In poor countries, elections often mean trouble. In the case of Burundi, D+C contributors had warned early on that there was a big risk of plunging back into turmoil should Pierre Nkurunziza, the incumbent president, run again in spite of term limits. Depressingly, the drama unfolded as predicted.
Nkurunziza found a loophole that allowed him to ignore constitutional rules. Protests erupted. Security forces clamped down. The president put pressure on the Supreme Court so it approved his approach. Masses fled the country, including a dissenting Supreme Court judge and other top officials. Presidential and parliamentary elections had to be postponed, but were eventually held. Nkurunziza and his party won most of the votes that were cast in a setting that was neither free nor fair.
Burundi’s regime reduced the elections to formal exercises without democratic substance. Accordingly, the elections eroded rather than renewed its legitimacy. Now the strongman promises to bring about stability and considers his opponents enemies of the state. The truth, however, is that the regime itself has brought about the crisis it now claims to be containing by repressive means.
Nkurunziza is using the self-fulfilling prophecy autocrats often resort to. They say that they are needed to enforce order, and at the same time, they make sure there is so much disorder that their threat looks credible. The worse they make things, the more they seem indispensable to supporters, allies and some supposedly non-partisan observers.
The international community has failed Burundi too. Burundi is a very poor country and depends on donor assistance. Nonetheless, donors failed to put pressure on Nkurunziza ahead of the crisis. France now wants the UN Security Council to act. That makes sense, but is quite late. Donor governments should have opened their eyes last year, rather than only waking up once blood was being spilled. They should have put pressure on Nkurunziza before things spun out of control.
The African Union and the East African Community must shoulder some of the blame too. They intervened in the election drama, but were content with the semblance, rather than the substance of democracy.
Africa deserves better. Nkurunziza should have used his time in office to build institutions that are able to broker some kind of national consensus. An important aspect of institution building is playing by the rules, because doing so builds trust. International organisations, moreover, must not tolerate strongman attitudes that lead to strife rather than stability.