Popular Protest & Social Movements – Part 3

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 our second piece, we examined recent events in those three countries in particular and then began 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.

In this, the third in the series, we return again to the three countries initially considered to examine the very different trajectories followed by them over the last six months, and extend the comparison to include two others – also in Central Africa.   


Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

On 9 October 2015, Kris Berwouts commented in African Arguments that ‘President Kabila faces challenges on a number of fronts, from the opposition to the grassroots to members of his own inner circle’, and asked: ‘How much longer can he hold on?’ While the final answer to that question cannot yet be given, there have been significant developments in the DRC since the eruption of popular protest and violence clashes in the streets in September 2015 discussed in the last piece.

Citizen Front 2016

Through November and December 2015, various opposition forces were able to come together for the first time to form Citizen Front 2016 – a large coalition of political parties and civil society organisations. In January 2016, Citizen Front plan  held numerous ‘conferences’, followed by church services, at an estimated 44 locations across Kinshasa, to commemorate the killing of some 40 or so opposition demonstrators by security forces in January a year before, during the upsurge of popular protest discussed in our previous pieces. Some ‘conferences’ went ahead on the anniversary of the protests (19 January); others were stopped from taking place.  Many of the organisers and activists associated with these ‘conferences’ were arrested. It is still unclear how many were arrested on the anniversary day – some put the number at around 40; others at above 100. 

“Early in the morning, the government sent soldiers and policemen to the site allotted to me and my party where they blocked our access and arrested five of my activists,” said Martin Fayulu, a leading figure within the Citizen Front. “They told the priest to stop the mass, not only here but at all the other sites too.” Albert Moleka – a founding member of the Citizen Front and a veteran of Congolese politics – was supposed to attend the conference in Ngiri Ngiri, but said: “The regime wants no opposition demonstrations in Kinshasa at all”, according to Al Jazeera in its report on the ‘conferences’.

Both Albert Moleka and Vital Kamerhe, a Citizen Front heavyweight who finished third in what many regard as the flawed presidential elections in 2011, both claim that the police were assisted by machete-wielding thugs loyal to the DRC’s president, Joseph Kabila, who harangued and intimidated opposition activists. The United Nations’ mission in the DRC, MONUSCO, has not gathered any evidence to substantiate these allegations, but Jose Maria Aranaz, the director of the UN’s Joint Human Rights Office, told Al Jazeera that “there was a concerted effort by the police and the ANR [the intelligence agency] to impede the opposition’s demonstrations from taking place.”

Pierrot Mwanamputu, spokesperson for the Congolese National Police, justified the clampdown by saying that the organisers had published leaflets of “seditious character calling on the population to rebel against” the government and had not secured proper authorisation – something opposition leaders insist was not required. He also declared that everyone detained was soon released.

The census – a pretext for Kabila’s third term?

Readers will recall that protesters took to the streets of the capital and other cities in the DRC in January 2015 to oppose a draft law that would allow Kabila to extend his stay in power beyond his current mandate, which ends in December 2016. The law called for a new, nationwide census to serve as the basis for the voter list and distribution of parliamentary seats – an undertaking that could take years in a country as vast and poorly connected as DRC. The opposition saw it as an attempt by Kabila and his supporters to buy time during which he could engineer a modified constitution that would allow him to run for a third term in office.

The census provision was removed from the legislation that was subsequently passed, but the opposition says it was only ever one of numerous methods available to Kabila to delay the holding of elections. The most effective method, some say, has been to undermine the workings of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), chiefly by withholding funds allocated to it in the national budget. Lambert Mende, the communications minister, has denied that the government could block the electoral process and that CENI, not the government, is charged with organising elections.

But this is the electoral commission that the opposition believes to be independent only in name, and according to Jason Stearns, the director of the Congo Research Group at New York University, the opposition’s accusations are justified. “The political influence on the electoral commission has been clear,” says Stearns. “While, in theory, the political opposition can nominate members to the body, almost none of those are still recognised by the opposition.” Indeed, a timetable prepared by CENI in mid-January 2016 and distributed to embassies in Kinshasa shows that the electoral commission foresees it taking between 13 and 16 months just to update DRC’s electoral roll.

Will there be elections?

