The crisis in Burundi started in April of 2015 when the President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, decided to stand for a third term in office. The problem that everyone had with him standing for a third term is that in their constitution mandates that a president can serve only two terms max.
This was the first indicator that he was becoming an authoritarian leader, as he demonstrates “rejection of democratic rules of the game” (Ziblatt and Levitsky, 2018) by purposely violating the constitution.
Protest broke out all around the country following the news. The protest started off peaceful, but quickly turned violent. Citizens took to the streets willing to risk their lives to oppose Nkurunziza’s third term. The protests were solely political. The citizens of Burundi realize what Nkurunziza is trying to do so they all came together attempting to stop him before it webt too far.
Within a month of Nkurunziza’s decision to stand, the Army General Niyombare declared that President Nkurunziza had been “relieved of his duties” by a coup. (Matfess, 2015). There are some people that argue the coup was Nkurunziza’s idea so he had justification to for cracking down on everything. Although the coup ended up being a failed attempt, Nkurunziza came back into power and slide further into authoritarianism.
The main qualities of an authoritarian leader are denial of legitimacy of political opponents, tolerating or encouraging violence and readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media. Each one of these qualities alone are enough to say that a leader is authoritarian.
With Nkurunziza’s return to Burundi, came reports of a suppression on independent Burundian media (Matfess, 2015). He also heavy targeted opposition strongholds and civil society representatives (Siegle, 2015). These are some more indicators of an authoritarian leader. By targeting the opposition strongholds, he is denying the legitimacy of political opponents. In doing so he sends out a call for violence.
According to Vdem.net, the government censorship effort increased sharply leading up to the election and the amount of parties on the ballot decreased. The government put strict rules on the media leading to less of a chance for the opposing party to get their information out to the masses.
After announcing his standing for a third term President Nkurunziza went to the constitutional court to do some convincing. The court’s seven judges were placed under enormous pressure and received death threats from political elites to approve Nkurunziza’s campaign (Matfess, 2015). This shows the corruption that started to happen within the counties roots.
President Nkurunziza was then re-elected in July despite the claims of lack of credibility by many outside countries and institutions including the US, the European union and the UN. This was not a free and fair election as the opposition party boycotted the elections, leaving Nkurunziza with basically no competition. Looking at a graph of the level of democracy in Burundi there is a noticeable decline in the democracy starting the year Nkurunziza was first elected in 2005
The protest did not get any better after he was elected, in fact it got worse. There were thousands of people involved and several killed during the protests. The People were out raged and almost returned to civil war. However, the catholic church intervened and calmed the crowd before it could get that far. Other political institutions in Burundi such as the UNHCR also stepped in to voice concerns about the violence that was taking place.
Nkurunziza is willing to do anything to hold his position in power. The reason he might want to remain in power is to control the countries monopolies, natural resources and land. However, he has made poor economic decisions through his presidency leaving his country in deep poverty. Burundi is considered to be one of the poorest countries in the world.
According to Przeworski and Limongi’s theories, a democratic country experiencing a declining economy is less likely to survive. So, there is no surprise that the democracy in Burundi eroded. However, this is just one of the reasons for the fall of their democracy.
The most ironic thing of It all is the party that supported President Nkurunziza was the CNDD-FDD or the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy. What makes this so ironic is that their party stands for the defense of democracy, however ever since the start of Nkurunziza’s presidency there has been a decline in the level of democracy to the point that it is now.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Crown, 2018.
Joseph Siegle December 10, 2015. “The Political and Security Crises in Burundi.” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, africacenter.org/spotlight/the-political-and-security-crises-in-burundi/.
Matfess, Hilary, et al. “The Tragic Death of Democracy in Burundi.” The National Interest, The Center for the National Interest, nationalinterest.org/feature/the-tragic-death-democracy-burundi-12927.