Popular Protest & Social Movements - Part 2 - ROAPE
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Popular Protest & Social Movements – Part 2

Popular Protest & Social Movements – Part 2

By David Seddon

Our introductory piece in this series ended with a comparison of three countries  – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi and Burkina Faso – in which the president had recently tried to extend his period of office and there had been significant popular protest against this move from democracy towards dictatorship. In this second piece, we examine recent events in those countries in particular and then begin to consider the wider implications of the erosion of democracy where elected presidents have extended – or attempted to extend – their term of office beyond the limits defined by the Constitution, as is the case in all too many African countries.    

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

From one perspective, the political and economic situation in the DRC has improved in recent years.  The devastating war – fought mainly in the east – that claimed hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives over more than a decade and a half has effectively come to an end, and with improved security has come economic growth. Aid and investment have poured into Kinshasa and the east, and a mining boom helped fill the public coffers. Average annual growth has been over 7 per-cent a year since 2009 and reached 9 per-cent in 2014. The gains, however, are likely to be temporary as commodity prices fall again, and in any case have been unequally distributed.

Kinshasa is one of Africa’s fastest growing cities, with a population of around 12 million, and only Cairo and Lagos are larger. In Gombe, where the expatriates and Kinshasa elite are concentrated, new apartment complexes have proliferated – including, notably, the Cité du Fleuve – River City, a self-contained block of smart dwellings built on reclaimed land where the average price is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Posh nightclubs and restaurants are full at the weekends and the music scene has revived. Outside this bubble, however, things are different.

Most Kinois live in crowded slums without electricity or clean water. When the river is high, their homes flood. Over a third of the population is under 15 and unemployment is rife, with fewer than 10 per cent having regular wage work. Inflation may be low, but the cost of living is high, and corruption so widespread that it operates effectively as a heavy tax on all economic activity. And, if the capital and the southwest, and some mining areas in the east have benefited from what increasingly looks like a temporary boom, most of the country remains largely unaffected. Total GDP remains small for a country of this size – 2.3 million sq. kms. in area and a total population of over 73 million – at around $25 billion. The DRC occupies the final spot on the IMF’s list of per capita GDP, with a total production of just $231 per person. Average per capita income is barely $1 dollar a day and for most rural dwellers (the vast majority of the population) perhaps half that.

But if economic and social inequality is rampant, it is the nature of the regime that provides the major source of instability. The state is perilously fragile and Joseph Kabila, who assumed the presidency when his father Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001, is not popular, in the capital or outside. Educated in Tanzania, he struggles with both French and Lingala (the main language in Kinshasa), and is seen as an outsider and an autocrat. He is an elected president, however, and although his party – the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), dominates the national assembly – the DRC is not a one party state.

In December 2005, a referendum approved a new constitution, paving way for the first multiparty elections in 46 years, which were held in July 2006. Voters went to the polls to elect a new President, federal parliament and provincial parliaments. Although he took over directly from his father in 2001, Kabila was undoubtedly elected to the presidency in 2006, and has claimed since then that he has a continuing mandate to rule. 

In the November 2011 presidential elections, Kabila again won. But violence marred the run-up to the elections and there were claims of intimidation, vote-rigging and other forms of gerrymandering during the polling itself; as a result, the elections were extended by a day. The results of the first round gave Kabila only a narrow lead over Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of the main opposition UDPS, but Kabila was declared the winner by the Independent National Electoral Commission on 9 December 2011 and this was later confirmed by the Supreme Court. Many in the opposition, including Tshisekedi and a group of 35 Catholic bishops, as well as various foreign observer missions, objected, but the die was cast.

President Kabila was inaugurated on 20 December 2011 to serve his second term (in addition to his period in office between 2001 and 2006). In 2012, the government passed laws to abolish the second round of the presidential election and also tried to change the legislative electoral system from proportional to majority representation, a move which was strongly criticised by the opposition and which eventually did not succeed. Three years later, another change in the electoral law provoked an outburst of popular protest. The new law, which was adopted on 17 January 2015 by the National Assembly, proposed the holding of a national census prior to the next round of legislative and presidential elections (due in November 2016). This was widely seen – given the time it would take to lay the groundwork and to conduct such a census – as part of an initiative by President Kabila to extend his term of office beyond the Constitutional requirement that he step down in 2016.

