Will Sierra Leone president Koroma learn the lessons of Burundi’s president? 

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 14 January 2016

president koroma off to washington - April 2015

As the debate about possible presidential third term or more time for president Koroma of Sierra Leone (Photo) grows, so too are the stakes getting higher for the return of brutal violence and anarchy.

When president Koroma was elected by the people of Sierra Leone in a controversial run-off election in 2007, few would have thought that the once charismatic and democratic politician, would one day harbour an ambition to extend his stay in office beyond the two terms limit, stipulated by the country’s constitution.

But such is politics in Africa today, which is no different to what it was forty years ago. What has changed is that, with the end of the cold war and the emergence of China in the global geo-politics, the political decks in Africa have been reordered.

There is a growing and worrying shift towards dictatorship, which favours the new Chinese economic and political expedition in Africa.

African leaders, flying the red communist flag in their closets, are very much conscious of their reliance on the huge foreign aid that pours in from the West, and are therefore less open about their communist tendencies and affiliations.

But make no mistake; whilst their countries’ post-independence constitutions may be modelled on the principles of multi-party democracy, their dictatorial instincts and hunger to remain in power indefinitely, are difficult to hide. Take a look at president Koroma.

president koroma more time brigadePresident Koroma of Sierra Leone knows all too well, how to play the game.

Today, his supporters in the ruling APC party are frantically engineering a ‘constitutional coup’ in advance of presidential and general elections in 2017.

This could see the announcement of another state of emergency, which may prompt parliament – dominated by Koroma’s loyalists, to extend the president’s term of office for two or more years, beyond 2017.

But what is likely to trigger such state of emergency? Is another public health crisis or engineered civil disturbance, heading for Sierra Leone like a runaway train?

There is little doubt, the vast majority of people in Sierra Leone would object to an extension of the president’s term in office. And if forced upon the people against the constitution, there is every reason to believe that the youths may resist, leading to widespread brutal violence.

president koroma inspects his militia - march 2015But it seems president Koroma has been preparing his security forces and the military for such eventuality.

Last year, he established a 500 strong, heavily armed presidential guard, of which he is in direct control.

During the last eight years in office, he has replaced all of the senior officers of the military and police force, in order to consolidate power and strengthen his political hand.

The ruling APC party youth wing too, has been strengthened, and if necessary may bear arms for party and president.

Student protests, once regarded as a strong barometer of political stability in Sierra Leone is no more. President Koroma has taken care of that.  He has ensured that university students are no longer living at university campus, from where they once plan and organise their protests.

More than $35 million funding, earmarked for the redevelopment of the university campus since 2013, remains unaccounted for.

But, with the backing and support of China, president Koroma and his ruling APC party – a sister political organisation of the Chinese Communist Party, are bracing themselves for a violent showdown with those opposed to his ‘third term – more time’ ambition.

Today, sources at State House in Freetown confirmed that members of the Chinese Communist party will be visiting the Koroma government next week.

When members of the Chinese Communist party visits an African country, especially one in which the issue of democracy, constitutionality and human rights are the only agenda in town, then you get a sense of how deeply worried the Chinese government must be feeling, about the possibility of losing their trusted friends in power.

There can only be one outcome of such a visit: More Chinese weapons, logistics, and human resources poured into Sierra Leone to shore up the Koroma government against the will of the people.

NkurunzinzaCan president Koroma learn the lessons of president Nkurunziza of Burundi (Photo: Centre)?

Writing for ‘the conversation.com’ an online academic journal published today, 14th January 2016, Catherine Gegout presents some hard facts and realities about developments in Burundi, in an article titled: ‘President Nkurunziza of Burundi still has a choice: war criminal or peace bringer?’

Perhaps president Koroma and his ruling APC, may after all reflect on the hard choices they face.  This is what she says:

leaked UN memo to the Security Council has warned that a peacekeeping force in the African nation of Burundi would be unable to stop large-scale violence should it erupt in an ongoing crisis caused by president Nkurunziza’s election for a third term.