At its formal launch, just before Christmas, the Citizen Front gave the government an ultimatum: It must “unblock the electoral process” before the end of January and allow CENI to publish an electoral calendar. Should Kabila fail to meet this fast-approaching deadline, the opposition coalition promised to launch a programme of nonviolent resistance. This ‘red line’, however, was clearly optimistic, and few seriously expected a meaningful organisation of elections to get under way before February. Even the leaders of the Citizen Front doubted that much will change.

“The government won’t unblock the electoral process,” said Martin Fayulu. He thinks Kabila may nominate ‘a weak successor’, if he encounters a strong and united opposition, but believes that the president’s “first choice is to violate the constitution and carry on as president without elections.” Moleka suggests that “Kabila’s logic is that it’s him or chaos and civil war.” “Elections will not be held because of lack of political will. If President Kabila could run, then elections would take place,” according to Vital Kamerhe.

In February 2016, Carol Jean Gallo, writing in UN Dispatch from Bukavu in South Kivu (in eastern Congo), suggested that ‘Elections in the DRC could mean trouble’, commenting that the DRC is scheduled to hold national elections in November. And though that is months away, there are already signs that this volatile and conflict prone country may be headed toward a deep political crisis.’

Growing discontent

He reports that “here in Bukavu, South Kivu, in DRC, murmurs of discontent can be heard with regard to upcoming DRC elections. People understand that the DRC, like other countries in the region, are being watched – and international support depends in large part on respecting constitutional mandates. But opposition parties and activists in DRC think that Kabila is trying to be more clever and surreptitious about staying in power by coming up with ways of delaying the elections scheduled for November – a strategy known as glissement (“slippage” in French.)”

One of these is the suggestion, mooted in January 2015 – and which resulted in the upsurge of popular protest about which we wrote about – to introduce a new law to enable the revision of the voting register, as approximately seven million new voters between the ages of 18 and 22 still need to be registered, according to a report commissioned by CENI, the national electoral commission. The revision of the register has not started yet, and this has caused delays in local and provincial elections, which were supposed to start in October 2015 and take place before national elections. The UN Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) for DRC said in January 2016 that Congo’s bilateral partners “are ready to support the revision of the voter register… It is a prerequisite [to elections]… time should not be wasted politicizing it.”

The spokesman of the ruling party has said that it would take two to four more years to organize credible elections. The delays and this kind of assertion have fueled opposition suspicions that the government – and the president – is merely seeking administrative and technical strategies to delay the elections and prolong the president’s term of office. According to Gallo: “right now, the two main glissement strategies people have been talking about in Bukavu are the claim that the government does not have enough money or resources to hold elections in November; and the government’s assertion that the DRC must complete a “national dialogue” before elections are held.” Kabila called for this dialogue about three months ago, and CENI estimates it will cost over $1 billion.

The president and pro-presidential majority see the dialogue as necessary to stabilize relations and “avoid a crisis” before elections are held. In a way, this is understandable in a country with the deep-seated divisions that DRC has. However, like many people I’ve spoken with in Bukavu, opposition groups have come out against the dialogue, believing it is a ploy to delay the elections; and the BBC reported in December that “activists believe violence would escalate if the election deadline is missed.” The top UN official in the country also said that the country is facing a “very real risks of unrest and violence” over the issue of potentially delaying elections.

Pressure for elections

The Citizen Front has demanded CENI publish a revised electoral calendar. Diplomats, however, from the African Union to the UN, have welcomed the national dialogue; ideally without causing a delay in the electoral calendar. As Gallo writes, “But here in Bukavu ordinary people – bartenders, taxi drivers, and even ex-rebels – have told me in no uncertain terms that, whether knowingly or inadvertently, these international actors are simply buying into Kabila’s shenanigans and that a comprehensive dialogue will only result in a delay in the elections, which will cause those fed up with the status quo to react with political violence.”

Interestingly, on 10 March this year, the European Parliament, in an emergency plenary sitting organised on the initiative of Maria Arena, MEP and member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, called on the DRC government to meet deadlines required by the constitution for the organization of free and transparent elections, and on President Kabila to respect the constitution of his country. Maria Arena commented that, “elections are nine months away and there are no clear signs given of its organisation and worse is the indication that everything is being done so that the elections do not take place in time to allow Kabila hold on to power despite constitutional rules.”