Demonstrations were held in cities across the country, including Kinshasa, Bukavu, Bunia, Goma, Lubumbashi, Mbandaka and Uvira, as a wave of popular protest erupted in response to the new law. In Kinshasa, protesters demonstrated on 19, 20, and 21 January 2015 near the Palais du Peuple parliament building, around the University of Kinshasa, and in Bandal, Kalamu, Kasa-vubu, Kimbanseke, Lemba, Limete, Makala, Masina, Matete, Ndjili, and Ngaba communes. Many of the demonstrations turned violent after members of the National Police and the Republican Guard presidential security detail fired teargas and live ammunition into the crowds. The demonstrators in some cases hurled rocks at the security forces and looted and burned shops and offices of perceived government supporters.

After several days of violence, in Kinshasa and other towns, in which students were at the forefront, at least 42 people had been killed, according to the International Federation of Human Rights. The army and the police had arrested dozens of protestors as they hurled rocks at state buildings, public buses and even passing cars. In Brussels, where he was recovering from illness, Etienne Tshisekedi, the veteran (82 year old) leader of the main opposition party urged the Congolese people to force ‘a dying regime’ from power. On 23 January 2015, the International Crisis Group commented that ‘this surge of protest is the latest and, so far, most violent confrontation between the government and the opposition since the deeply flawed November 2011 elections and is a clear demonstration of the continuing crisis of legitimacy that faces Kabila’s presidency’.

It also remarked that ‘the reaction of the Kabila government to the protests has been heavy-handed, involving the deployment of riot police and troops, including the Republican Guard. Demonstrators were violently repressed and there are reports of several casualties. Several opposition leaders have been arrested or had their freedom of movement limited. From 20 January, the government has blocked or limited SMS and internet access’.

On 23 January 2015, however, in an unusual move, the Senate amended the census law in order to allow the 2016 elections to take place. The new version, to be approved by the lower house, removed the requirement to hold a census before the next elections. “We have listened to the street. That is why the vote today is a historic vote,” Senate President Leon Kenga Wa Dondo said after the amendment was passed. The bill still had to return to the House of Representatives before it could become a law, but on 25 January, approval was given by parliament to the amendment, shorn of its controversial census component.

This move stymied the opposition. At the end of January, AFP reported that ‘a call by the Congolese opposition for peaceful demonstrations to oust President Joseph Kabila went unheeded Monday as authorities maintained a crippling block on text messages and social networks used to rally demonstrators. Only about 50 people gathered at the headquarters of veteran opposition leader Tshisekedi’s Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UPDS) in the capital Kinshasa, despite the party calling for mass protests. The small crowd dispersed shortly before midday when several jeeploads of police arrived at the scene after authorities warned no opposition demonstrations would be permitted.’ On 12 February 2015, election officials announced that presidential elections would be held in November, thereby satisfying a key demand of the opposition.

The tolerance of the government towards opposition activists remained limited. In March 2015, it was reported that the immediate expulsion of four foreign pro-democracy activists detained over the weekend had been ordered, following an event supported by the USA. Government spokesman Lambert Mende said the foreign activists including a Burkinabé and three Senegalese activists were part of a ‘subversive movement inspired from abroad.’ Authorities had found military uniforms in their luggage but Congo has dropped a criminal investigation into them, he added. The foreign activists have organized protests in their home countries supporting presidential term limits ahead of elections.

The Burkinabé activist was a member of grassroots political group ‘Balai Citoyen’ (The Citizen’s Broom), which played a leading role in toppling long-term President Blaise Compaore in 2014 as he – like so many other elected presidents – sought to extend his mandate. The four detainees were among some 40 activists, musicians and journalists arrested in the capital. A US diplomat was also briefly detained. Mende said a ‘black hand’ had been active in Congolese politics this year and singled out the role of the U.S. embassy, which has acknowledged partially sponsoring Sunday’s news conference.

‘The U.S. embassy does not have the status to organize political events in Democratic Republic of Congo’, Mende said. The US embassy declined to give an immediate response to the spokesman’s comment, although it has previously said that representatives at the event were respected and non-partisan. One Congolese journalist in Kinshasa was released shortly after his arrest but the remainder of the local activists remained in custody. Mende said their cases would be ‘closed very soon’. In the eastern city of Goma, about a dozen youth activists were released after having been detained earlier in the day by intelligence agents while protesting the Kinshasa arrests.

The issue of Kabila’s eligibility for election in 2016 continued to arouse popular concern throughout the second half of 2015. In June, the government launched talks – labelled a national dialogue or consultation – between the various political parties, hoping that it would result in the consensus view that holding elections in 2016 would be impossible for technical reasons and that the dialogue would also create a legal framework for this eventuality. Only the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) agreed to attend, with two other sizeable groups boycotting them. It emerged that Kabila’s inner circle wanted to impose a Government of National Unity, with Félix Tshisekedi from the opposition UDPS as Prime Minister.

