End ‘third term-ism’ in Africa

Burundians’ call for leadership change may reflect a burgeoning ‘African Spring’.

Demonstrators celebrate what they perceive to be an attempted military coup d''etat in the capital Bujumbura, Burundi [AP]
Demonstrators celebrate what they perceive to be an attempted military coup d'etat in the capital Bujumbura, Burundi [AP]

Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term has raised a ruckus that could have far-reaching consequences for him and for other leaders who have outstayed their welcomes. Elections are looming in several African nations whose presidents have already served two or more terms. These include Gambia, Djibouti, and Chad, all of which have no term limits; as well as Burundi’s neighbours Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), whose leaders are expected to leave office during the next two years.

While protesters in Burundi were demanding that the African leaders currently meeting in Tanzania should persuade Nkurunziza to go; rival army factions clashed on the streets of the capital Bujumbura after former army chief-of-staff Godefroid Niyombara claimed to have ousted Nkurunziza and that a civil society-led transitional government was being formed.

Though these declarations sparked impromptu celebrations on the streets, the presidency and current army chief maintained that Niyombara’s “coup” had been foiled.

Celebrations erupt in Burundi amid coup reports

It is clear that Nkurunziza, who turned back from Dar-es-Salaam on learning of his attempted ouster, has been unable to re-enter Burundi due to the closure of the airport and border crossings by Niyombara’s allies.

Party’s youth wing

In the three weeks since protesters took to the streets of Bujumbura and other urban centres, more than 20 Burundians have been killed, and over 50,000 have fled the country, with many citing their fear of the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure. The youth wing’s tactics during Nkurunziza’s second term have been worryingly reminiscent of the Interahamwe in Rwanda prior to the 1994 genocide there.

Just last week, the UN Security Council received a file containing details of how 22 Burundian opposition leaders have allegedly been assassinated since 2010, which also detailed how Imbonerakure members were trained in the DRC and received legally bought arms from Nkurunziza’s government.

The sustained uprising against Nkurunziza’s third-term bid, despite the force and threats used against civilians by the police and the Imbonerakure,as well as the visible support of uniformed soldiers who were present at protests during the past weeks, are reminiscent of Egypt’s unfinished 2011 revolution. This proof that ordinary Burundians want leadership change is echoed by citizens in other parts of the continent, and some analysts detect in them a burgeoning “African Spring”.

The sustained uprising against Nkurunziza’s third-term bid … as well as the visible support of uniformed soldiers who were present at protests during the past weeks, are reminiscent of Egypt’s unfinished 2011 revolution.


The forced resignation of Burkinabe President Blaise Campaore in October last year, following similar protests in Ougadougou is a case in point.

Perhaps that influenced President Thomas Yayi to accept the Benin constitutional court’s refusal to amend the constitution for a third term, and he has publicly stated that he will not seek re-election next year.

By contrast, earlier this month, Burundi’s constitutional court ruled that Nkurunziza could contest a third term, but the deputy president of the court, who fled to Rwanda prior to the ruling, has called it unconstitutional and a violation of the Arusha peace agreement.

Opposition in the DRC

Meanwhile in the DRC there has already been strong opposition to President Joseph Kabila’s attempts to amend both the constitution and the electoral law, including from within his own party.

The latest DRC report by the International Crisis Group notes that the January mini-political crisis, triggered by proposed changes to the electoral law, provoked deadly violence and repression against pro-democracy activists, and could escalate in the run-up to local elections this year and national elections in 2016.

In other parts of the continent, the signals are mixed. In stark contrast to Burundi and DRC, in neighbouring Rwanda, two million people have petitioned parliament to amend the constitution in order to allow Paul Kagame to extend his rule for a third seven-year term in 2017.

The president himself has appeared ambivalent on the issue, with political analyst Francois Conradie noting that, “Kagame, like all heads of state who change term limits, wants to give the impression that he would prefer to leave but is reluctantly staying on for the good of his people”.

Given the lack of space for genuine opposition in Rwanda, the muzzling of independent media voices, and the string of recent disappearances, arrests and suspicious deaths of Kagame critics, it is unlikely that Rwandans will follow the example of their Burundian neighbours to protest if he does seek to stay in power despite the potential damage to his international reputation.

Togo and Sudan

Last month, Togo’s Faure Gnassingbe and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir were both re-elected as their countries’ leaders, despite high questionable track records and notwithstanding protests against Faure’s third-term bid and an opposition boycott of the poll in Sudan, where Bashir has been in power since 1989.

Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza [AP]
Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza [AP]

While the United Nations and the African Union urge member states to respect their constitutions and condemn coup attempts, as the AU has done during the ongoing Burundi crisis, they have done little to limit presidentialism in cases such as Togo and Sudan, and even less in Zimbabwe, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea, whose presidents have held the reins for more than three decades.

Indeed, it is ironic that the UN has asked Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni, who will be in his 30th year of rule when he seeks re-election next year, to intervene in the Burundi crisis.

Both the AU’s Constitutive Act and its Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance provide clear guidelines for democratic renewal of government and alternation of power, but opponents of presidential shenanigans to retain power have not received noticeable support from AU institutions.

However, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) looks set to change such apathy this week, when it will table a new clause that would prohibit presidents of member countries from ruling for more than two terms. It is also said to be considering adopting a new legal regime that will make all ECOWAS decisions immediately applicable and binding on member states.

Should it succeed, this move by ECOWAS will signal a welcome and refreshing change of the big-man and old-man politics that continue to dominate leadership in many African states. It is to be hoped that other regional communities will follow suit, though this may prove challenging so long as the ilk of Bashir, Mugabe, Dos Santos and Museveni remain in power. 

Ayesha Kajee is a human rights activist and political analyst with a special focus on African governance and development. She tracks elections and democratic consolidation in the region. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.