Before we begin let us define the word ‘dictionary’. According to one Google search item, a dictionary is ‘a collection of words and their definitions’. Simple and straightforward. Now, let’s use a dictionary to define the word ‘constitution’. Reading through the world renowned Cambridge Dictionary we are served with the following definition, ‘the set of political principles by which a state or organisation is governed, especially in relation to the rights of the people it governs’. Apart from states like the United Kingdom, a majority of the countries on earth have a single document which acts as the Rule of the Land. In Africa we too have constitutions but as time has shown, most of them are totally meaningless. It is clear that this document has been a constant thorn in the sides of our African leaders since most have treated it like a Microsoft Word document – chopping and changing sections as they see fit. The assault on African constitutions by its leaders has led to a wide range of human rights violations and one particular amendment (a fancy word for ‘chopping & changing’) is proving to be quite popular these days. Rules and regulations relating to the term of office for Presidency.
To put it mildly, African presidents do not want to relinquish power. Judging by the increasing amount of incidents, we can safely assume that there is something about the position of President that turns an ordinary man into a paranoid, egotistical and heartless individual. There is clearly something about the President’s seat that drives an individual to do all he can to ensure that it becomes his seat for life. In the quest for infinite power, African Presidents have demonstrated an array of tactics and tricks; intimidation, imprisonment, vote rigging, propaganda campaigns and this season’s hottest trend, fiddling with the constitution. When you look at the games that Presidents have been playing with people’s lives, you begin to wonder if there is a document that they circulate through email, detailing the process of taking a country hostage. ‘Dear Mr President, kindly find the attached PDF on how to mess with the people and seize power for a lifetime. Regards, Fellow Tyrant.’ In most African constitutions, a President is allowed a maximum of 2 terms in office. A typical term can be up to 5 years which means that the Supreme Law awards a President 10 years to do what he promised to do. As far as I am concerned that is a generous amount of time to make change and pass on the baton to the next leader. Unfortunately most African leaders are not trying to see anyone else take-over. The Presidential seat has stuck to them like glue.
Although Meaningless Constitutions are currently trending in Africa, it has actually been a problem for a while. Here is how it typical happens:
- Hopeful presidential candidate decides to run for office.
- On the campaign trail, he promises the people everything.
- He makes sure to include a part about ‘sharing the wealth of the country with the population’
- He gets elected
- He throws a party
- He survives two terms in office
- He changes the constitution because he is God’s gift to the country
- 30 years later, he still clings to power
As I write and you read, blood is being shed in Burundi. People are dying because one man is clearly afraid to lose power. People are dying because one man decided to fiddle with the constitution. Paranoid. Egotistical. Heartless. In April this year, Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza got bitten by the Presidential Bug and effectively announced that he will break the law (the maximum of two presidential terms) and seek a third term in office. Thirty or so days later, the Constitutional Court ruled in his amidst speculation that judges were intimidated; protestors take to the streets. In that same month, army officers attempt a classical coup d’état which fails. Sixty days later, Nkurunziza is reinstated as President in an election that was controversial to say the least. April to July, 3 months; that is all it took for a President to bend a country’s supreme law in manner that will directly benefit him. Isn’t it ironic how some governments tend to deliberate for years on laws that protect Human Rights but when it comes to political power, things can be changed in 90 days or less?
Fast forward to the present day and Nkurunziza has been in office for 5 months and the opposition to what some term as an ‘illegal presidency’ in growing by the day. I am so worried about the situation in Burundi that every hour, I google the country hoping to read about a resolution that will end the bloodshed and ensure that justice prevails. The reason I am very concerned about Burundi is due to its current similarity with my native Rwanda of 1994. In order words, I am petrified because the country’s current turmoil could easily spill over into Genocide. Burundi, just like Rwanda, is made up of Hutus and Tutsi. I am not going to go into further detail because the history between the two is not only bloody but it is also well documented.
Various news source has been reporting on the country, with a majority attributing 87 deaths to the current unrest. The killings have been primarily pinned on Security Forces but the government has been responding in a rather aggressive and defensive tone. When I read statements coming from Nkurunziza’s camp, all I see is, ‘Hey, leave us alone, Burundi is fine, Burundi is our concern, Burundi is a sovereign state, Burundi is safe and stop sticking your noises in Burundi’s business’. The crisis in Burundi has prompted the African Union to prepare a 5 000 men Peacekeeping Force that will be sent into Burundi to assist in saving lives and restoring order. It was extremely disappointing but hardly surprising when Burundi came out and said that they did not want the help and will ‘respond accordingly’ if the AU decides to send in the troops. Imagine! People are dying but Mr Pierre ‘I own the Constitution’ Nkurunziza is simply concerned with keeping his framed portrait hanging in businesses across the country.
In order to lay the foundation towards the true meaning of a constitution in Africa; Nkurunziza cannot be allowed to have his way, especially at the expense of a single human life. As events unfold in Burundi, we can all be guaranteed that African leaders are monitoring this situation closely and the prospect of Nkurunziza’s actions encouraging other leaders is very real. At the moment we have Rwanda’s Kagame who is taking the Referendum path to seek an extension and DRC’s Kabila who is looking like he will seek to extend his term as well. Unlike Burundi, there has been no reported bloodshed in response to amendments and in the case of Rwanda, some applaud Kabila since he ‘has engineered Rwanda’s economic turnaround’. In my opinion, serving your country well as a President should not come with the powers to bend the rules, even though referendums. I believe that a Presidents job is to work for the people and leave a legacy that the next President can work from. So on and so forth. If we continue to allow these 20 – 30 year presidential terms then we cannot be surprised that with each passing year, the main man gets more and more unpredictable in his quest to stay on. Finally, I wish our Presidents would take the following quote to heart, ‘True leaders do not create followers, they create more leaders’.