Monday, June 1, 2015

RWANDA, BURUNDI: A TEST CASE FOR DEMOCRACY

The killing of key opposition leader in Burundi served as an exclamation mark in an already turbulent situation in the small east African nation. Across the border however the opposition made a call for a lifting of presidential term limits in their own constitution.

With Pierre Nkurunzinza safely reinstalled in his seat after a failed coup attempt earlier this month, and the worst of the Burundi crisis seemingly behind them, despite continued protests in the street, opposition leader Zedi Feruzi was gunned on the street on the weekend.

No one has been arrested for the assassination but no one doubts that such an event further inflames affairs in Burundi. That Nkurunziza is determined to run for a controversial third term does not help matters.

Things couldn’t be more different in Rwanda. Dr Vincent Biruta leader of the Parti Social 
Democratic (PSD) called for the lifting of term limits. Biruta is also the natural resource minister of Rwanda. When we were still trying to digest this brilliant political manoeuvre, hundreds of rural Rwandans streamed into the capital Kigali and presented their petition to parliament calling for a constitutional amendment to lift presidential term limits.

With two million petitions parliament will now debate the issue for the next two months before deciding on whether to upset the status quo or not.

"The speed of developments in Rwanda has got our heads reeling and has observers of the country impressed by the political sleight of hand there...

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has always said he will respect the constitution but has also added that the fate of Rwanda will be determined by its citizens.

The term limits were adopted in various countries two decades ago, promoted as an answer to bad governments and as a way to achieve civil transfers of power. The opposers of term limits have argued that they shackle good leaders, a hard argument to rebut when the affected leaders still have the popular vote on their side.

Both cases provide some cause for head scratching for the champions of democracy.

On the one hand in Burundi there are “mass” demonstrations against Nkurunziza’s attempt at a third term, but he courts have ruled that he is within his rights to contest the coming election. Do you pander to the mob and compromise the institution building process – never mind that you suspect that judges may have been leaned on to rule favourably for NKurunziza? And if there is enough opposition surely an election will put paid to NKurunziza’s third term bid.

On the other hand in Rwanda there is no ambivalence in the constitution about term limits but there seems to be a groundswell of support for a lifting of these limits. So do you tinker with the constitution to cater for the political circumstances of the time or ignore the voice of the people and maintain that the constitution is inviolable.

"How the next few weeks play out will provide useful fodder for political thinkers...

It could very well be that Nkurunziza goes to the polls and his flattened to reflect the opposition crowds we saw on TV. Or that after two months of deliberation the Rwanda parliament dominated by the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) comes to the conclusion that term limits should be upheald and begin a process to replace President Paul Kagame.

Of course both outcomes seem unlikely but whatever the outcome precedents will be set that will inform the democratic process going forward.


It will not be the end of the world either way.

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