This new government, according to the plan, would oversee a three-year transition period up to the end of 2018. In this time, the constitution would be revised, provincial and senate elections would be held in 2016, and local elections would be conducted in 2017. Presidential elections would then finally be held in 2018. In this scenario, Kabila would not only remain president during the transition, but would also stand for elections for his first mandate under the Fourth Republic. One of the cornerstones of the scheme was to integrate UDPS in a new government.

On 16 September 2015, however, it was reported (by Al Jazeera, citing a bulletin produced by AFP) that ‘violent clashes have broken out in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, after an opposition rally was attacked by unidentified youths hurling stones, sparking a lynching attempt and a police crackdown. Up to 3,000 people had gathered in a southern area of the capital to oppose any bid by President Joseph Kabila to seek a third term in elections due in November 2016’. After these attacks on the opposition rally, UDPS president Etienne Tshisekedi, issued a statement saying that the talks – the national dialogue – had failed and that he had called on his party’s delegates ‘to withdraw immediately from the negotiating table’. After the main opposition party withdrew from the talks, the ‘dialogue’ lost authority.

On 18 September, it was reported by Al Jazeera that ‘seven senior political figures have been expelled from the Democratic Republic of Congo’s ruling coalition for signing a letter urging President Joseph Kabila not to cling to power after his term expires next year’. The planning minister was also sacked from his post later on Wednesday on an order from the president, as was another long-time ally of Kabila whose party signed the letter. In the letter to Kabila, the leaders of the G7, a group of parties within the coalition, demanded immediate steps to ensure a presidential election scheduled for November 2016 was held on time. The pressure was on. Al Jazeera commented that:

A successful vote would mark the first peaceful transition of power in the vast Central African nation. But Kabila’s critics fear he intends to exploit a packed and expensive slate of local, provincial and national polls over the next 14 months to force delays to the presidential vote. Kabila, who has refused to say he will step down in 2016, is one of several long-ruling African leaders approaching the end of constitutional term limits. Moves by other leaders to extend their rule have triggered mass protests in Burundi, Burkina Faso and other countries.

In this regard, the analysis published by Kris Berwouts on 9 October 2015 in African Arguments is of interest. He comments that ‘President Kabila faces challenges on a number of fronts, from the opposition to the grassroots to members of his own inner circle’, and asks: ‘How much longer can he hold on?’ He discusses the divisions within Kabila’s own inner circle and also the weakness of the opposition parties, including the UDPS, and addresses the question of how ‘the grassroots will respond as the elections planned for November 2016 approach. He concludes that:

 ‘It is difficult to ascertain what people at the grassroots level think, and the emotional and violent reactions to the electoral law submitted in January 2015 came as a big surprise to most observers. Furthermore, it is notable that the demonstrators only partially seemed to heed the instructions of the opposition. Much of the Congolese population appears to be not only allergic to the continuation of the present regime, but disconnected from the entire political caste. Politicians are viewed as archetypal Big Men out to enrich themselves and not much distinction is made between those in government and those in opposition. One can easily imagine a popular uprising degenerating into violence, plundering and chaos, causing a lot of human and material damage before being suppressed by security forces.

Indeed, it is to be expected that Kabila will use more and more repression if he feels his control slipping away. This was clearly the strategy towards the demonstrations in January, though it may have backfired. Not everybody within Congo’s circles of power agree with the way the regime deals with youth movements such as La Lucha and Filimbi, and when mass graves were discovered in Kinshasa in March 2015, sources inside the regime told African Arguments that the way information was leaked suggested it was being used by different leaders to weaken and discredit each other.’

Kris Berwouts considers the role of two key figures in Kabila’s entourage, Evariste Boshab and Kalev Mutondo:

Boshab, who is secretary-general of Kabila’s PPRD party, failed in his ambition to become PM but came back in style when he was appointed Vice-Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior and Security. Boshab openly supported a revision of the constitution in favour of a third mandate for Kabila and organised the repression of demonstrators who protested in January 2015 against the electoral law. At least 40 people were killed. Since then, however, Boshab has lost influence. Kabila is understood to have held the vice-PM responsible for the failure to pass the electoral law, and in May, Boshab was replaced by Henri Mova as secretary-general of the PPRD.

