Two small African neighboring countries. Both are densely populated with between 10 and 12 million people. Both have emerged from Tutsi-Hutu civil wars in the past two decades.
Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza seems headed for a difficult and bloody reelection against the will of a large segment of the Burundian people and arguably in violation of the constitution’s prohibition on serving more than two consecutive terms. Though Nkurunziza unconvincingly argues he is running for his second term under the current constitution, the Arusha Accords that ended Burundi’s civil war made it clear that Nkurunziza should get up to a decade in power — not 15 years (or, potentially, more).
Nkurunziza’s push for a third term resulted in a brutal crackdown over the past 18 months amid growing political violence, twice necessitating the delay of an election originally scheduled for June. When election results, the first of which are scheduled to be announced later Friday, show that Nkurunziza easily won reelection, many Burundians will refuse to recognize the victory, and there’s a chance that Burundi could collapse into greater violence — or even civil war.
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Next door in Rwanda, however, president Paul Kagame seems preparing for reelection in 2017, notwithstanding constitutional term limits. Unlike Nkurunziza, if Kagame (pictured above) does find a way to seek another term, he will largely do so to the widespread acclaim and genuine approval of the Rwandan people — and with the assent of Rwanda’s Chamber of Deputies, which passed a law earlier this week that will allow Kagame to run for a third term in his own right, in response to a petition signed by 3.7 million Rwandans.
While Nkurunziza has suffered international condemnation for pushing forward with reelection, Kagame will almost certainly receive far less scrutiny if, as expected, he runs for another term in 2017.
Kagame isn’t immune to political repression — the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) controls an effectively one-party country where opposition leaders or journalists are harassed or imprisoned, sometimes to the point of exile.
So what’s with the double standard?
No one disputes that Kagame, who took power informally in 1994 after the horrific genocide that killed up to 800,000 Rwandans, has brought progress to Rwanda. Though he may not have deployed the kind of political infrastructure that will guarantee stability after he leaves office (and he will leave office one day), there’s no doubt that Kagame has brought economic development, physical and digital infrastructure and social stability to what was once an overcrowded and fiercely divided country. Rwanda is quickly becoming known for its mountain gorillas as much as for the 1994 genocide. It’s now culturally taboo to even speak about ‘Tutsi’ and ‘Hutu’ throughout the country.
For most Rwandans, Kagame’s presence is so synonymous with the country’s rebirth that any alternative would be much more terrifying than lifting the constitutional term limits to allow Kagame’s reelection.
Nkurunziza’s reelection is dividing Burundi, but Kagame’s reelection might be the one thing that unites most Rwandans. Not everyone, though. Kagame’s continued rule will not be welcomed in neighboring countries, such as Congo, where Kagame has been engaged in not-so-friendly interference. It will not necessarily be welcomed by the Rwandans at home and abroad who want their country to develop more mature democratic institutions, as Nathalie Munyampenda writes in the Rwandan New Times:
2017 is about Rwandans deciding how we want to be governed going forward. For me, this is a wider discussion about our governance system, term limits, and other points for discussion in the constitution; an opportunity for meaningful reform. It is the lazy way out to say, “President Kagame should stay” or “President Kagame should go” and that’s it. Within which system? Does the current system allow us to achieve our set targets? What areas can be reformed or improved? And what will you, as a Rwandan, contribute?….
Western democracy, for all its PR machinery, has failed in Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan to name a few. I call it the kiss of death; it promises results but has a lot of deadly side effects. By the way, who said term limits were the only way to check leaders?
As Munyampenda notes, the vital question for Rwanda in 2017 is whether it will develop a process to achieve stability in the long run.
The most optimistic example is Park Chung-hee. As in South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s, skyrocketing economic growth and social cohesion might provide Rwanda with the framework for a truly pluralistic democratic society. But even in South Korea, Park was assassinated in 1979, and police deployed lethal violence in the Gwangju protests of the following year. There’s no hard rule that Park-style authoritarianism necessarily terminates with democracy — or even continued economic success.
Therein lies the risk for Nkurunziza and Kagame, both of whom have avoided opportunities in the aftermath of fearsome internal conflicts to develop national systems that transcend their own political networks. In Nkurunziza’s case, that’s meant the isolation of Burundi as the only Francophone country in the East African Community and a growing lack of foreign investment, exacerbated by the political violence surround his reelection. In Kagame’s case, though there’s a stronger rationale for his reelection, it’s worrisome that political freedoms are narrowing, not expanding. That bodes poorly for Kagame’s long-term designs for Rwanda.