The European Parliament noted that the Congolese constitution adopted and promulgated in February 2006 clearly gives the president the right to run for only two consecutive terms, and commented that “if President Joseph Kabila, who was elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2011, deeply respects the constitution, he cannot be a candidate to be his own successor.” It also called on international bodies to take responsibility, starting with the African Union to ensure a role of political mediator in the interest of stability in the region and then the United Nations to renew and extend the mandate of MONUSCO to be competent in civil protection in the electoral context.

It further called on the European Union “to commit to use all instruments at its disposal, be they political, diplomatic or economic, to lobby for the respect of the Constitution and the protection of local populations”, adding that it would favour political dialogue but indicating that targeted sanctions would be activated if necessary. It also called for an end to arbitrary arrests and intimidation, and the opening of prosecution of perpetrators of violations of human rights.

The pressure on President Kabila has increased significantly, both from within and also from outside, over the last few months. The formation of the Citizen Front 2016 is an important step in building a strong and coherent opposition to the various attempts by the regime to postpone elections and enable Kabila to prolong his period in office. The intervention by the European Parliament is also important at this point. The likelihood of elections taking place as proposed in November 2016 and of Kabila standing down in December 2016 as the constitution demands remains a matter of debate. But if there is no progress very soon and the glissement of which Gallo speaks continues, then there is likely to be another upsurge in popular protest within the country.


The events of late 2015

In Burundi, as we discussed in the last issue, 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 and pervasive over the last six months. 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.” 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, Jürg Lauber undertook his first visit to Burundi in his capacity as Chair of the Burundi Configuration of the UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC). He then went on to Uganda and Tanzania before returning to report to the PBC Burundi Configuration in New York. In the meanwhile, officials from Uganda and Kenya flew into Bujumbura for talks. 

Meanwhile, on the ground, 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 failed. Nevertheless, fighting continued well into the day, although it had apparently stopped by 12 December. But then, 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.” 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.

An army spokesman, Colonel Gaspard Baratuza, initially claimed that those who had attempted to raid the Ngagara military camp had retreated and were pursued by security forces. When residents in Bujumbura discovered 39 bodies lying on the streets, Baratuza said the bodies belonged to ‘enemies’.  A report produced by Amnesty International shortly after this incident states, however, 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, both inside Burundi and outside. 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 2015, 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 were now growing 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 further heightened the vulnerability of many Burundians and limited their access to basic services. A shortage of essential drugs was already reported in the country; and besides health, major concerns remained in the protection, food security and nutrition sectors.

Developments in 2016

In early January 2016, 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 9 January, the government refused to join peace talks with the opposition. 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 being in December 2015, with 162 killed.

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 said it was 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.

It reported that it had documented more than 3,000 arrests and noted that while many had been released, an unknown number had ‘disappeared.’ On 22 January 2016, it was reported that a total of 728 people had died in different ways, forty-one in demonstrations, armed clashes resulting in 333 dead and 354 victims of state violence against civilians. Also, 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.

Ten years ago, 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. We ended our last piece on Burundi with the warning that the outlook for Burundi in 2016 was bleak. It has proved to be so in the first six months at least.

Meetings between the government and opposition leaders in Uganda at the end of December proved fruitless in terms of bringing an end to the deepening crisis and growing conflict. Proposals for a 5,000 strong African peace-keeping force were rejected by President Nkurunziza, who said it would be regarded as an invasion force, and encouraged ‘each Burundian’ to ‘stand up and fight’, if such a force were to try to enter the country.

In mid-January 2016, a leaked memo from Herve Ladsous, the UN peacekeeping chief, to the UN Security Council warned that a peace-keeping force from outside would be unable to quell large-scale violence and urged Council members to travel to Bujumbura for talks. The document outlines three possible scenarios: a continuation of the current level of violence, an escalation and finally, all-out war with fighting along ethnic lines. It stated categorically that “United Nations peacekeeping is limited in its ability to address significant violence against civilians, even violence amounting to genocide, where it lacks a political framework or the strategic consent of the host-nation and/or the main parties in the conflict.” But human rights activists recently told US Ambassador Samantha Power they would welcome the intervention of a robust international police force.

At the beginning of February 2016, African Union heads of state were to vote on whether a peace-keeping force should be sent to Burundi, despite the position adopted by President Nkurunziza who remained totally opposed to such an intervention. They decided not to do so. The UN Security Council has proposed sending in several hundred peace keepers; but it has done nothing, so far, although there are 19,000 UN troops across the border in the DRC, which could be deployed.