Mutondo, chief of the central intelligence agency, the Agence National des Renseignements (ANR), increased in prominence as he became Kabila’s main messenger in laying the groundwork with the opposition for a national dialogue.  Both of these men reportedly prepared gangs to dismantle the demonstration of 15 September, and it could only be a matter of time before they will start to fight each other. The Congolese regime lacks the necessary coherence to deploy effective repression. If it tried, it would likely quickly put the country in chaos, but one cannot exclude the possibility it will deliberately chose that option if that turns out to be the last route to stay in power.

Kabila is currently constitutionally barred from contesting the presidential election in 2016; he has not officially declared his intentions for the election, although the government denies he is deliberately seeking to extend his presidency and has now dropped plans for a controversial census to be held before elections. The United States has repeatedly urged Kabila to respect term limits and set a date for the election. It remains unclear what will in fact happen, although for the time being the elections are still officially ‘on’ for November 2016.

Burundi

In Burundi, mass protests in April 2015 against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s plan to run for a third term in June 2016 led to a confrontation between the regime and the people, unleashing a cycle of violence that has become ever more vicious in recent months. [1]

The demonstrations continued until 13 May 2015, when a military coup intervened (while Nkurunziza was out of the country). Forces loyal to the president rapidly crushed the attempt; and on his return, Nkurunziza purged his government and arrested the coup leaders. In the meanwhile, by 6 May the United Nations reported that 40,000 people had fled to seek safety in neighbouring Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania. By 13 May at least an additional 10,000 people had fled. On 14 May the UN said that over 70,000 people had fled the country. On 18 May 2015 the figure had been revised up to 112,000 refugees and asylum-seekers.

On 18 May 2015, protesters took to the streets again, despite a ban on demonstrations: ‘Our politics are different’, they chanted, ’because we are against corruption’. These demonstrations were swiftly quelled; but the situation remained tense and uncertain. Already by the third week of May, some 120,000 people were estimated to have fled abroad. On 2 June, the killing of the leader of a small opposition party led to fresh protests; again the regime responded with force. On 11 June, a security chief claimed: ‘there are no more demonstrations in Bujumbura or inside the country’; but civil society leader Pacifique Nininahazwe responded: ‘If there are no more demonstrations, why is it the police fire every morning and every night in Bujumbura’s neighbourhoods? Why do we bury people every day killed by the police?’  

Widespread demonstrations in the capital, Bujumbura, and elsewhere lasted for over three weeks. During that time the country’s highest court approved Nkurunziza’s right to run for a third term in office, despite the fact that at least one of the court’s judges fled the country claiming he had received death threats from members of the government. As a result of the protests the government also shut down the country’s internet and telephone network, closed all of the country’s universities and government officials publicly referred to the protesters as ‘terrorists’. And so, despite continuing domestic opposition and criticisms by the international community, parliamentary elections were held on 29 June, and Nkurunziza was re-elected on 15 July to a third term as president, with 70 per cent of the vote. [2]

The violence, however, continued, and included tit-for-tat attacks on high profile individuals. Amnesty International reported that the security forces were rounding up opposition activists and subjecting them to torture to extract names and confessions. UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein said ‘this reinforces fears that there is a systematic policy of targeting members of the opposition, journalists, human rights defenders and ordinary citizens perceived to be opposing the government’. What had begun as popular protest against the regime and against plans for Nkurunziza’s re-election was reinforced by his election in July and by the repression that followed; over the next three months the level of violence continued rise and the risk of a more generalised conflict began to grow. Popular protest had turned into organised armed opposition to the regime.

On 2 November 2015, the BBC reported that ‘Burundi is at risk of returning to civil war following a recent upsurge in violence, the United Nations has warned. The unrest follows July’s re-election of President Pierre Nkurunziza for a third term. Opposition protests and a government crackdown have led to almost 200,000 people fleeing the country’. On 6 November 2015, the body of Welly Nzitonda, the son of a leading human rights activist, was discovered. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commented that the discovery of bodies in Bujumbura had become ‘a regular occurrence – and many victims showed evidence of summary execution’. He emphasised that the Burundian authorities had a responsibility to protect civilians. Révérien Ndikuriyo, the Senate President, however, called on supporters of the regime to ‘pulverize’, ‘exterminate’ and ‘spray’ – their opponents, echoing the ‘cockroach’ metaphor of the Rwandan genocide.

