Tana Forum: The AU needs to take a firm stand to end Burundi crisis

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza on Sunday set May 17 as the date for a referendum that could extend his rule for at least a decade. This referendum will decide whether presidential terms would be extended to seven years from the current five years. If this referendum pulls through the representation of minority group in parliament would be weakened and the Arusha peace deal would also be threatened further.

“The draft constitution submitted to the referendum will be adopted if the absolute majority of votes or fifty percent plus one vote, approve it,” Nkurunziza said in a statement issued by his office announcing the date.

Burundi seemed to be on the path to recovery after a 13 years long civil war but this was thwarted in April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term. Since 2015, the country has become immersed in a deep social and political crisis.

This is the second attempt by Nkurunziza to change the constitution after he failed in 2014.

What are the changes in the new constitution?

According to the Institute for Security Studies, the changes could replace the two-thirds majority required to pass legislation with a simple majority. Although the rule on 60 percent Hutu and 40 percent Tutsi representation in the National Assembly remains, the simple majority erodes the built-in mechanism that allows Tutsis’ input on critical matters.

The draft constitution will also replace the provision for two vice presidents – one from the opposition and the other from the ruling party – with one vice president and one prime minister. The vice president, who has limited powers, will be selected from a political party and ethnic group that differs from those of the president, but the influential prime minister will be appointed by the president from the ruling party.

The creation of the prime ministerial position is apparently aimed at appeasing individuals in the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) who want the presidential position for themselves but are hamstrung by Nkurunziza’s grip on power.

Currently, in Burundi, the Police have threatened to arrest anyone campaigning prematurely against a referendum to revise the constitution.

What is the African Union doing about this?

According to reports, Since the announcement of the constitutional reviews, AU has not made its position clear. According to Article 4 of the Constitutive Act of the African Union, the AU has the “right to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.” The article also states that the “respect for democratic principles, human rights, the rule of law and good governance” is one of the AU principles.

In December 2015, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council condemned the violence in Burundi and pledged to send about 5,000 peacekeeping force to Burundi in order to calm the situation. Following this announcement by AU, President Nkurunziza warned that it would be treated as an invasion. As a result of this, the AU decided not to send troops again but instead, it decided to “negotiate” with the government.

However, it is worthy to note that the review of constitutions is not a problem isolated to Burundi alone, it seems to be a normal thing in Africa. In the last two decades, leaders in Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Gabon, and  Uganda have modified their respective constitutions to either allow the outgoing president to run for an extra term or to completely abolish term limits. These constitutional changes often led to deaths and displacement of hundreds of people.

The situation in Burundi is not going to be any different from the others that have happened in Africa. The political situation in Burundi and the Government’s decision to revise the Constitution. This is really going to further hamper the economic growth of Burundi. It is also not suitable for the conduct of credible general elections in the country. In view of this, the AU needs to intervene and ensure that African leaders who inflict so much pain on their people because of their power drunkenness should face the law. African Union needs to make it clear to their leaders that nobody is above the law.

This should be an issue  for discussion at this year’s Tana Forum themed “Ownership of Africa’s Peace and Security Provision: Financing and Reforming the African Union.”  This is an avenue where African leaders and stakeholders come together to engage and explore African-led security solutions.