It may not have made front page news in much of the Western world, but the precarious democracy of Burundi took another step towards dictatorship this month after a national referendum delivered favourable results for incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza. The ruling party’s proposal to extend presidential terms from five to seven years was pushed through with a convincing majority, paving the way for Nkurunziza to remain in power until 2034. While the result certainly has grave implications for the immediate future of Burundi, it’s emblematic of a wider problem among neighbouring states, as well. Using constitutional reform to surreptitiously replace democracy with autocracy is fast becoming par for the course in east and central Africa. Will the international community take notice before the region—many times over the size of Western Europe—falls deeper into a political crisis from which there appears to be diminishing prospects of escape? Nkurunziza inches closer to 2034 power grab In the eyes of many Burundians, Nkurunziza has already outstayed his welcome by several years. The former rebel came to power in 2005 after being installed by a Parliament keen to escape the horrors of an ethnically-motivated civil war. He romped to re-election in 2010 when opposition parties boycotted the vote, citing “massive electoral fraud”, then circumvented the country’s two-term limit in 2015 by claiming he had only been elected by the people once (in 2010). The ensuing violent protests threw the tiny nation into disarray, leaving over 1,200 dead and almost half a million displaced. Now over halfway through his unprecedented third term in office, Nkurunziza has sought to stave off standing down in 2020 by proposing several amendments to the constitution itself. Chief among these is the extension of presidential terms from five to seven years, which would have the additional effect of resetting his time in office back to zero. This would mean that when the next elections roll around in two years’ time, Nkurunziza could theoretically serve two more concurrent seven-year spells, giving him a total of 29 years in power. In the run-up to the poll on May 17th, there have been widespread reports of intimidation, coercion and worse to convince citizens into voting in Nkurunziza’s favour. Earlier this month, at least 26 people were butchered in the northwest part of the country. Those who encourage others to abstain from the vote have been threatened with up to three years in jail. A report from Human Rights Watch has even claimed 15 people have been killed and six women raped as a punishment for their opposition to the referendum. With all of these barbarous tactics at play, it’s little wonder the 4.7 million voters—many of whom were allegedly accompanied into the voting booth by volunteers from Nkurunziza’s party—supported the proposed amendment by a margin of 73% to 19%. Burundi a political microcosm of Africa With this referendum result, Nkurunziza has all but cemented his grip on power for the foreseeable future – and his victory is far from an isolated incident in the region. To the north, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni appears to have successfully pushed through a constitutional reform removing the upper age limit of 75 for sitting or prospective presidents (Museveni is 73), despite the fact that 85% of the populace are opposed to the measure. The amendment is currently being reviewed by the country’s constitutional court, though if recent history is anything to go by, it will most likely be upheld. Museveni also hopes to extend presidential terms from five to seven years, just as Nkurunziza has succeeded in doing. Meanwhile, neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may be in even worse straits. At a time when the country is battling a potentially catastrophic Ebola outbreak, it also has to contend with the strongman Joseph Kabila, who quite simply refuses to relinquish power. Although his political mandate came to an end in November 2016, Kabila has repeatedly postponed elections, citing an insufficient electoral infrastructure and budgetary constraints. As per his constitutional obligations, Kabila must step down regardless of the results of the upcoming election (scheduled for December 23rd of this year), though he has repeatedly refused to confirm his abdication and in fact has begun campaigning again. Perhaps even more concerning, he has also worked to marginalise his biggest political opponent, Moïse Katumbi, who stands accused of real estate fraud, mercenary recruitment and breaching DRC citizenship laws—charges Katumbi claims are entirely politically motivated. As a result, Katumbi has been in self-imposed exile for the last two years, though he has vowed to return to his native country in time for the elections…if they happen. Judging by Kabila’s actions to date, that appears to be a very big if indeed, which represents a major loss for both the DRC’s most credible potential leader and for the Congolese people. Even apparently progressive Rwanda is not free from presidential skulduggery. After coming out of one of the bloodiest genocides to scar recent history, the small country has been lauded for its impressive economic growth. However, the country’s President Paul Kagame has currently been in power for 18 years and cruised into his third term with an implausibly high 98.66% of the vote last year. Even if the results were legitimate, the complete absence of credible opposition is a concerning phenomenon for the longevity of democracy in a country with such a turbulent past. International intervention imperative With global superpowers Russia and China having an undeniable influence on African affairs, and with both nations’ leaders de-facto dictators in their own right, it’s little wonder that the continent has been sliding ever closer to all-out autocracy. Recent developments in Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC could well just be the ever-fattening end of a wedge when it comes to using constitutional reform as a means of holding onto power indefinitely. With that in mind, it’s increasingly important for the rest of the international community to sit up and take heed of the gathering clouds on Africa’s political horizon. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s apparent progress with regards to Congolese question gives hope that concerted pressure can effect change in this deeply troubled continent—but it must occur before Africa falls further down its dictatorial rabbit hole. UN Photo/Ilyas A Abukar

Uju Okoye
Uju Okoye is Diplomatic Courier's Africa Correspondent.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.