Central Africa’s Perilous Polls

The political struggle underway in Burundi has thrust that tiny Central African nation into the global spotlight. Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, is seeking a third term despite being limited to two by Burundi’s constitution, and by the terms of a peace deal signed in 2000. Nkurunziza’s supporters maintain that his first term did not count because he was appointed by parliament rather than elected. His political opponents disagree.

A Burundian protester rejects a third term for President Pierre Nkurunziza. Reuters Photo/Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana

The dispute has now thrown the country into chaos. On May 13, one of Burundi’s top generals announced a coup d’état – but instead of restoring order, the announcement triggered clashes between loyalist and putschist factions of the armed forces. Scores of civilians have been injured or killed during clashes between protestors, security forces, and pro-government youth militias. Media outlets have been shut down and political activists have been arrested. Fleeing the ongoing violence and anticipating more to come, more than 70,000 Burundians have now entered Rwanda, the DRC, and Tanzania, with many more more crossing each day.

Burundi’s political crisis is deeply worrying. But what’s more disturbing is that Burundi is merely the first of many perilous polls coming up in Central Africa. From now through 2017, citizens in six countries – Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Republic of Congo, Gabon, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda – are scheduled to vote for new leaders. Elections are also due in war-torn South Sudan and the Central African Republic, but whether they will actually occur is anyone’s guess.

A few years ago, there was reason to hope that some of the region’s old guard might retire gracefully, giving way to a new generation of leaders and bolstering African democracy. But today, pessimism – if not panic – reigns.

Like his neighbor President Nkurunziza, DRC President Joseph Kabila is also considering a third term. In recent months, Kabila’s ruling coalition has tried various political maneuvers aimed at keeping the president in power – from changing the constitution and shifting the electoral calendar, to ordering a pre-election census that would take years to complete. Protests against the proposed changes left up to 42 people dead. Across the river in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso is seeking a constitutional referendum that would also extend his grip on power. And a bit further to the west, Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba’s bid for re-election has already sparked unrest.

In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame is meant to step down in 2017 when his second seven-year term in office ends. Yet already, Kagame’s political supporters are calling for a constitutional amendment that would permit him to run again. When asked last month whether he would seek a third term, Kagame coyly replied, “let’s wait and see.” Among his regional peers, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni probably faces the easiest route to re-election in 2016. Uganda’s parliament abolished term limits in 2005 at Museveni’s urging, clearing the way for him to continue his nearly 30-year reign

This bleak outlook for Central African governance should concern not only democracy activists, but also humanitarians. For decades, the region’s power struggles have forced millions of people to flee their homes, linking nations as much by refugee flows as by trade or investment. If Burundi’s current crisis is any indication, Central Africa’s elections could launch new waves of displacement across the region.

Ideally, now would be the time for donor governments and aid agencies to prepare for the worst. Budgets and contingency plans would be drawn up, supplies pre-positioned, and staff put on stand-by for rapid deployments. But none of that will happen in today’s world. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees warned last year, “humanitarian financing is close to bankruptcy.” Mega-crises in Syria, South Sudan, and Iraq – not to mention the devastating earthquake in Nepal – have overwhelmed aid agencies. Most donor governments have maxed out their aid budgets and refuse to pay more. If a few Central African strongmen now push their countries into crisis, it’s not clear who – if anyone – will respond.

In the coming months, the international community must put strong pressure on Central Africa’s leaders to respect democracy and the rule of law. And they should do so with real urgency – because if the region falls apart on their watch, humanitarians won’t be there to pick up the pieces.