Indeed, the French daily Liberation commented: ‘c’ést un genocide qui a commencé’ (It’s the start of a genocide), while the International Crisis Group stated that:

Burundi again faces the possibility of mass atrocities and civil war. Escalating violence, increasingly hardline rhetoric and the continued stream of refugees (more than 200,000) indicate that divisions are widening, and the ‘national dialogue’ is doing little to relieve the mounting tensions. … it appears that President Pierre Nkurunziza and those around him intend to use force to end the protests that have been held in Bujumbura since April. The president made public an ultimatum giving the “criminals” seven days to lay down arms. Révérien Ndikuriyo, the Senate president … (used)… language unambiguous to Burundians and chillingly similar to that used in Rwanda in the 1990s before the genocide.

The UN Security Council discussed the growing violence in Burundi at a meeting on 9 November 2015 and adopted a resolution that called for urgent talks. From 9 to 11 November, Mr. Jürg Lauber undertook his first visit to Burundi in his capacity as Chair of the Burundi Configuration of the UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC). The objective of his visit was to establish contacts with the Government of Burundi and other key stakeholders, to gain a better understanding of the current political crisis and to learn about the Government’s plans to address the situation. The Chair also explored opportunities for the PBC’s engagement both regarding immediate steps to lower the tensions and in support to medium and long-term peacebuilding priorities.

During his visit, the Chair met President Nkurunziza, senior government officials, leaders of political parties, senior officials from national institutions, representatives of civil society organizations, women associations, representatives of regional organizations, members of the diplomatic community, international and regional financial institutions, as well as representatives of the UN family, both MENUB and the UN Country Team. The discussions were organized around four main issues: the security situation and on-going violence, dialogue initiatives, the socio-economic impact of the current crisis, and partnerships both at regional and international levels.

From Bujumbura, Lauber went on to Kampala, Uganda, where on 12 November he met the Minister of Defence, Crispus Kiyonga, who was to lead the East African Community mediation process on behalf of President Museveni. On Friday and Saturday, 13-14 November, he held discussions with representatives of the Government of Tanzania in Dar es Salaam, of the East African Legislative Assembly, the World Bank, UN agencies and the diplomatic community. On 18 November, he was to report to the PBC Burundi Configuration in New York. In the meanwhile, President Uhuru Kenyatta had sent an envoy, Joseph Nyagah, to assist in mediation; and a few days later, on 13 November, Uganda’s Defence Minister, Crispus Kiyonga, flew into Bujumbura for ‘consultations on the situation and the peace process in Burundi’. Kiyonga had previously discussed the situation in Burundi with the European Union delegation and EU ambassadors in Uganda.

On 17 November, the UNHCR stated that ‘the security situation in the cities of Bujumbura, Makamba and Kirundo is extremely tense. Violence has surged in recent weeks and although the insurgency (sic) is armed, is still operating at a relatively low scale. Nevertheless, there are indications that the government has not been able to contain the situation. On the regional level, UNHCR is scaling up its contingency planning and preparedness in the event of a sustained increase in arrivals in the weeks to come’. It reported that a total of 221,375 Burundian refugees and asylum seekers had arrived in the neighbouring countries of the DRC, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia since April 2015.

Meanwhile, inside Burundi, the scale and also the intensity of the conflict had increased. On 11 December, three military camps and an officers’ school in Bujumbura came under fire. Several soldiers were reportedly killed, but the government said that the attacks had failed. Nevertheless, fighting continued well into the day, although it had apparently stopped by 12 December. On Saturday 12 December a ‘massacre’ of some 87 people was reported in what The Guardian called ‘the worst outbreak of political violence since an attempted coup in April, with residents describing victims shot execution-style, some with hands bound behind their backs. An eyewitness told AP he had counted at least 21 bodies with bullet wounds in the neighbourhood of Nyakabiga, which has been the flashpoint for anti-government protest. Some had their hands tied behind their backs, the witness said. In Musaga, close to a military college that was one of the installations attacked by armed men early the previous day, a local official told AFP he had seen at least 14 corpses, and that “soldiers and police” had killed them late on Friday night.

The army, on the other hand, stated that the death toll included eight members of the security forces and that the escalating violence came a day after an unidentified group carried out a trio of co-ordinated attacks on military targets. Colonel Gaspard Baratuza that those who had attempted to raid the Ngagara military camp had retreated and were pursued by security forces. He added that 12 attackers had been killed and 21 captured, saying they had aimed ‘to stock up on weapons and ammunition. He later updated the death toll to say: ‘the final toll of the attacks yesterday is 79 enemies killed, 45 captured, and 97 weapons seized, and on our side eight soldiers and policemen were killed and 21 wounded’. When residents in Bujumbura discovered 39 bodies lying on the streets, Baratuza said the bodies belonged to ‘enemies’.  The death toll also later rose to 87.