The EU announced in March that it would no longer give money directly to the Burundian government because it refused to participate in peace talks. It is also looking for a way to pay the 6,000 Burundian troops fighting in Somalia directly instead of through the government. Not all aid will be cut; some will be re-directed through the UN. But the share of the budget accounted for by aid is likely to fall from half in 2015 to less than a third in 2016. The repercussions of this are already clear: the government has re-directed spending from health and education and other social programmes to pay the army, leaving the UN and charities to look after children and the sick.

Relations between Burundi and its neighbour Rwanda have deteriorated over the last few months as the government of President Paul Kagame stands accused of generally supporting the rebels or opposition in Burundi and specifically of giving Burundian refugees military training in order to be better able to fight against the regime of President Nkurunziza. On 11 February 2016, the Telegraph online reported that “the United States on Wednesday accused Rwanda of trying to destabilise troubled Burundi by recruiting refugees for armed attacks on the government. The American concerns were raised in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by two senior diplomats, who cited reports from colleagues in the field that point to Rwandan involvement in the Burundi crisis.” In March, the Burundian ruling CNDD-FDD party issued a statement that went even further and accused President Paul Kagame of Rwanda of seeking to export genocide.

On 27 March 2016, the Telegraph online reported that “in a statement released on Sunday, the head of the CNDD-FDD party said Mr Kagame had previously ‘experimented’ with genocide, referring to the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which about 800,000 people were killed, mostly ethnic Tutsis.” “The genocide laboratory is in Rwanda because President Kagame, having experimented there, (wants) to export it to Burundi (to) play a minor imperialist,” wrote Pascal Nyabenda, party president. Nyabenda also claimed that some European governments supply arms and funds to the Rwandan leader, who he said was responsible for “recruiting and training young Burundians in refugee camps in Rwanda, so that they can return home to commit acts of genocide.” He went on to criticise the Catholic Church which recently called for a dialogue between Kigali and Bujumbura to help de-escalate the growing crisis.  

Nyabenda also condemned foreign journalists for taking up the cause of ‘terrorists’, the term used by the ruling party to refer to opponents of the government, both armed and peaceful.

The CNDD-FDD party was formed from the main Hutu rebel group that fought against the formerly Tutsi minority-dominated army during the Burundian civil war. It initially had close ties to President Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front party but relations have soured in recent years. Concerns have been raised that more radical elements in Burundi’s ruling party are gaining influence and that this augurs badly for the future, raising the real possibility of a transformation of the conflict from one between government and opposition into one along ethnic lines.

Potential for ethnic conflict

“The Hutu extremist faction of the CNDD-FDD was marginalised until the start of this crisis … it is clear that they are now in control of the country,” a concerned diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity. The diplomat noted that Nyabenda, as well as being ruling party head, is also president of the national assembly and the number two figure in the Burundian state. “It is feared that there would be dire consequences if the crisis worsened or if there was a serious incident like the death of a senior party official,” he said. The Economist commented, on 23 April 2916, that “ominously, there is growing evidence that the government crackdown is seeing people being targeted for their ethnicity as well as just for their political affiliation. Certainly, plenty of Hutu men have been arrested; but the neighbourhoods of Bujumbura targeted most heavily by the security forces are disproportionately Tutsi.”

Tutsi are also being increasingly side-lined in key government institutions and, it seems, purged in the army. On 15 April, the government announced that 700 soldiers – almost all of whom served in the army when it was an entirely Tutsi institution – were to be forced to retire.  If the army, which has in recent years been of mixed ethnicity, becomes a predominantly Hutu force, then there are indications that it will be targeted by opposition militants. An example of this can be seen in the attack, on 25 April, on the security adviser to Burundi’s Vice President, General Athanase Kararuza, while dropping off his daughter at school. He was killed together with his wife; the daughter was injured. Other members of the government and those close to the government have also been assassinated in recent months. Shortly after the attack on General Kararuza, the International Criminal Court announced that it was starting a preliminary investigation into the violence in Burundi.

