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The dilemma of electoral assistance in Central Africa
The dilemma of electoral assistance in Central Africa
AU Must Re-engage in Burundi to Push for Inclusivity as a Way out of Violence
AU Must Re-engage in Burundi to Push for Inclusivity as a Way out of Violence
Commentary / Africa

The dilemma of electoral assistance in Central Africa

Election fever has spread across Central Africa. For the second time since the end of the disastrous civil wars in the region, electoral processes have been launched in Burundi, Rwanda, Central African Republic and the Congo.

National governments have taken over a process that the international community had previously designed, financed, secured and driven. This year’s ballots are thus the first real test for the democratic consolidation in Central Africa. The biggest challenge for local peace-builders today is how to ensure free and transparent elections without outside help.

The 1990s were characterised by mass violence, with the Rwandan genocide, the civil war in Burundi, recurring insurgencies in Central African Republic, and manifold rebellions in the Congo. The past decade has been one of political transitioning, the end of dictatorial rule, and democratisation, with the exception of Rwanda. The current electoral processes are thus the direct result of the latter period.

Burundians started the electoral cycle with local elections on 24 May, which will be followed by presidential and legislative ballots in June and July respectively. Despite the end of the civil war in Burundi, ethnic cleavages that nurtured the conflict continue to play an important role in politics today.

Central African Republic, which has had a shaky national reconciliation process, is only slowly emerging from instability. In order to be re-elected after the coup that brought him to power in 2003, General François Bozizé tried to rush the elections. The apparent irregularities and technical blunders, however, drew the attention of the opposition and the international community. President Bozizé was forced to accept one postponement after the other. Elections were initially planned for April but got postponed to May, and now, they are scheduled for October.

In the Congo, the preparations for the presidential elections in 2011, which had been delayed considerably, have taken a start in an atmosphere of controversies. There are rumors around the revision of the constitution, the voting registration, and electoral laws, as well as the murder of Floribert Chebeya, the leader of the main Congolese human rights organisation.

Rwanda is a country that does not follow the regional pattern and that needs assistance in opening up democratic space. Since the end of the genocide in 1994, President Paul Kagame has dominated the political sphere. As the country is approaching presidential elections in August, the regime is becoming more insecure despite, or maybe because of, its 95% victory in the last ballots. Arrests of politicians from the inner circle of power and acts of aggression against political opponents have multiplied. Critical voices have been silenced as made clear by the eviction of Human Rights Watch and the suspension of two newspapers, accused of inducing public disorder.

A rapid electoral check-up shows how far these regimes have come, but at the same time it reveals how fragile their democratic gains are.

In Burundi, out of many political struggles, relatively independent electoral institutions have been created. The opposition was able to influence the composition of the current electoral commission, which had previously been packed only with loyalists of the regime. Improvements in the electoral registration process have prevented the worst manipulations. Registering voters, which used to be conducted by local partisan officials and which required an identification card that had to be purchased, has led to outcries by the opposition. The international community has come to the rescue by financing the documents.

However, authoritarian tendencies remain. Some officials loyal to the government.  have interrupted meetings of the opposition, closed some of its offices, and arrested some of its members. Acts of aggression against political figures and clashes between party youths show that the political pacification process is incomplete in a society traumatised by 13 years of war, where weapons are widespread and where many youths and demobilised are unemployed.

The situation has deteriorated after the elections, which national and international observers had qualified as fair. The opposition has denounced massive fraud and disowned the electoral commission. Candidates are retreating from the presidential elections on 28 June, leaving the President Pierre Nkurunziza as the sole contestant. While a return to war is unlikely, the electoral impasse has the potential to undermine the democratic gains that have been achieved.

In the Central African Republic, the Libreville Accord in 2008 was the start of a period of political pluralism, despite the fact that the president came from the ranks of the military. A diversified opposition and a free press have been consolidated during the Bozizé regime. However, the path to elections is still long and chaotic. The electoral commission, which is loyal to the president and widely dysfunctional, remains a point of contention as it has slowed down electoral preparations rather than advancing them.

Manipulations of voter registration are numerous, including demographic projections, tilted in favor of the president’s party. Lastly, the struggle for electoral victory has made the peace process of secondary importance. Only minor advances have been achieved with regard to the demobilisation and reintegration of rebels. The insecurity that prevails in a country in which 8 out of 14 prefectures are occupied by armed groups is a major obstacle to the organisation of electoral campaigns and polls.