A Bujumbura police spokesman, Pierre Nkurikiye, told Reuters there were no ‘collateral victims’ in the violence overnight on Friday and into Saturday, and that those killed had links to the attacks on military installations. Residents, however, expressed doubt that all those who were killed had direct connections to the attack. One victim was named by a local eyewitness as a 14-year-old boy, James Ntunzwenimana, who was reported to have gone out to buy sugar. One witness told AFP the victims were ‘kids’, and said they had been shot execution-style through the top of the skull. ‘It is an absolute horror; those who committed this are war criminals’, the witness said. ‘Most of those killed are young heads of households who were at home … it’s carnage, there is no other word for it’, one resident of Nyakabiga said. Meanwhile, other reports suggested that soldiers and police went door to door dragging out young men from their homes before killing them. Some residents posted pictures on social media showing some of the bodies with their hands tied behind their backs.

A report produced by Amnesty International shortly after this incident states that ‘most of those killed on 11 December were residents of districts mostly inhabited by members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group’, adding that ‘they are considered by the authorities to be pro-opposition areas, as the protests that began in April against President Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in office started in these neighbourhoods’. This strongly suggests an ethnic dimension to the conflict in Burundi, even if this is not entirely clear-cut; and worries about the potential for a civil war in which ethnic differences come to play a dominant part were undoubtedly growing towards the end of the year.   

The UN Security Council strongly condemned the violence and the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said the Security Council should look at ‘how the international community can protect civilians from mass violence, including for the possible deployment of a regionally led peace support operation’. State department spokesman, John Kirby, said the US was deeply concerned about the violence and called for neighbouring countries to put pressure on the government to start negotiations with opposition groups. In the meanwhile, the African Union announced in mid-December 2015 that it planned to send peacekeepers to Burundi, but the government rejected any such deployment and said that if the troops were sent without its permission, it would be considered an invasion.

On 23 December, a former army general announced the formation of an opposition force with the stated objective of removing President Nkurunziza from power; the group called itself the Republican Forces of Burundi (FOREBU). In the meanwhile, Nkurunziza reiterated on 30 December that AU peacekeepers were not welcome and that the army would fight back if they tried to deploy in Burundi. His comments, coupled with stalled negotiations, left the situation suspended in uncertainty as the Uganda-led mediation group works to lay the foundation for ‘peace talks’ in Tanzania in January. Furthermore, there are now fears of a severe social and economic crisis, as major cuts in the health, education and agriculture sectors, envisaged in the 29 December 2015 austerity budget could further heighten the vulnerability of many Burundians and limit their access to basic services. A shortage of essential drugs is already reported in the country; and besides health, major concerns remain in the protection, foods security and nutrition sectors.

In early January, Nkurunziza repeated his threat to counter any deployment of external peacekeepers after the African Union announced plans to send in 5,000 troops to protect civilians from escalating violence between government and rebel forces. On 14 January the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that over 230,000 Burundians had now fled the country, while at least 15,000 others were internally displaced in two provinces. At least 400 people, mostly civilians, had been killed since 26 April 2015, with the numbers rising in the last few months and the largest number killed in one month (162) being in December 2015. Not all of the killings, however, have been recorded.

On 15 January 2016, UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Raad al-Hussein warned of ‘new and extremely disturbing patterns of violations’ which had been revealed in the last week or so and which had evidently been triggered by the attacks made on 11 December by armed opposition forces against three military camps in Bujumbura and Mujejuru in order to seize weapons and free prisoners. The UN says it is analyzing satellite images to investigate witness reports of at least nine mass graves in and around the capital Bujumbura, including one in a military camp, containing more than 100 bodies in total, all of them reportedly killed on the day of the attacks.

As well as retaking the camps, government forces also responded by raiding areas considered to be centres of opposition to the regime. It seems that, during searches undertaken in the Musaga, Nyakabiga, Ngagara, Citboke and Mutakura neighbourhoods of Bujumbura on 11 and 12 December 2015, police, army and Imbonerakure militia forces arrested many young men who were later tortured, killed or taken to unknown destinations. Residents reported summary killings and the discovery of dozens of bodies. The UN rights office had documented more than 3,000 arrests and that while many had been released, an unknown number had disappeared’. Investigators were planning to deploy on 25 January but were still waiting for a government response’.