In the meanwhile, the government security forces and youth militia continue to target those suspected of supporting the opposition; hundreds, possibly thousands of people, mainly young men and mostly Tutsis have ‘disappeared’ or become internally displaced persons (IDPs) or have left the country (an estimated 250,000). Roadblocks and security patrols have been established in most parts of Bujumbura, particularly in those neighbourhoods considered ‘hotbeds’ of opposition, and in other towns, and people find it increasingly hard to move around for fear of being harassed and arrested if caught in the wrong place. This is having a negative effect on the commercial life of the cities and on households. The black market has blossomed and in some neighbourhoods of Bujumbura, the price of rice has trebled. This is also creating problems in the rural areas, where the sale of farm produce is increasingly difficult; and so the economy is in decline and people suffer accordingly.

The Economist on 23 April stated, perhaps over-dramatically, that “the economy is collapsing”, but certainly GDP contracted by 7 per cent in 2015, according to the IMF, and looks set to continue this decline still further in 2016. The conflict now threatens to become a major humanitarian crisis and even if the Economist is right to suggest that “it is far from clear that genocide is looming”, the prospects for Burundi and its people remain bleak.   

Burkina Faso


In Burkina Faso, by comparison, things look better. 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).

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, 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.”

Compaoré dissolved his government at noon on 30 October 2014 and declared a state of emergency before fleeing to Ivory Coast. 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, however, 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. 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. Results for the parliamentary election, 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.


On 19 February 2016, The Guardian online carried an article by Neven Mimica of the EU, which praised Burkina Faso – its people and its government – for its ‘remarkable transition process.’  The peaceful elections that took place in December were described as ‘a victory for Burkina Faso’ and as ‘good news for the region and the continent.’ The maturity and resilience of the country’s civil society, which played a pivotal role, is cited as an example for many. The EU has now committed around €623m  – £481m – for the coming years to support governance, access to healthcare, water and sanitation, resilience and food security; and it is proposed to accelerate disbursements and commit €400m by the end of 2016.

As regards security – in the light of the attacks by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that took place in January in Ouagadougou and killed 28 people and injured dozens more – the EU announced that it was preparing “a new package of actions from the new EU trust fund which will be announced by mid-April” in order to “reinforce the presence of the state in areas that are fragile and could quickly become fertile ground for recruitment by terrorists” and also to “strengthen the resilience and basic services of local communities who have been particularly affected by the socio-economic and security challenges, in the spirit of the fund to address root causes of instability and migration in Africa.”


Part Two

A Comparative Analysis: Central Africa

As we remarked at the end of the last piece in this series: “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.”

We drew attention at the end of the second part of the project, to the large number of African countries whose rulers have been in office for more than ten years, many of them with questionable legitimacy. The individuals concerned include:

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 Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), 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 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, who was 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, who has been President since 1999; Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who was first Acting President and then President from 2000 onwards; and Joseph Kabila of the DRC, who was President from 2001, elected from 2006 onwards.

We did not include in this list a number of other African rulers of shorter duration but who have attempted to extend their period of office beyond what is permitted by the constitution of the country concerned. These include, in recent years: President Nkurunziza of Burundi, who (as we have seen above) recently attempted to extend his period of office beyond the two terms allowed by the constitution of Burundi, with the consequences we have described; and President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, who also tried to extend his period in office, with the consequences described above and in previous pieces in this series.

Other rulers of Central African countries who have attempted recently to extend their periods of office, include President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), who received the go-ahead, from a political forum on the future of the country’s institutions held in July 2015, to run for president in elections to be held in 2016, and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who, in the same month as Sassou Nguesso was able to gain the support of virtually all of the members of the Rwandan parliament for a further term in office.

Republic of Congo (Brazzaville)

This decision by an unelected body – a national forum – paved the way for a referendum on a new constitution allowing Sassou Nguesso, who has led the country for a total of 30 years, to stand for re-election in 2016. Opposition leaders reacted angrily to the forum’s conclusions, seeing in them a ploy by Sassou Nguesso to extend his rule. “What has happened is… a constitutional coup decided by President Sassou Nguesso,” commented Clement Mierassa of the Republican Front for the Respect of Constitutional Order and Democratic Change (FROCAD), an opposition coalition. “We have a responsibility to work through peaceful and democratic means to stop this coup,” he added. Under the constitution, presidential mandates were limited to two terms and only candidates under 70 can run for the top office.