However it is not too late for Nkurunziza to choose his legacy: either be remembered as a war criminal facing prison or death, or renowned for solving a dangerous political situation. A new round of peace talks is due to take place this month, but Burundi’s government recently announced there had been “no consensus” on a date.

Nkurunziza has the opportunity to engage fully in peace talks with the help of the African Union and the United Nations. By doing so, he will be able to show the Burundian people that he can lead his state to peace, and concentrate on what he can do best: providing further education for all, and in the long term, economic development, too.

Burundi5A questionable third term

Since April 2015, when Nkurunziza decided to run for another term, over 400 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced or have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

The president’s third mandate was considered illegal by some Burundians, the international community, and some experts because under the country’s constitution and the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement of 2000, only two terms are allowed.

However, the Burundian Constitutional Court countered that the renewal of the presidential term for another five years was not against the constitution of Burundi, because Nkurunziza was appointed by the parliament, and not elected by the people, for his first term – a decision that a leading opposition member claimed had been made under pressure by the Nkurunziza regime.

paul-kagame1Lengthening terms

But the stance of the international community seems hypocritical: presidents Paul Kagame in Rwanda and Sassou Nguesso in Congo-Brazzaville have also sought changes to the constitutions of their states to run for a third mandate, but there is more criticism of Nkurunziza for effectively doing the same. (Photo: Paul Kagame of Rwanda).

Even though the overall environment was “not conducive” to an inclusive, free and credible electoral process on election day, the UN said, “Burundians in most places went peacefully to the polls to cast their ballots”.

The head of the electoral commission, Pierre Claver Ndayicariye, told reporters that Nkurunziza won 70% of the votes cast. This needs to be acknowledged by the international community.

Violence was fomented by both the government and the demonstrators. The government has led a campaign of political repression that has included beatings, arrests and house-to-house searches, with nearly 3,500 detained.

Demonstrators have also been violent, and have attacked military sites in the capital Bujumbura.

Today, the president can either encourage violence further, and face being handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague or he can lead Burundi out of violence, and engage with mediating the conflict.

Nkurunziza is certain to face the ICC if he does not stop Burundi from descending into further violence, because Burundi has ratified the ICC statute. The prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, has already warnedthat she would act if wide-scale abuses are committed.

Koroma asks Gbagbo to step down from office
Koroma asks Gbagbo to step down from office

Nkurunziza will be in the same situation as other heads of states who have been wanted by the ICC: Omar al Bashir in Sudan in 2009 (though investigations into alleged war crimes in Darfur were halted in 2014); Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast (whose trial at the ICC begins this month); and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. (Photo: Did president Koroma warn Gbagbo to listen to the will of the people or face the ICC?).

A violent end is another possibility, and was the fate of Laurent Kabila in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001, and Gaddafi in 2011.

At the Crossroads

That said, president Nkurunziza could nonetheless become the leader who prevents another civil war. From 1993 to 2006, an estimated 300,000 people were killed in Burundi due to political conflict with ethnic manifestations, and there are fears that this may happen again if the matter is not resolved in talks.

For the moment, as academic Devon Curtis says, the crisis in Burundi is political and not ethnic. To avoid further bloodshed, it must remain so, and president Nkurunziza could lead the way out of the current crisis by engaging with the African Union which is prepared to help stop violence, and with the United Nations which is currently at loss as to how to deal with further violence, but which can help with mediation.

To alleviate the tense situation, Nkurunziza needs to make the most of the window of opportunity of negotiation he still has with the international community.

Likewise regional actors who show bias need to stay clear from the mediation process. Rwanda in particular has been backing demonstrators in Burundi.

Nkurunziza is at a crossroads. The path he takes will be a crucial one for the country – and himself.

About the author:

Catherine Gegout is a lecturer in International Relations at the  University of Nottingham, UK, writing in The Conversation

Editor’s Note: Photos in this article are not part of Catherine’s article.


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