In Summary
  • President’s refusal to play by the rules of the democratic game is disappointing, but not surprising
  • The announcement that Pierre Nkurunziza intended to run for a third term as president of Burundi on April 25 triggered a wave of protests that have so far left around 12 people dead.

The vast majority of African countries now have constitutions that limit the number of terms that presidents can serve in office.

Some presidents have respected these limits, as in Kenya, but others have tried to get rid of them, often at great political and economic costs. Term-limits are important because countries in which they are respected are far more likely to witness a transfer of power. But where are term-limits most under threat?

The announcement that Pierre Nkurunziza intended to run for a third term as president of Burundi on April 25 triggered a wave of protests that have so far left around 12 people dead.

Nkurunziza’s refusal to play by the rules of the democratic game is disappointing, but not surprising. Ever since he came to power in 2005, his CNDD-FDD government has gone further and further down the path toward all out authoritarianism.


Despite a particularly inclusive constitution that creates ethnic quotas for the distribution of army chiefs, MPs, and civil service jobs, he has managed to alienate a large part of the country by centralising power around the presidency and distorting the political landscape to marginalise the opposition.

Nkurunziza is not alone in seeking to overcome presidential term-limits. Many other African presidents have already pursued this course of action, and a worrying number have succeeded.

This democratic disease has proved to be particularly contagious in East Africa. Following President Yoweri Museveni’s successful attempt to scrap term limits in Uganda in 2005, leaders in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda began to think about how they could do likewise.

As a result, the region is set for a period of heightened political tension and unrest, as “pro-democracy” groups — opposition parties, civil society and Western donors — seek to defend their constitutions.

President Nkurunziza’s first attempt to get a third term in office came in 2014 when his party introduced legislation to amend the constitution. However, he failed to take his own coalition with him, and so missed out on the number of votes he required by one.

Since then, the president has given up on changing the constitution, and instead has determined to flout it. Under great pressure, the Constitutional Court recently declared that the president could stand again on the dubious basis that in his first term he was appointed by the parliament, rather than being directly elected. Of course, this argument has little credibility, coming after Nkurunziza had already tried and failed to change the constitution, and after the Vice President of the Court had fled the country citing intimidation and death threats.

The president’s refusal to leave office has sparked the biggest crisis in Burundi since the end of the civil war in 2005. Against a backdrop of rising political tensions and low-level violence, opposition demonstrations threaten to spark wider unrest.

Yet rather than seeking to defuse the situation, the ruling party has responded by further entrenching existing divisions.

First, the government blocked social media, which it says is being used to coordinate the protests. Next, the Security Minister, General Gabriel Nizigama, took to the media to claim that “these demonstrations provide cover for a terrorist enterprise.”

He added that from now on the demonstrators would be treated as “criminals, terrorists and even enemies of the country”.


The deployment of the language of terrorism was a carefully calculated move by the ruling party to legitimise its activities by tapping into international concern about the spread of radical Islam in East Africa. But in this instance donors are unlikely to be duped — the main source of instability in Burundi is not terrorism, but the president himself.

So will Nkurunziza succeed? To date he has managed to curtail opposition to his rule through a mixture of coercion and co-optation, but this may be a bridge too far.

According to Afrobarometer survey data, the majority of Burundians support presidential term-limits, and this support has increased over time in response to the president’s attempts to change the rules. At the same time, support for the ruling party has waned since the heady days of 2005.

Although Nkurunziza won by a landslide in the last election, this was because he ran unopposed after an opposition boycott. If it came to a free and fair vote today, it is not clear that he would win.

The president’s declining popularity, combined with the mounting protests against him, will encourage him to retain power by force. But he is not particularly well placed to do this. On the one hand, the military is fragile and there is no guarantee that it would hold together if it was deployed on a large scale in a context in which the sympathies of many officers and soldiers would be with the opposition, not the government.

On the other hand, the memory of civil war, and of how to mount effective rebellions against the state, is still fresh in the memory. This combination is a recipe for political disorder and, worse, a resumption of civil conflict. For the sake of the country, it is time for Nkurunziza to follow the example of President Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso, and leave office before he gets more blood on his hands.


If Nkurunziza does succeed, he will become the latest in a long line of leaders who have managed to overcome the term-limits introduced in multi-party constitutions.

The first president to remove this constraint was Namibia’s President Sam Nujoma, who successfully held a referendum to remove a constitutional clause that would have prevented him from standing for the presidency for a third-term in 1999.

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