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Monday, May 18, 2015


In events in Burundi of the last few weeks have seemed for onlookers like watching a train crash in progress.

President Pierre Nkurunziza was nominated by his party to run for what was essentially a third term in government. He and his supporters argued that the constitution said two elections by adult sufferage would demarcate the terms, but that his first term in office was made possible by a vote in the national assembly, so it did not count.

His detractors have argued though that a third term would not be in the spirit of the constitution which limits president to only two five year terms.

The constitutional court in Bujumbura agreed with Nkurunziza’s interpretation but this did not pacify the mobs in the street, who have been fighting running battles with the security agencies for at least a fortnight now.

The army eventually stepped in on Wednesday while Nkurunzinza was in Dar es Salaam attending a regional effort to resolve the fracas.

"It is sad what is happening in Burundi – more than 20 people have been killed and scores injured during the unrest, but these are the birthing pains of democracy...

Europe and North America the forerunners of democracy, have histories scarred with bitter war,  bloody revolutions and genocide to show for their journey to democracy.

England as an example did not become a full democracy until 1918. Before then only 60 percent of the men could vote. Women were not allowed to vote until after the Representation of the People Act in 1918 was passed.

To get to that point, the people had first to wrestle power from the monarchs, which incidentally was facilitated by a conquest of England by the Normans who set up the first parliament in 1066.
But as the people tried to wrestle more power from the monarchy and gentry there were coups, parliament even ordered the beheading of Charles I (His crime? Dissolving parliament, causing civil war and raising taxes), a trial abolition of the monarchy only to discover the new leader Oliver Cromwell was a worse tyrant than those who had gone before, a return to a much weakened monarchy, whose executive powers were transferred to parliament before we came to 1918.

These changes happened over a millennium, never in a straight line and not as neatly as narrated above.

There was bloodshed at every turn as the monarchs sort to hang on to their privilege and the people tried to wrestle more say over the management of their society for themselves. And every so often their elected leaders forgot themselves, crossed the line into tyranny before society called them to order and put a hold to their pretensions.

The French have a bloodier history as did the Germans and even the US.

"The point is that one cannot write democratic practice into existence. Assuming that democracy, described as the right of every one to have say in the management of their affairs, is the ideal, no two countries can tread the same path nor can the end product of what democracy means to them be identical....

The peculiarities of Burundi’s history have led it up to this point, as can be said about the individual paths of the other East African Community countries.

Violence and bloodletting are not desirable in any context but unfortunately when the aspirations of the leaders and the people diverge, when compromise is forgone for strong arm tactics, something has to give.

Burundi like Kenya more recently and Rwanda before it are going to have to go back to the drawing board, learn from this experience, forge a new compromise and get back on the democratic path.

Whether that takes a week or a month or a year it will happen.

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