Freeing Burundi’s Vote: The Necessity of an Independent Legislature

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Pictured: Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza speaks to the media after casting his vote at the constitutional referendum in Buye, north of Ngozi, in northern Burundi on May 17, 2018. (Photo Credit: Berthier Mugiraneza, Associated Press). 

By Kwadwo A. Boateng

The results of Burundi’s most recent referendum on constitutional amendments see the possible extension of President Nkurunziza’s term until 2034. He has been President of Burundi since August 2005. The results have made the opposition uneasy; however, this is not the first time the President has sought to bypass constitutional term limits. The vulnerability of Burundi’s national legislature has been on display before: Burundi’s Parliament allowed the President to run for re-election in 2015, at the end of his second (and last) term, prompting a crisis that culminated in government forces clashing with protestors.  Parliament must become independent from governmental influence to prevent strongmen from taking advantage of constitutional law.

Burundi’s President, Pierre Nkurunziza, has secured a constitutional amendment that will enable him to remain in office until 2034.  A referendum held on 17 May extended his presidential powers by approving the amendment. Questions remain about whether Burundi’s National Independent Electoral Commission can become independent of government influence, following the referendum result. It could do so by persuading Burundi’s national legislature to insist on different behavior from its executives at the national level. This could come about in several ways, which are discussed below. Opposition groups in Burundi such as the Union for Peace and Democracy and the Frodebu-Nyakuri party are also (understandably) concerned about the referendum results, because they add to a pattern of undemocratic governance that has existed since the ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), became more radicalized following post-conflict elections in 2010.

Unfortunately, Burundi is not alone in this predicament; Nkurunziza is one in a long line of authoritarian leaders who have sought to extend presidential term limits by undermining electoral commissions through legislative manipulation.  Since the 1980s, almost half the countries in Africa have instituted limited presidential terms, but 13 out of 22 presidents have tried to thwart them, 11 of them successfully: Cameroon, Gabon, Guinea, Senegal, Namibia, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Togo, and Burundi. They did so by manipulating the constitution, which enabled authoritarian leaders to further entrench themselves without the consent of electoral commissions.

Understanding how national legislature can make electoral commissions autonomous is important in the context of Burundi, because the referendum result has exposed the vulnerability of Burundi’s electoral commission to political influence. It also shows Nkurunziza’s successful manipulation of the electoral process by altering the constitution. This is the second time that he has sought to extend presidential term limits. On April 24, 2015, he announced plans remain president for a third term, triggering demonstrations in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital city.

Nkurunziza’s personal history of bypassing constitutional term limits includes Burundi’s electoral commission as one of many local institutions that he has exploited. According to the head of Burundi’s electoral committee, Pierre Claver Ndayicariye, 73.3% of Burundians voted for this constitutional amendment. The nature of the referendum and the cooperation of the electoral commission have been heavily criticized by the international community and the U.S. State Department, which released a statement on May 21 describing the referendum result as “marred by a lack of transparency.” State control of the media and voter intimidation have also contributed to this sense of injustice.

Ironically, one of the few things that might help to make the electoral commission independent from government influence is the national legislature, which Nkurunziza has repeatedly made use of to consolidate his power. The national legislature is a highly potent political tool for relaxing the executive hold of the electoral commission. It is one of the few agents that can constrain the power of an executive. By institutionalizing party systems that allow parliamentary opposition to be heard, it thus makes the judiciary independent and free from control by the ruling party. It is also a tool for achieving democratization by lessening the chance of state corruption. This is important because it is easier for the ruling party to commit fraud if independent electoral-management bodies (EMBs) are compromised due to legislative manipulation. Such manipulation can, for example, include the disqualification of opposition candidates by a ruling party’s leader. Perhaps most importantly, a national legislature that is free from overwhelming government influence can help to gain voters’ confidence in an electoral process.

An independent legislature also has a strong positive effect on government accountability. This was shown in March 2017, when the South African government reversed its decision to leave the International Criminal Court (ICC), following a challenge in the Pretoria High Court by the opposition Democratic Alliance. Guillermo O’Donnell, an Argentine political scientist, calls this “horizontal accountability,” which allows an independent legislature to effectively keep executives in check and accountable for their actions.

The National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) has so far had its power virtually unchecked by the judiciary, which is under its control. It has preserved Nkurunziza’s power in several ways: by intimidating Constitutional Court judges in 2015 to win a third term and by deploying its youth wing, the Imbonerakure, and security forces to target opponents using murder, rape, disappearances, and torture. Nkurunziza’s re-election for a third term in July 2015 had consequences beyond constitutional violation. These included nationwide protests, which sparked government confrontations, causing some 250,000 Burundians to flee the country in 2016. Recent data from the UN refugee agency released in December show that more than 420,000 people have sought refuge abroad since 2015. This figure comprises ethnic Tutsis who have been displaced ever since they escaped violence in urban guerrilla warfare between government forces and rebel groups. The violence has escalated steadily as Nkurunziza has aggressively sought to dismantle constitutional constraints to his authority.

Burundi’s judiciary and electoral committee was probably in favor of the recent constitutional amendment because the months leading up to the vote were marked by state repression. Government forces harassed, killed and intimidated political opponents of the constitutional change, testifying to widespread and deeply entrenched impunity for political elites and compliant local authorities. Evidence of this violence is detailed in a recent report by Human Rights Watch, stating that state agents and Imbonerakure members have “used fear and repression to ensure the vote goes in Nkurunziza’s favor.” This has continued since December 12, 2017, when Nkurunziza announced the referendum. Human Rights Watch has confirmed 19 cases of abuse since that date, all of which were connected to the intimidation of Burundian voters so that they would support the amendment. On January 18, a political coalition of opponents called Amizero y’Abarundi (“the hope of the Burundians,”) claimed that 42 of its members had been arbitrarily arrested since December 12th and that some had been beaten.

The impunity with which Nkurunziza’s regime has conducted itself displays of some of the many tools that authoritarian leaders use to retain power beyond constitutional maneuvering. These include voter intimidation; neopatrimonialism through corrupt state institutions; violent targeting of political opposition; and silencing the voice of civil society. Burundi’s most recent referendum is both an affront to democracy and a ruse, because it tries to convince Burundian voters and the international community that Nkurunziza achieved this result democratically with support from the electoral commission. Willy Nyamitwe, Nkurunziza’s Press Secretary, emphasized the “peace” under which the referendum took place as evidence of a fair and free election process. In contrast, ordinary Burundians want real peace in the region, after years of violent government crackdowns on dissidents.

It seems unlikely that Nkurunziza’s regime will review its legislative malpractice for some time. This regime has already committed voting fraud; now, its excessive influence over nominally independent EMBs has reached unprecedented heights. Prospects for restoring Burundi’s pre-civil war democratic gains appear grim after the referendum outcome. However, the relationship between the national legislature, the political environment, and the electoral commissions can show some prospect of curbing Nkurunziza’s power.

Kwadwo A. Boateng is a Ghanaian graduate student at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University who grew up in Johannesburg. He holds an Honors Degree in History from Trinity College, Dublin, and has worked with a number of organizations including the International Crisis Group, the International Rescue Committee, UBS Wealth Management’s UK impact investing team, and Rolling Stone Magazine. Most recently, he has joined Omidyar Network’s Digital Identity team in Washington, D.C. as a consultant, focusing on expanding digital rights in Africa.

“Youth is never a handicap, but a new vantage point from which we can hope to inspire the good in others.”

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