Denis Sassou Nguesso is one of Africa’s five longest-serving leaders, having first come to power three decades ago, and he is now 73 years old. He was part of the 1968 military coup that brought Marien Ngouabi to power, and in 1970, he was made Director of Security and a minister in the new presidential council. When Ngouabi was assassinated in March 1977, Nguesso played a key role in maintaining control, briefly heading the Military Committee of the Party (CMP, Comité Militaire du Parti) that controlled the state before the succession of Colonel Joachim Yhombi-Opango.  He was rewarded with a promotion to colonel and the post of vice-president of the CMP. He remained there until 5 February 1979, when Yhombi-Opango was forced from power in a technical coup accused of corruption and political deviancy.

On 8 February 1979, the CMP chose Nguesso as the new President, and at the Third Extraordinary Congress of the PCT his position was unanimously approved on 27 March 1979. He was Chairman of the Organization of African Unity from 1986 to 1987. In late 1987 he faced down a serious military revolt in the north of the country with French aid. At the PCT’s Fourth Ordinary Congress on 26–31 July 1989, Sassou Nguesso was re-elected as President of the PCT Central Committee and President of the Republic. With the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and with the support of the French, he began to prepare the process of opening up the economy and the political regime. In December 1989 he announced the end of government control of the economy and declared a partial amnesty for political prisoners. The following year he attempted to improve the failing economic situation and reduce the outrageous levels of corruption. From September 1990, political parties other than the PCT were allowed and Sassou Nguesso undertook a symbolic state visit to the United States of America, laying the grounds for a new series of conditional IMF loans later that year.

In February 1991, he approved a national conference to discuss the future of Congolese politics. The conference, which concluded in June 1991, chose André Milongo as Prime Minister during the transitional period leading to scheduled elections in 1992. Milongo was given executive powers, leaving Sassou Nguesso as effectively a figurehead president. His power was so limited by the Conference that he was barred from travelling outside of Congo without the transitional government’s approval. He was also subjected to serious criticism and allegations, including a claim that he was involved in Ngouabi’s 1977 assassination. He remained as head of state until the introduction of multi-party politics, which culminated in elections that he lost in the first round in 1992 and that eventually resulted in the election of Pascal Lissouba as president.

Lissouba was faced with accusations of voting irregularities to which he responded with increasing repression and during 1993 there were constant clashes between his supporters and those of the other main presidential contender, Bernard Kolelas, which resulted in almost 1,500 deaths. In 1994, Sassou Nguesso prudently left the country for Paris. He did not return to Congo until January 1997, intending to contest the presidential election scheduled for July. He then devoted himself to building up political and para-military support. In June 1997, fighting broke out between Sassou Nguesso’s militia, the Cobras, and government forces, which led to a more sustained conflict in which Sassou Nguesso was aided by Angolan troops. By October, Sassou Nguesso was in control of the country, and he was sworn in as President on 25 October.

He declared that he was willing to allow a return to democracy and began a three-year transition process in 1998. But renewed fighting with opposition groups led to the collapse of the process. With the government forces in ascendancy and following peace agreements in 1999, elections were re-scheduled for 2002, although not all rebel groups signed the accords. On 10 March 2002, Sassou Nguesso won the presidency with almost 90 per cent of the vote; his two main rivals Lissouba and Kolelas were prevented from competing. He was sworn in on 14 August 2002. He was re-elected in July 2009, despite an opposition boycott, with nearly 80 per cent of the vote, and was sworn in on 14 August 2009. He said at the time that his re-election meant continued peace, stability and security.

In August 2010, as Congo-Brazzaville prepared to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence from France, Sassou Nguesso noted that the country had far to go in fully realizing the dream of independence: “Our country will not be totally independent until our people are free of the yoke of poverty.” He appeared to see himself as the architect of that transformation. On 27 March 2015, he announced that his government would hold a referendum to change the 2002 constitution, which would allow him to run for a third consecutive term in office.

The opposition called for a ‘civil disobedience’ protest after voters – 92 per cent -overwhelmingly approved changes to the constitution in October 2015 that allowed the President to extend his three-decade rule. (The referendum reduced the presidential mandate from seven to five years and abolished the death penalty, among other changes).  “We will maintain civil disobedience until the withdrawal of the planned constitution, which is a masquerade,” declared the Republican Front for the Respect of Constitutional Order and Democracy (FROCAD) opposition coalition spokesman Guy-Romain Kinfoussia. Al Jazeera’s Haru Mutasa, reporting from the capital Brazzaville, commented that:

the opposition is not happy. They say the vote is rigged. They say there is no way the voter turnout could have been that high. The opposition are threatening to go on the streets to protest, but here is a challenge.  A lot of the opposition leaders are under house arrest … also a lot of people are scared. Last week, they took to the streets to protest, but the police opened fire and shot some of them.