Also, said the UN Human Rights Commissioner, at least 13 cases of sexual violence, in which security forces allegedly entered the houses of victims, separated the women and then raped or gang raped them, had been documented. One of the sexually abused women testified that her abuser told her she was paying the price for being a Tutsi. Another witness said Tutsis were being systematically killed, while Hutus were being spared. Tension between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis led to a civil war in Burundi in which 300,000 people died. It ended in 2005. The UN human rights chief warned of renewed violence between the two ethnic groups. ‘All the alarm signals, including the increasing ethnic dimension of the crisis, are flashing red’, he said. The future for Burundi in 2016 looks bleak.

Burkina Faso

In Burkina Faso, as we discussed in the first of this series, attempts, made in the latter part of 2014, to change the constitution to enable President Blaise Compaoré to extend his 27 years in office were met by a wave of demonstrations. On 30 October 2014, thousands marched on the parliament in Ouagadougou, stormed it and set it on fire. Twitter @Burkina24 showed a photo with a caption that read: ‘the protesters sat in the seats of parliament, shouting “the National Assembly is for the people”’. Government buildings were also targets, as was the HQ of the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress Party (CDP). Compaoré dissolved his government at noon and declared a state of emergency before fleeing to Ivory Coast.

One of the main features of the protests was the involvement of Balai Citoyen (Citizen’s Broom) – a movement ‘to sweep away corruption and clean up public life’. Founded in 2013 by rapper Serge ‘Smockey’ Bambara, the leadership includes a number of musicians. They derive much of their inspiration from the former president, Thomas Sankara. The reggae artist Sams’k Le Jah told Alexandra Reza that ‘the truths of Thomas Sankara are flourishing again’ and informed her that ‘Smockey’ regarded Sankara as representing ‘all the qualities we ask for… courage, application, honesty, integrity, curiosity.’[3] Balai Citoyen considered the overthrow of Compaoré ‘a victory for popular sovereignty’, and spoke of ‘remaining mobilised’ whatever happened next.

What happened next was that, on 1 November 2014, Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Zida declared himself head of state. Initially, it seemed the army would determine the country’s future, but after domestic negotiations and threats from the African Union, a transitional civilian president, Michel Kafando was appointed and Zida was made prime minister. As Alexandra Reza observed, at the end of 2014, ‘Kafando’s appointment appears to have seen off the army for the moment’. A National Transitional Council (NTC) was established and it seemed likely that further extensions to the presidential term of office would be outlawed and preparations for elections in October 2015 would move ahead.

In April 2015, the electoral code was reformed to prevent those who supported the scrapping of presidential term limits from contesting elections. In protest, the former ruling CDP and its allies announced the suspension of their participation in the NTC.  On 13 July, the ECOWAS Court of Justice ruled against the reform, as ‘a violation of fundamental human rights’. Three days later, President Kafando appeared to accept this; but the same day, Compaoré was charged with ‘high treason’ for his bid to change the constitution and run for a third term; government officials who had approved his bid were also indicted.

Compaoré supporters appealed to the Constitutional Council to annul the charges; but on 10 August, that body ruled that it lacked the authority to decide. Two weeks later, however, the Council ruled that the exclusionary law remained in effect; accordingly, it barred 42 prospective candidates who had supported changing the constitution from standing as parliamentary candidates. The CDP vowed civil disobedience and an electoral boycott. On 29 August 2015, the Council announced that only 16 of the 22 presidential candidates could run: two leading Compaoré supporters were excluded, but two others cleared to stand. Three candidates then argued that those who had served in the Compaoré government should also be excluded; and on 10 September 2015 two more were struck from the list. Of the remainder, two had served under Compaoré, but later joined the opposition.  

A week later, on 17 September 2015, General Gilbert Diendéré seized power with the help of the Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) – a 1,300-strong elite unit loyal to Compaoré – and declared himself head of a National Council for Democracy. Kafando and Zida were placed under house arrest. Protests erupted; some 10 people were killed and over 100 injured in the course of the coup and its aftermath. There was also an international outcry. On 20 September, ECOWAS mediators announced that ‘Diendéré would step down in exchange for the participation of Compaoré in the October elections’. But Diendéré was not present at this ‘agreement’. He declared he would remain in power until after the elections, and pro-coup elements stormed the hotel where the talks were being held: ‘members of Balai Citoyen involved in the mediation process were among those attacked by masked Presidential Guard soldiers who burst into the Leico Hotel earlier in the day on September 20, as they waved assault rifles, pistols and shotguns’.

