Burundi is not the beginning of an Arab Spring

And don’t expect one anytime soon… 


VENTURES AFRICA – Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza recently said his country faces a specific threat from the Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabab. The president was speaking for the first time since a failed coup attempt was launched last Wednesday as he was travelling abroad on government affairs.

An al-Shabab spokesman quickly shot down the assertion as “dumbfounding” – an assumed ‘truthful’ response from a group eager to build its terrorist group reputation and push its ‘anti-West’ agenda.

Frustrations over President Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term are driving the current protests. The failed coup bid by Godefroid Niyombare – just like those protests in other sub-Saharan countries like Burkina Faso – simply will not mark the beginning of an Arab Spring for sub-Saharan Africa.


Sub-Saharan Africa is politically different                      

A yearning to build democracy was long ago institutionalized in sub-Saharan Africa. The fall of communism – best marked by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 – initiated the swing towards democracy. Mozambique and Ethiopia are examples of countries that saw democracy gradually introduced following the fall of communist-backed regimes.

Many Arab countries started from scratch in adopting democracy whereas the introduction of constitutions, many of which provide for multiparty presidencies and governments as well as term limits, began in sub-Saharan Africa long before the Arab Spring.  Current protests, i.e. Burundi, are in response to leadership potentially going beyond the term limits which is very different from protests in response to the absence of term limits that had consequentially entrenched ruling parties for decades.


Sub-Saharan Africans are questioning the institutions that support democracy

The response from locals in Burundi are no different from those seen in other sub-Saharan African countries. Locals want stronger democratic institutions – however not easily defined by electorates across the continent.

The presidential win by Muhammadu Buhari and the All Progressives Congress in Nigeria demonstrates the potential response of an electorate questioning such institutions.

Exit polls and surveys suggest that Nigerians gradually grew frustrated with the accusations against the government for insufficient responses against terrorism and missing oil dollars. Polls do not necessarily say the accusations are correct but show a desire for more openness from government institutions.

Protesters in Burkina Faso demanded the exit of former President Blaise Compaore late last year because they believed the government was failing to create jobs for the youth and address the growing economic hardships for locals. Burundian protesters are equally bothered by economic returns that they believe are not matching their neighboring peers in Rwanda and Tanzania.

Declining economic opportunities underpinned Tunisian and Libyan frustrations during the Arab Spring. But the youth protested because they could not vote out the existing leadership at the time which is a more condemning complaint than simply accusing leadership of doing a bad job.

In sub-Saharan Africa, elections went on as normal. Nigerians voted out the leadership. South Africans kept the same leadership. Mozambicans followed suit.


Underlying lessons

Democracy is benefiting sub-Saharan African leaders. African civil societies are better holding democracies together. Security crackdowns and growing security budgets remain a concern.  But the increasing amount of elections and peaceful transitions is boosting the outlook.

The economic boom in many African countries is also an added benefit to still-young democracies. A bump in the pocket – in young and older democracies alike – usually means a positive re-affirmation at the ballot box for the ruling party.

As the wealth spreads to formerly untouched parts of society, the hopes for democracy grows. Not such a novel concept for democracy. On the other hand, an Arab Spring would be novel as well as unexpected.