The Economist  on 12 December 2015 reported that “in October…troops fired on protestors who objected to Denis Sassou Nguesso’s plan to extend his three-decade rule – the protestors’ slogan was ‘Soussoufit, a play on the French for ‘That’s enough’. For whatever reason, there was, in fact, very little public response to the call by FROCAD, at the time, or indeed, over subsequent months, and Denis Sassou Nguesso was re-elected in March 2016, with a majority in the first round, for another seven year term, further extending his 32-year period of rule.” Al Jazeera reported, however, that the final results were released amid tight security and a communications blackout to prevent opposition candidates from publishing their own results. The government extended an order to shut down telephone, internet and SMS services for 48 hours during the voting for ‘reasons of security’ and to prevent unrest and a government source said that they would remain suspended until after the official results were announced. Opposition leaders said that they would not accept another win for the incumbent, but there was very little sign of public unrest once the results were announced, despite the fact that it was reported that ‘tensions were running high.’

Other predictions of ‘domestic instability’, such as those made by the IMF in a report released in July 2015, have not materialised, despite the fact that the Republic of Congo suffers from high rates of poverty and inequality, large infrastructure gaps and important development challenges, according to the IMF. Unemployment reached 34 per cent in 2013, the last data available, and stood at 60 per cent for 15 to 24-year-olds. As in so many other similar Central African states, poverty and inequality alone are not sufficient a reason for popular protest and unrest, particularly in cases where the opposition to what might be termed ‘an authoritarian democracy’ is generally seen to be led by personal political opponents of the head of state rather than to represent a widespread dissatisfaction with the regime. On the other hand, the ‘dampening effect’ of systematic repression on public unrest cannot be over-estimated.   


In the same month that Sassou Nguessou was enabled to stand for re-election as president in the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), Rwandan law-makers voted almost unanimously to hold a referendum on proposed changes to the constitution that would allow President Paul Kagame to extend his 15 years in power. Rwandan officials have strongly denied that it is Kagame who is angling for a third term, insisting that the president—hailed by his supporters as a guarantor of post-genocide security and stability, as well as a champion of economic development—enjoys popular support for him to stay. “At least 3.7 million Rwandans petitioned the legislature to amend the charter” according to the Speaker of Parliament, Donatille Mukabalisa.

Rwanda’s Green Party, the country’s tiny but main opposition, has vowed to challenge this in court, but said it was being hampered by the reluctance of lawyers to take up its challenge to moves which would allow President Paul Kagame to stand for a third term.  “Five lawyers have refused to take the case. One said he was threatened, another said God was against it, others said they were afraid or did not want to go to court against millions of Rwandans,” according to Green Party President, Frank Habineza. The Rwandan constitution, which was adopted in 2003, limits the number of presidential terms to two, and therefore bars Kagame—who was elected first in 2003 and again in 2010—to stand for a third term in 2017.

But officials predicted that parliament would soon debate a change to the constitution in response to what Kagame’s aides have described as ‘popular demand’ for the former rebel. Kagame, now 57, has been at the helm in Rwanda since 1994, when an offensive by his ethnic Tutsi rebel force, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), put an end to what was internationally recognised as ‘a genocide by Hutu extremists’ in which an estimated 800,000 people were massacred, the vast majority of them Tutsis. He first served as defence minister and vice president, and then took the presidency by winning 95 percent of the vote. He was re-elected with a similarly resounding mandate.

President Kagame had himself declared that Rwanda’s constitution should not be changed to modify how long a president can serve. “I belong to the group that doesn’t support change of the constitution,” Kagame announced in April 2015, “but in a democratic society, debates are allowed and they are healthy.” “I’m open to going or not going depending on the interest and future of this country,” he said. As Rwanda began commemorations for the 21st anniversary of the genocide, that future was a key consideration. In fact, however, seeking to make the decision on his period in office a broader one, Kagame set up a committee of his ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) nearly three years ago to consult and recommend a course of action. Though the report of the committee has not been made public, sources familiar with its content say that it recommended that the constitution be amended.

Foreign investors and international markets are also seen as favouring Kagame’s continuation, viewing his presence as reassuring, as he is likely to continue his hardline stance against corruption, which had made Rwanda one of the least corrupt nations in Africa according to Transparency International. He has also overseen reforms that have made Rwanda a regional front runner in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” Index.

