Nkurunziza should do what is best for his people


WHAT’S happening in Burundi is a disgrace. President Pierre Nkurunziza’s response to the people who protest his seeking of the third-term has been despotic. He’s violently cracked down on his citizens, illegalized protests against his third-term aspirations, and his officials threatened to shut down the media houses that broadcast the protests. This is tyrannical rule at its best in my opinion. I wonder for how long it will persist. 

This week’s Constitutional Court’s decision to approve of Nkurunziza’s seeking of the third-term will make things worse for that country. There are allegations that the court was pressured to decide in favor of the presidency. The vice president of the court, Sylvere Nimpagaritse, fled the country before the court’s decision on Monday. He said the judges had come under “enormous pressure and even death threats” from senior officials.

Nkurunziza leads one of the very tribal, very poor, unstable countries in the world. One that’s been ravaged by conflicts for many years. He became president in 2005, after being elected by the two houses of parliament. He was re-elected in 2010 in an uncontested poll after opposition parties boycotted the elections, asserting they would be rigged. 

What’s happening in Burundi is a pattern that can be seen in many countries in Africa – where desperate political leaders cling on to power and use threats and violence to suppress dissenting voices.

The behavior of these political leaders has inflicted immeasurable damage post-independence. It’s their tyrannical, brutal rule, that has, on numerous occasions, sparked civil conflicts and left thousands dead. Couple this with tribalism, the result is a disheartening catastrophe that produces poverty and hopelessness. 

Here in South Africa, most of our neighbors have relatively lived in peace since early 1990s. It is Zimbabwe that’s been driven to the gutter by the power-hungry politicians from year 2000. And we South Africans have been affected by the political dynamics and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. 

The suppression of freedom and intimidation in Burundi is exactly what has plagued Zimbabwe and many other African countries over the past years.  One of the ways they repress freedom is by attacking and threatening the media. 

Politicians know very well how powerful the media is. They know the power it has to galvanize and inspire people. Hence the reason President Nkurunziza’s officials have resorted to threatening it.

It’s a disgraceful act that not only shames Burundi but also the entire Africa. I’ve always thought the media deserves respect – that those who wish to express themselves through this channel, may do so without any fear. Some say that the media is the voice for the voiceless, and I think they are correct.

If we want to surmount poverty, fight corruption and disease, then we need a free press. Those running the media must be free to broadcast or publish whatever they want. 

In his book titled “The Age of Turbulence”, the man who chaired the United States Federal Reserve for eighteen years, and was a close friend of Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan, argues that many of the countries that were hit by famine never had a free press. I’m not surprised.

A free press is an integral part of a developing society. And sadly, here in Africa, the media has been marginalized and dictated by corrupt politicians whose intent is to spread propaganda that serve their interests. 

There are many Burundians who back Nkurunziza though. That we should point out. 

I read this week that he’s mostly supported in rural areas, while the opposition’s stronghold is in the capital, Bujumbura. 

In such a situation I have always argued that the leaders involved should do what is best for their people. Nkurunziza has had the opportunity to lead his country, for two terms. During this time, there were no public protests against his presidency, because people’s expectations were that he will leave power after two terms. It is now that he seeks a third-term that protests have erupted on the streets. 

Given this reality, the best he ought to do for his people is to withdraw his candidacy and let his party elect someone else to contest the elections scheduled for next month. In my opinion, his withdrawal, the support for the new candidate and support for his own party would normalize the situation in the country. To promote peace, his actions would have to be coupled with the language of unity. This I think would make a significant difference. 

It’s not clear to me how the African Union and regional bodies could be involved in this political turmoil. Of course they could lead the dialogue, but if that dialogue does not aim at convincing Nkurunziza to voluntarily stop seeking the third-term, I doubt this chaos will disappear. 

I have argued many, many times that it’s time Africa reaches out to the future – that these leaders who repress liberties are a step backward in this young, fast-growing continent. 

We are observing a complicated, disgraceful situation in Burundi; made complicated by only one man.  The worst we shouldn’t do, is to lay back and do nothing. The lucky people like us, who still have the opportunity to speak in the media, should continue calling for the respect of individual freedoms in Burundi and across the African continent. We’ll speak for the voiceless, and hopefully one day, our voices will be heard.