Political violence, questionable outgoing government officials, and unequal power relations make a change of government highly likely. The current elections could either lead to a consolidation or to a deterioration of democracy — to avoid the latter, the international community faces the difficult task of ensuring electoral democratic standards without interfering in the electoral process, which nowadays is the full responsibility of national actors.

The mistrust, or even resentment, of the governments in Central Africa towards the international community makes an engagement even more difficult. The Rwandan president has openly criticised the international community for lecturing 11 million Rwandans about their rights and what is supposed to be good for them. In Burundi, the government has arranged for the replacement of the representative of the UN mission, which has been accused of being too close to the opposition. In the Congo, the desire to see the UN mission, MONUC, leave has much to do with the attempt to get rid of the “indiscrete eyes” of the international community during the 2011 elections. However, while the outgoing leaders denounce the interference of the international community, the Congolese opposition sees its presence as a crucial element to ensure a fair process.

The international community should lend its support to all these electoral processes, but in a more consultative and coherent way. They should focus on ensuring that the democratic gains are not reversed, while making sure that they leave full responsibility to the national governments. In short, the international community must guide, but not decide.

More specifically, this means that the international community needs to thoroughly evaluate the political situation before providing any electoral assistance. Once they are ready to give support, they should offer their expertise to election organisers and financial support for technical preparations (eg, voter registration, divisions into constituencies, civic education, logistics, etc). During the preparatory phase, the international community should play an advisory role, and during the implementing phase, an evaluative role by deploying a temporary police force to help secure the vote if necessary and an election observation mission to remain in the country until the election process is completed.

While the international community is more or less fulfilling its tasks in Central Africa, it does so in a cautious and sometimes even reluctant way — all without any particular coherence. It is often ready to finance, but rarely to evaluate (Rwanda, Central African Republic); and it is often ready to advise on preparations, but rarely to participate in securing elections (Burundi). Given the fact that the international community is only involved in certain parts of the process, it is easy to point to its failures, however. A more coherent approach would allow the international community to improve its dual role of advising and evaluating and in doing so strengthen its contribution to the democratic consolidation of the region.

In short, this year is a test for both the national and international actors. The former are responsible for the outcome of the elections. The challenge for the latter is to find the right balance of providing support for the electoral process without encroaching on national sovereignty. For that reason, neighboring countries and African institutions (regional or continental ones, such as the African Union) need to play the primary role: the regional initiative for peace in Burundi, made up of Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, is an example to consider. For the time being, the difficulty for the international community is to support the implementation of elections without taking over the responsibilities of national institutions.

Op-Ed / Africa

AU Must Re-engage in Burundi to Push for Inclusivity as a Way out of Violence

Originally published in The East African

The constitutional changes, if passed, could reset the clock on term limits for President Pierre Nkurunziza — potentially giving him an additional 14 years in power — and paving the way for the dismantling of ethnic balances embedded in the 2000 Arusha Agreement, which brought an end to Burundi’s protracted civil war. 

The official results of the Burundi referendum were announced on Monday 21 May. Unsurprisingly, the government's proposed changes were approved. The opposition has refused to recognise the result. In this op ed, published in the East African just after the vote, our Project Director for Central Africa and our African Union Adviser look at the context of this fraught referendum and lay out measures the AU should now take.

Burundi held a referendum on Thursday amid growing violence, and intimidation as the government tried to silence voices opposed to its plan to alter the constitution.

The changes, if passed could reset the clock on term limits for President Pierre Nkurunziza — potentially giving him an additional 14 years in power — and paving the way for the dismantling of ethnic balances embedded in the 2000 Arusha Agreement, which brought an end to Burundi’s protracted civil war.

According to the new Constitution, clauses guaranteeing the minority Tutsi community a 40 or 50 per cent share of posts in some state institutions will be reviewed over the next five years.

In the context of the ruling CNDD-FDD’s increasing authoritarianism, there seems little chance that these assurances would survive such a review.

The African Union (AU), as an Arusha guarantor, has an obligation to uphold the Accord’s central principles. It must re-engage to prevent Burundi sliding back into open conflict ahead of the 2020 elections.

Climate of fear

Since the referendum was announced in December, the government’s political crackdowns, together with local revenge attacks and racketeering, have led to increasing violations of human rights.

