help.


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