For a president who got 93 per cent of the vote in the August 2010 elections, in all probability if the matter was left to the people to choose, and given that politics in Rwanda is not as contentious as in some other Central African states, the majority would probably vote for a Kagame stay. Even though critics, arguably rightly, characterise him as a despot who brooks no dissent, having introduced the most universal health care insurance system in Africa and notched up the sharpest drop in infant mortality ever recorded in human history, a strong case can be made that he has a concrete record on which an appreciative people would vote to keep him in office.

He also co-chairs the ITU’s Broadband Commission, and has the reputation of being a wired president; he is a regular at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and hangs out with the famous and rich of the world, including former president Bill Clinton and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates; and he is on good terms with former president George Bush. As one commentator remarked, “he probably has one of the longest address book of Fortune 500 CEOs of any other leader on the continent.” His international support remains strong. 

Kagame is a forceful man who does not suffer fools gladly; a teetotaler, workaholic, and former guerrilla leader, the need for his strong personal control over the political economy of Rwanda is one reason his supporters give for encouraging him to rule beyond 2017. However, if he had invested enough in building successors, he could have laid a more reliable foundation for Rwanda’s future stability and success, and Rwanda would not require such an authoritarian regime. Rwanda’s institutional depth remains largely untested, and it is doubtful the country would function the way it does without his presidential presence.

There is no vice president and the prime minister performs the role of the president’s deputy. Since Kagame was elected president in 2000, there have been three prime ministers. Although Bernard Makuza was in office for 10 years, the job of PM in Rwanda has generally been a short tour of duty, not allowing time for the incumbents to develop the skills to take on the presidential mantle, while the role of the parliament has been very much that of cheer-leader to Kagame’s presidential performance.

If his supporters are numerous and vocal; so too are his critics and detractors. So far, however, they have always lost – finding it a hard job to run against his record – and they are angry. They are waiting for their moment, and right now they think it is about to be handed to them if and when a constitutional amendment removes term limits. The headlines and columns might well already have been written. If he runs for re-election, there may be an upsurge in opposition; but whether it will result in popular protest and open dissidence, or will be received by and large with widespread approbation, remains to be seen. Staying on for a further term of office may be seen as evidence of Kagame’s inherent authoritarianism or as a re-assurance of his commitment to political continuity and strong leadership.

Crafting a nation that actually functions from the depths of the genocide graveyard is a big part of ‘Brand Kagame’; the man who did what in 1994 looked like the impossible is a hard target to hit and an even harder act to follow. His demonstrable ability to hold the country together, so far, in the face of deep historical social divisions has been crucial, not only to his reputation but to his ability to command support. In this, he resembles Yoweri Museveni, whose long period of presidential rule in Uganda has also been widely regarded, even if not unanimously, both inside and outside the country, as a generally positive thing for the country, even if it indicates a preference for stability with the taint of authoritarianism over a more democratic regime with the risk of instability.  

A decision on Kagame’s part to run again for the presidency would, however, be a big gamble, because the biggest assets he brings to the Rwanda presidency – being a man of his word, and someone who looks at the presidency as public service not a personal power trip – could be lost and he could easily become toxic. In that case, he would no longer be able to marshal the attributes that his supporters banked on to give him a third course of the presidency. Stepping down might leave him with the moral authority to influence the direction of the country, much as Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere was able to do, and even perhaps stage a comeback should the country be plunged in a future crisis; on the other hand, it might itself engender instability and precipitate precisely the crisis that all in Rwanda fear – an ethnic bloodbath. Ideally, in the year to come, efforts will be made both inside Rwanda and outside to promote and develop the institutional basis for a strong but democratic regime that does not rely so heavily on one man. 

On 12 December 2015, the Economist remarked, of the DRC, that “Congo’s problems are a grander, more dangerous version of what is happening in neighbouring countries” and referred to both Congo Brazzaville and Burundi. It failed, however, to mention Rwanda – or indeed any of the other countries where we believe a broadly similar process is occurring albeit with different trajectories and outcomes. In the next issue of the series, I shall extend still further the examination of African states in which those already long in power have sought to extend their term of office, either successfully or not, either through the ballot box or by other means, and attempt to draw some general conclusions.

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






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