The 430,000 refugees in neighbouring countries — the majority of whom fled in 2015 and 2016 due to intimidation of opponents of President Nkurunziza’s third term — show little sign of wanting to come home, despite being pressured by host countries to return.

The security services and the Imbonerakure, the CNDD-FDD’s youth wing, have targeted opposition party members and citizens calling for a no-vote, in particular members of the FNL-Rwasa party, which challenges the CNDD-FDD for the Hutu vote in-country.

Since the referendum was announced in December, the government’s political crackdowns, together with local revenge attacks and racketeering, have led to increasing violations of human rights.

Police and intelligence agents have carefully monitored campaign meetings and those who call openly for a no-vote face intimidation or worse. Those lucky enough to be arrested, rather than disappearing, join a growing number of civil society activists in prison, most recently human rights defender Germain Rukuki, sentenced to 32 years in prison for supposedly undermining state security.

To anyone familiar with the ethnic violence of Burundi’s past, motivated, in the words of the Arusha Agreement, by the desire to seek or retain political power, these arrests and disappearances are worrying.

Worse still, the government is propagating a virulent public discourse inciting violence against all who oppose it. The president himself set the tone on December 12 when, in announcing the referendum, said anyone opposing it would be “crossing a red line.” Since then, party militants have attacked those campaigning against the referendum or for voting no.

The government’s intention to dismantle the gains of Arusha has long been clear. In March 2014 it tried, but failed, to revise the Constitution through parliament.

Since 2015, the government has advanced its agenda through a carefully constructed doctrine according to which it, and by extension Burundian Hutus, are the victims of an international plot.

While ordinary people have remained resistant to the spectre of ethnic division, the administration has pushed what Crisis Group has previously called “ethnicisation from above,” wherein the country’s troubles are laid at the door of individuals of Tutsi ethnicity (such as Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame or former president Pierre Buyoya) in association with others (the United Nations Commission of Enquiry, the European Union, the International Criminal Court and the AU) who speak out against abuses.

Increasingly the divide is painted in stark religious terms: Between a divinely ordained president and his enemies’ evil machinations.

African solutions

Changing the Constitution in order to stay in power has long been a grey area in the AU’s governance doctrine. Consequently, the continent’s response to Burundi’s three-year-old crisis has been uneven.

The AU reacted early and firmly to the initial turmoil. As events unfolded, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) voiced its concern and attempted to deploy mediators, envoys and human rights observers. As violence peaked at the end of 2015, the PSC authorised a stabilisation force, MAPROBU.

Troops were never deployed, following a relative calming of the situation in-country at the start of 2016.

Bruised and shaken by the MAPROBU debacle, the AU ceded responsibility to the East African Community, under the principle of subsidiarity.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni became the chief negotiator and former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa was appointed facilitator of talks between the government and the now exiled opposition. But sensing that Mkapa had little political backing from African presidents, Nkurunziza refused to give ground. The mediation, which barely got off the ground, has now comprehensively stalled.

Since 2016, the violence in Burundi has remained at a steady rate without threatening to spill over the country’s borders, allowing Nkurunziza to claim a return to normality. While some African leaders and officials are alive to the country’s fragility, others buy into the government’s view.

As a guarantor of Arusha, the AU should resist the erosion of the agreement’s key provisions embodied in the approved constitutional changes. Its half-hearted response to the referendum – January’s AU summit simply called for “a broad consensus of all stakeholders” — will not suffice in the face of a concerted effort to dismantle the very political settlement that brought peace to Burundi.

In a country scarred by ethnic violence, the risks posed by the constitutional changes are huge and the case for preventative action [...] overwhelming.

In a country scarred by ethnic violence, the risks posed by the constitutional changes are huge and the case for preventative action (a key tenet of the AU’s peace and security mandate) overwhelming.

With elections now just two years away, talks between government and opposition aimed at creating a conducive environment for a vote in 2020 are more vital than ever.

The opposition’s mistrust of the ruling CNDD-FDD has deepened to the point where some see violence as the only way of exerting pressure for change. To avoid future escalation, the AU must re-engage now.

The current chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, should use his good offices and the PSC should put Burundi back on its agenda. Greater pressure should be exerted on Bujumbura to open up the political space — including allowing exiled opposition activists to return without fear of harassment or prosecution — and to put an end to its divisive and inflammatory discourse. Without this, the alternative, sooner or later, will be violence.

Contributors

Project Director, Central Africa
richmoncrieff
Adviser, African Union Relations
ElissaJobson