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Burundi Violence Confounds U.S. Optimism About African Democracy

Western observers were quick to call Nigeria's smooth power transition a stepping stone for Africa. But nations facing different challenges are not finding their election seasons to be any easier than before.

BURUNDI-POLITICS-UNREST
Burundian soldiers walk near a burning barricade erected by protesters as people demonstrate against the president's bid for a third term in power in Musaga, in the outskirts of Bujumbura, on April 27, 2015. Police in Burundi battled protestors on April 27 in a second day of demonstrations over a bid by the central African nation's president for a third term in office. AFP PHOTO / SIMON MAINA (Photo credit should read SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration and other western observers said Nigeria’s peaceful political transition would pave the way for free and fair elections elsewhere on the continent. Less than a month later, Guinea and Burundi are already proving them wrong.

Burundi’s sitting president, Pierre Nkurunziza, was nominated by his party Saturday to seek a third term, a move that his opposition says violates the constitution in the tiny central African country. Nukurunziza argues he is eligible for a third term because he was appointed by parliament in 2005, and was only elected by the people for the first time in 2010.  In Guinea, meanwhile, President Alpha Condé is refusing to meet demands of the opposition, who are frustrated by how Condé has adjusted election timetables to benefit his party.

The United States took much more interest in the Nigerian elections, mainly because Nigeria — the wealthiest and most populous country in West Africa  — is a vital oil producer and regional power.

In March, Vice President Joe Biden personally called Nigerian incumbent Goodluck Jonathan to commend him for accepting defeat.

“Jonathan’s actions to accept the results and congratulate President-elect [Muhammadu] Buhari, as well as his steps to date to ensure a successful transition, have strengthened Nigeria’s democracy and set a strong example for Africa and the world,” Biden said in a statement after the results rolled in.

But Burundi and Guinea are quick proof that Biden’s assumptions about the impact Jonathan’s concession would have elsewhere on the continent should not have been so optimistic. Instability in Guinea could destabilize West Africa, much of which is recovering from recent conflicts. And in Burundi, which is still recovering from a bloody civil war, thousands have already fled to neighboring Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to avoid the violence.

The political posturing by incumbent administrations is sparking violence in both countries. In Burundi, thousands have taken to the streets of Bujumbura, the capital, in defiance of Nkurunziza’s protest ban, and by Monday, police using water cannons, tear gas, and bullets had killed six and injured dozens more.

In Guinea, where Alpha Condé has held office since he won a disputed election in 2010, the president refuses to adjust the election timetable, which he has repeatedly changed over the past four years. Legislative elections were postponed because of the Ebola outbreak, which originated in Guinea and killed more than 2,000 there. But the opposition does not want to engage in October’s presidential elections unless Condé allows for the much-delayed local elections to take place beforehand.

The opposition, including presidential candidate Cellou Dalein Diallo, has called for multiple peaceful protests in the capital of Conakry, but the mass gatherings quickly turned violent. In the past two weeks, several have been killed and dozens more injured. On Monday, Diallo called for more demonstrations.

Even where elections haven’t turned violent, they still can’t be considered fair. Sudan announced Monday that President Omar al-Bashir won his country’s presidential election. He’s served as head of state for 26 years, and in this round took home 94.5 percent of the vote. That’s because most of his opposition refused to even participate in the election, deriding the elections as a sham.

And in Togo, where elections were held Saturday, incumbent president Faure Gnassingbe looks set to win a third term. By the end of his third term, his family will have run the West African nation for more than 50 years.

But Western observers of Nigeria were content to think incumbent Goodluck Jonathan’s concession to Muhammadu Buhari was landmark enough to change the ways things were done elsewhere on the continent.

Even Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited Nigeria in January to urge peaceful elections, offered his congratulations for a smooth transition. “We commend President Jonathan for his years of service and for having acted in the best interest of his country,” Kerry said.

There’s no question the phone call between Jonathan and Buhari was historical and important. But over the course of the next year, ten other African countries — Burkina Faso, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, Mauritius, Niger, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Zambia — will host national elections.

Each country has its own complications. In Burkina Faso, the sitting president was ousted in mass protests in October. In Libya, poor governance has allowed Islamists to flourish and seize control of territory in the country. In South Sudan, famine and conflict have left more than a million internally displaced. Jonathan’s decision to pass the torch to Buhari, laudable as that may be, won’t change any of that.

SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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