The effects of extending presidential terms in Africa - the case of Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda

The effects of extending presidential terms in Africa – the case of Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda

Attempts to extend presidential terms in countries of the Great Lakes region such as Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda are fueling political and social tensions that could well reignite ethnically-based violence in a part of Africa with a history of genocide.

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By Tendaishe Tlou

The tendency for African leaders to extend or prolong their terms in office seems to be slowly regaining momentum. Between April and November 2015, the Great Lakes region is once again at the brink of turmoil, brought about by leaders attempting to extend their terms in office in Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. Those who hold political office seem to have vested interests in maintaining the status quo. Paul Kagame of Rwanda, in power since the end of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, received a green light from the Senate to stay in power for another term or more. Yoweri Museveni, in office since 1986 when he emerged as the victor in the Ugandan civil war, has secured a prolonged stay and is biding to extend his term again through constitutional amendment. In April 2015, Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi launched a controversial bid to extend his stay to three consecutive terms, triggering massive protests. This culture poses a threat to peace, human rights and democracy in the region, but can still be averted for the greater good.

In Africa, political leaders seem to occupy comfortable offices; being among the highest paid public servants. Political leaders in the Great Lakes are deliberately disregarding the constitution by intentionally violating the supreme law of the country to the peril of democracy and good governance. President Obama (2015), in addressing the African Union, lamented that “African democracy is at risk when leaders refuse to step down when their terms end.” This is a concern which must not be ignored. Burundi has suffered a dramatic rise in killings, torture, arrests and detentions since Nkurunziza launched a controversial bid to prolong his term April (Landry, 2015). In the same vain, Uganda is also experiencing 2011-style political violence and arrests of human rights activists since the constitutional amendment by Museveni’s administration to contest a fourth term. Africa is yet to see how disgruntled Rwandans will react to the approval given by the Senate to allow Kagame to run for another term, as it is impossible to assume that there are no voices of dissent, despite the majority expressing the need for him to rule for another term.

It is apparent that leaders in the Great Lakes region do not grasp the virtues of good governance and democracy, where institutions are protected from manipulation for political and economic expediency. When political leaders deliberately annihilate governance institutions in the eyes of young politicians, they are entrenching a culture of corruption and a cycle that puts power above legitimate social purpose. These leaders “lack a multi-generational perspective, especially the effects of poor governance, on future generations” (Qobo, 2015). When the law is deliberately broken by the sovereign under the social contract, the outcome is the same: violence upon violence. Leaders in the Great Lakes forget that this region is a hotbed for violence and genocide.

In 1959 and 1994, Burundi and Rwanda respectively experienced deadly genocides. Civil war in Burundi claimed some 300,000 lives by the time it ended in 2006, and the fertile conditions for violence still persist. Nkurunziza’s defiance of the constitution and amendment to stay in power despite pervasive protests will have potentially dire consequences. Any political conflict might assume ethnic dimensions leading to ethnic cleansing, as occurred during the 1959 genocide and the 1993 civil war . “We are extremely worried by what we are seeing in Burundi at this moment: this increase of political violence and the extremely alarming ethnically-based hate speech,” warned French Deputy Ambassador, Alexis Lamek (2015). Whilst Nkurunziza was tasked with rebuilding institutions that were destroyed during violent conflict and is now ironically aggravating the situation, his cronies threaten the masses with a spate of military violence by ‘pulverizing’ regime opponents who do not lay down arms (Landry, 2015). Nkurunziza and others are taking the country towards the abyss by mobilising violence against his illegitimate government that will destroy the nation and region at large through a ripple effect.


The Burundi conflict is quickly attracting international attention, as illuminated by France’s recent call at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, vying to present a Draft Resolution outlining steps to end the crisis, including sanctions against those fomenting violence. All this could have been avoided if the international community had put their heads together and blocked Nkurunziza’s prolonged stay in office for a third term. Instead, the pressure was not enough until it was too late. Reacting in such situations always leads to protracted and vicious bloodbaths. A situation that could have been dealt with nationally or regionally has suddenly become an international crisis, thereby further complicating matters. First, France is calling for sanctions against those perpetuating violence, yet the case of Zimbabwe for instance showed that targeted sanctions do not work on the intended politicians or conspirators of violence, but always cripple the economy to the detriment of the general population. It is apparent that the ruling elite always has a way of avoiding the sting of sanctions, such as off-shore accounts and foreign investments. On the other hand, it is very difficult to collate data to prove who exactly is responsible for insighting violence

The relevance of the International Criminal Court in such contexts

In a scenario wherein national institutions or regional structures are impotent and have failed to act as remedies to a conflict, it is therefore sensible to refer such issues to international bodies such as the ICC. In my previous article on the ICC, I vehemently argued that Africa must not pull out of the Rome Statute primarily because of the immaturity of African institutions to deal with such matters and, secondly, because of the ongoing crimes against humanity in African States. Most recently, Kagame was quoted saying, “Burundi’s leaders are carrying out “massacres” against their own people. They should learn from what happened here (Rwanda)”. It has also been learned that the Senate President warned that, “today, the police shoot in the legs…but when the day comes that ‘we’ tell them to go to ‘work,’ do not come crying to us” (Landry, 2015). ‘Work’ in this context implies institutionalised violence by the state to unleash mass killings against regime opponents. This is irrefutable evidence that pin points the culprits in the conflict: the leadership. Whatever the Senate President pronounces publicly entails that it is a Presidential directive. The death of 240 civilians since April is one too many. This forms a basis for both regional leaders and the African Union to refer this case to the ICC and get rid of such draconian leadership. To ensure sustainable peace and human security on the continent, the AU needs to be assertive in the face of such ignorant utterances and actions. The continent needs to move one way and that is forward, not one step forward and five backwards, retrogressive to all the efforts invested in peace and security on the continent.

Way forward

  • The African continent must take the initiative and be pro-active to halt/avert extensions of Presidential terms and mass genocides through the use of such instruments such as the Continental Early Warning System.
  • The AU must expedite the working of its governance machinery, such as the African Court for Human and People’s Rights, to safeguard the continent from perceived and real threats against humanity.
  • Refer such cases to the ICC if regional mechanisms are impotent.
  • African leaders must groom and appreciate that new blood can also manage the country better than themselves.

Tendaishe Tlou is a freelance researcher and writer specialising in human rights, environmental security, peace and governance issues. He holds a BSc (Honours) Degree in Peace and Governance with Bindura University of Science Education and a Post-graduate Certificate in Applied Conflict Transformation. He works with various NGOs and Government Ministries in Zimbabwe and South Africa. 


  1. Landry, C (2015) France seeks UN action to halt Burundi killings, AFP.
  2. Lamek, A (2015) French Deputy Ambassador in “France seeks UN action to halt Burundi killings,” AFP.
  3. Obama, B (2015) Address to the African Union, Ethiopia.
  4. Qobo, M (2015) Civil society has a job to do against corruption, Pan-African Institute, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

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