On the failure of constitutional engineering in Burundi

Burundi’s post-conflict constitution provides a robust array of formal checks to personal rule. Article 164 mandates a 60-40 Hutu-Tutsi split in National Assembly and 50-50 split in the Senate in order to ensure that the majority Hutu (85%) do not violate the rights of the minority Tutsi (14%). The Batwa (1%) are also guaranteed representation in Parliament through special nomination. Burundi also has a proportional representation (PR) system with a closed list that requires political parties to nominate no more than two thirds of candidates from the same ethnic group. Article 257 of the constitution reinforces the principle of ethnic balance by mandating a 50-50 split in the military. Furthermore, according to Article 300 any amendment to the constitution requires an 80% super-majority in the National Assembly and two thirds of the Senate (this is why Nkurunziza failed in an attempt to amend the constitution in early 2014).

So how did Nkurunziza manage to overcome all these formal institutional checks on his power and engineer a technical third term in office? For answers see here.

Hint: elite consensus on acceptable bounds of political behavior matters a great deal. Looking back, the framers of the Burundian constitution probably should have focused on intra-Hutu balance of power as much as they did on the Hutu-Tutsi balance. Nkurunziza succeeded because not enough Hutu elites (within his own divided party) were willing to punish his blatant contravention of term limits on a questionable technicality. Perhaps they will stand up to him if he tries again in 2020.

How did Nkurunziza manage to stay in power even after a coup?

Ronald Rugero offers an insightful take on the dynamics of intra-elite politics in Burundi:

…… the attempted coup pitted two ideological factions against each other within the ruling party. On one side are the “progressives” represented by Niyombare, the leader of the coup and first Hutu chief of staff in the history of the country. Backed by the West, the progressives blame the current crisis on Nkurunziza’s wanting to seek a third term at all costs, contrary to the Peace Accord of Arusha and the Burundian constitution.

On the other side, the “conservatives” rally behind Nshimirimana, for whom the current crisis goes far beyond a simple difference in the reading of the constitution. A central concern of this faction is the progressives’ close ties with Rwanda, which indirectly accuses Nkurunziza’s government of preparing a genocide similar to that of 1994, utilizing the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Imbonerakure (the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD). The conservatives, and Nkurunziza, are supported by Russia and China.

Many analysts make the mistake of thinking that the departures of CNDD-FDD personalities like the second vice president Gervais Rufyikiri or the President of the National Assembly Pie Ntavohanyuma (both supported by the “progressive” wing) affect the party. As long as the majority of the military establishment, most of whom are unknown to the media, are behind Nkurunziza, the whole party and the Burundian military will support him. In light of nascent rebellions like the one declared last week on the Burundi-Rwanda border, it is unrealistic to imagine that a swift attack could remove the power of Bujumbura and drive out Nkurunziza.

You can read the whole piece here.