In response, the army prepared to march on Ouagadougou, while opposition cadres erected barricades around the capital; ‘Smockey’, the leader of Balai Citoyen, wrote on his Facebook page: ‘Our country calls us comrades! We must paralyze Ouagadougou by any means’. The next day, the BBC World Service reported that ‘the coup leader in Burkina Faso has said he is ready to hand over power to transitional civilian authorities as the army is marching on the capital’. Diendéré was reported to have admitted the coup was a mistake: ‘we knew the people were not in favour of it. That is why we have given up’. On 23 September, Kafando and Zida were both re-installed.

A delay of ‘several weeks’ in the holding of the elections was announced; but on 29 November 2015, general elections were duly held. These were the first national elections since the 2014 ‘uprising’ and the departure of President Blaise Compaoré. The party of former President Compaoré, the Congress for Democracy and Progress, was banned from running a presidential candidate but was still able to participate in the parliamentary election. The presidential election was won by Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of the People’s Movement for Progress (MPP), who received 53 per cent of the vote in the first round, negating the need for a second round. There was a 60 per cent turnout. Results for the parliamentary election were announced on 2 December 2015, showing that Kaboré’s party, the MPP, was first with 55 out of 127 seats, but fell short of a majority. Zéphirin Diabré’s party, the Union for Progress and Reform (UPC), won 33 seats, and the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP) won 18 seats. The final official results from the Constitutional Council were announced on 15 December 2015. Kaboré was sworn in as President on 29 December 2015, and the national assembly elected Salif Diallo, a leading member of the MPP, as President of the National Assembly on 30 December.

The head of the electoral commission, Barthelemy Kere, said that ‘this election went off in calm and serenity, which shows the maturity of the people of Burkina Faso’. Zéphirin Diabré, the runner-up in the vote, came to President-elect Roch Marc Christian Kaboré’s campaign headquarters as his supporters celebrated his win to congratulate him, Al Jazeera reported. Foreign governments also extended congratulations to Kaboré. At the end of the year, Burkina Faso had a democratically elected president, national assembly and government.

Concluding thoughts

These three cases reveal three very different processes – in the way in which attempts by African presidents have sought in recent years to extend their period in office and thus their power, and in the way popular protest at this has emerged and evolved – and three very different outcomes. It would be premature, I suggest, to try to draw too many conclusions from these three cases, although two things are clear: first, that there is a general tendency for presidents and prime ministers in African countries, whether elected or not in the first place, to attempt to over-ride or change their country’s constitution, if necessary, to enable them to extend their period in office and so in power; and second, that there will be popular protest, in a variety of forms, by various sections of the population in opposition to these efforts to move from democracy to effective dictatorship.

As regards the first point, it is worth emphasising how many African countries now have rulers who may have been elected in the first place (although not in all cases) but have now been in office for many years, several decades in some instances, and are still hanging on to power. The longest serving are:

Paul Biya of Cameroon (who is 83 and has been in office – first as Prime Minster from 1975 to 1982 and then as President since 1982), Mohamed Abdel Aziz of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (who assumed office as President in 1976), Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (who assumed office in 1979 as Chairman first of the Revolutionary Military Council and then of the Supreme Military Council before becoming president in 1982), José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola (who was Acting President and then President from 1979 onwards), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (who is 92 and has been in office as President since 1987), Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (who became President in 1986 after he took power in a coup in 1985), Omar al Bashir of Sudan (who was President of the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation from 1989 to 1993 and then President of Sudan from 1993), Idriss Déby of Chad (who was first President of the Patriotic Salvation Movement in 1990, and then President of the Council of State from 1990 to 1991, and finally President of Chad from 1991 to the present time), Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea (President from 1991 onwards), Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia (who was first Chairman of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council from 1994 to 1996 and then President of the Gambia from 1996), Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo Brazzaville (who has been President since 1997), Abdel Aziz Bouteflika of Algeria (President since 1999), Paul Kagame of Rwanda (first Acting President and then President from 2000 onwards), and Joseph Kabila of the DRC (President from 2001, elected from 2006 onwards).

In the next issue of this series of pieces, I intend to consider some of these long-lasting rulers and their regimes, and the response of their people to their political (as well as in many cases their personal) longevity, with a view to identifying some similarities and some differences.  

David Seddon is a researcher and scholar who has written extensively on social movements, class struggles and political transitions across the developing world.

 Notes

[1] This piece was written in mid-January 2016

[2] Which were boycotted by the opposition.

[3] Written on 21 November 2014, and published in the London Review of Books, 4 December 2014.

 

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