Burundi, Constitutionality and the Dynamics of Political Conflicts in Africa




As a West African, I have wished that the cohesion that exists between our regional league of countries and proactivity is anything close to what we see in the East-African countries; whether for the purposes of concerted development or in the maintenance of peace and security. But then comes Burundi’s Nkurunziza, who seeks to run a third term through a constitutional amendment. Well, I am not one of those who think “Third-termism” should be completely embargoed in Africa. If a third term will bring the peace and development that the people want, why not? My problem however, is the violence and tension that the pursuit of third-termism creates. In this Op-Ed, I look differently at the Burundian scenario and argue that the third-term is only a façade that masks the real difficulty with the constitutional bottlenecks that exist in the East-African country as a case in point and many other similar African countries in general.

Signing of a Ceasefire Agreement between the Government of Burundi and the PALIPEHUTU-Forces nationales de libÈration (FNL) in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, on 7 September. On the left side,  Agathon Rwasa, representing the FNL with, on the right, Pierre Nkurunziza president of the Republic of Burundi. ONUB Photo/ Penangnini Toure.  The 7 September 2006, Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.

Signing of a Ceasefire Agreement between the Government of Burundi and the PALIPEHUTU-Forces nationales de libÈration (FNL) in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, on 7 September. On the left side, Agathon Rwasa, representing the FNL with, on the right, Pierre Nkurunziza president of the Republic of Burundi. ONUB Photo/ Penangnini Toure. The 7 September 2006, Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.

When I saw the twitter trend on the attempted coup in Burundi, it stirred in me the curiosity to get a better understanding of the situation. My search led me to the discussion paper by Prof. Stef Vandegiste of the Institute for Development Policy and Management (IOB) at the University of Antwerp. Coincidentally, I look forward to studying at the IOB in the next academic year, so I took particular interest in this paper. His analysis of the 15-year old Arusha Accord and its relevance in Burundian governance over time is evidence of how legal institutions and frameworks compete with the challenges posed by ethnicity in trying to define democracy within the African context. In his paper, Prof. Vandegiste presented four pillars of the agreement (P1, P2, P3, and P4) and mentioned how “state of the art” the Arusha Accord was in Burundi’s transition to peace and constitutional reform.  These four pillars had endeavored to incorporate the ethno-political nuances in satisfying the disproportionate ethnic division, primordial ethnic alliances and fault lines.

Today, my opinion is that this Arusha Accord, though “state of the art”, now stands in the way of peace in Burundi. What we see in Burundi today is the result of socio-political dynamics that were not envisaged (or if envisaged, were not planned for) under the constitution borne out of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. Prof. Vandegiste explains that the overwhelming electoral victory in 2010 by Prez. Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD collapsed one of the pillars of the Arusha agreement (P3; political power sharing between former opponents). Since 2000, the political landscape has changed so much that it is difficult to still identify the political opponents (which by default became ethnic opponents) at the time of the Arusha agreement. Through rational political maneuvering, the ruling party has metamorphosed into such a multiethnic entity that it is gradually rising to single party prominence.

My own interpretation is that, at the time of the Arusha agreement, military might and ethnic representation was the key issues of contention. Hence Prof. Vandegiste’s P2 pillar (involving ethnic representation in the military) was, for me, the most critical for the survival of the agreement due to the ethnic nature of the conflict. Today, however, I see ethnicity and military representation gradually giving way to constitutional politicking. After all, we still have not seen a clear ethnic image of the current protests in Bujumbura as would have been the days prior to Arusha.

What matters today is how much political power is available to a party. I say this with an eye on what is happening in Ghana (my home country) where opposing parties are making political gains on the corridors of constituencies that were hitherto thought to be the exclusive preserve of the main opponent due to ethnic affiliation. This political maneuvering is also happening in many other West-African countries (like the Nigerian situation which saw the amalgamation of small parties to oust Jonathan’s PDP). African politicians are becoming elite enough to understand the famous political mantra: “Seek ye first the political kingdom and everything else shall be added”.  Hence anyone who would bank any institution on ethnicity is likely to fail in just a matter of time. In Africa, our societies change so fast that any attempt to institutionalize a solution to a problem must not be ‘cut-in-stone’ (as some provisions of the Arusha Agreements were) especially when the focus of such provisions are on primordial elements like ethnic affiliation.

Why do I care so much about the dynamics of African society and its conflict implications?

This is because, findings (to be published soon) from my recent research of dynamics in a 90 year old conflict in Ghana (Alavanyo and Nkonya), has made me increasingly worried about the challenges that legal institutional arrangements pose to sustainability of dispute settlements. Especially in the midst of fast-pacing dynamic environment such as the African society.  In my findings, I realized that a court settlement in the past, though brought some interim peace, has now become the bane of cooperation in the area.


It is my inference therefore that the conflict resolution approach aimed at primordial causes of conflict, though may have been tenable many years ago when Africa was still in the traditional society stage, are not tenable in recent times and would likely not be in the future. What this may therefore require is that, whatever peace agreements or concessions that may be made in times of political conflict should bear in mind the possible status quo changes in the future. Many constitutional provisions in Africa have become a stumbling block to progress because of their entrenched statuses that make them a bane for innovative governance. They simply do not keep pace with the changing constitution and aspirations of the African society.

In summary, I believe that many attempted coups, conflicts and tensions in Africa, arise out of rational maneuvering based on the dynamics of the current times than out of primordial relationships.  So when the Ugandan president, Museveni, as mediator, urges Burundians “to forget their past sectarian political differences”, my response is that; Sir, the problem is truly about political differences but it has very little to do with the past, but more to do with the present.

Dennis Penu

Dennis Penu

Staff Writer at InPRA
Dennis Penu is a Ghanaian, and a Principal Research Assistant with the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana. He holds an advanced master's degree in Governance and Development studies from the University of Antwerp in Belgium and a research master’s degree in Peace and Development Studies from the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.
Dennis Penu

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