Burundi — the East African Community’s (EAC) little known member — has approved a change to its constitution allowing President Pierre Nkurunziza to potentially remain president until 2034. Nkurunziza came to power in 2005 in the immediate aftermath of the country’s 1993-2005 civil war and is currently in his third presidential term which ends in 2020.
Burundi has been troubled by constitutional crises, civil war and ethnic conflict. It was thrown into a continued political crisis in 2015 when President Nkurunziza — once a rebel leader — announced that he would run for a third term, breaking the constitution’s two term limit. Nkurunziza came to power in 2005 in the immediate aftermath of the country’s 1993-2005 civil war and is currently in his third presidential term which ends in 2020. Nkurunziza argued on a technicality, suggesting that he had been appointed, not elected, to his first term after the civil war. The 2015 election was boycotted by the opposition and in the political unrest which followed — including a short-lived military coup and near confrontation with the African Union — several hundred people were killed and more than 400,000 people fled according to the UN.
The 17 May 2018 referendum on the new constitution, approved by 70% of those who voted, largely happened off the radar of the EAC’s attention. The vote retains a two term limit for the Presidency, but also extends the presidential term from five to seven years. Similar to what Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni had attempted — and is currently being fought in court — this term limit will not be applied retroactively, but only kick in with Nkurunziza’s next term, thereby allowing him to stand for two more seven year terms.
The new constitution also makes changes to the structure of the executive that significantly dilutes the power-sharing deal between the two main communities, the Tutsi and the Hutu, and increases the power of the Presidency. In addition, Article 298 gives the Senate a five-year deadline to reconsider the ethnic quotas in the public sector including the security forces, that Burundi’s power sharing agreement of 2005 had set. Laws can now be changed with a simple majority instead of a two-thirds majority. Because the Hutus represent around 60% of the population and now no longer need to seek some degree of consensus with the Tutsi, all of the above will be of immediate concern to the latter.
Ethnic divisions have sharpened again since 2015. The 2005 Arusha Peace Accord — which formally ended the civil war — had only just settled the conflict between the two sides and the seven-year civil war triggered by the same events as the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda. The constitutional changes in Burundi are highly likely to result in an armed rebellion that may well have wider regional implications.
Burundi’s political and security dynamics have long affected the EAC’s regional politics. The country has been one of the stumbling blocks — albeit among several other — to the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the EAC and the EU. The EAC heads of state had asked the EU to remove EU sanctions against Burundi — which continue until October 2018 — in order to continue progress with negotiation the EPA.
Another factor is the flow of refugees: an estimated 230,000 Burundian refugees currently live in Tanzania; 170,000 in Rwanda; and around 64,000 in a camp near the Tanzanian border. The Tutsi community is spread further throughout the region in Uganda, and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Tied with the flow of people, are the interstate incursions between EAC members. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, who is also a former military leader, will certainly consider involving Rwanda’s army which he has done previously across the border of the DRC. The EAC barely had any involvement in this situation and may find itself with another conflict, not on the periphery — such as the current security concerns in South Sudan, Somalia, and increasingly the DRC — but well inside its own borders.
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