In central Africa, the geopolitical upheavals of the early 90s have had a profound impact, with civil wars affecting 4 countries in particular, countries which are currently much discussed: Burundi (October 1993 to November 2003), Congo (June to October 1997), DRC (October 1996 to May 1997 and August 1998 to December 2002) and Rwanda (October 1990 to July 1994).
These periods of war were followed by periods of transition, which of course did not all have the same foundations, as they happened after military victories in Congo and Rwanda, whereas power sharing was the outcome in Burundi and the DRC, where there were no clear winners or losers.
Periods of transition
The main aim of these periods of transition was to lead to national reconciliation, democratic elections and the emergence of the rule of law. In the case of Burundi and the DRC the creation of a national republican army, regrouping otherwise hostile forces, became an additional objective. This gamble paid off in Burundi, whereas the reform of the security sector in the DRC failed.
Ultimately, the transition in these four countries allowed a consolidation of the political domination of the persons or groups who, in one way or another, prevailed in the war.
In Congo and Rwanda the victories of Sassou Nguesso and Paul Kagame left no doubt that the victors would impose their laws on the defeated parties and redefine the political game to their advantage. It’s hardly surprising then, that they both won their first post-transition elections: Sassou in 2002 and Kagame in 2003.
In Burundi, the Hutu rebels of the CNDD-FDD and the FNL did not manage to overthrow the Tutsi government by force, but instead they succeeded in definitively changing the political game by allowing the Hutu majority to gain power through majority rule. The CNDD-FDD, the only Hutu rebel party to have taken part in the transition process, benefited greatly, by winning the first elections in 2005.
In the DRC, the first war enabled the Kabila family to gain power and the second did nothing to change that. Joseph Kabila managed to position himself advantageously at the end of the 1+4 transition, winning the 2006 presidential election.
The success of the objectives set during these transitions varied from country to country, but they allowed on the one hand, the adoption by referendum of new constitutions (in 2002 in Congo, 2003 in Rwanda, and 2005 in Burundi and the DRC) limiting the number of presidential terms to two, and on the other hand, a legitimisation of the power of those who gained it either directly or indirectly by force. As Mao Zedong said: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
The elections and their illusion
The fact that ex war chiefs won the elections does not necessarily mean that they were rigged. Different objective reasons contributed, some of which we will consider below.
In the case of Congo and Rwanda, the control exerted by the authoritarian regimes over the public space left very little room for opposition parties to exist. The monumental scores achieved by these two presidents, whose countries were ravaged by ethnic wars, illustrate this well: Sassou Nguesso was elected with 89.41% of the vote in 2002 and 78.61% in 2009, whilst Paul Kagame got 95% of the vote in 2003 and 93% in 2010.
In Burundi, the CNDD-FDD clearly won the 2005 legislative elections (with almost 60% of the vote) allowing its leader, Pierre Nkurunziza, to be elected President of the Republic by Congress. The power of the CNDD-FDD quickly became authoritarian and lead to a boycott of the 2010 elections by the majority of opposition forces. Pierre Nkurunziza was subsequently elected with over 90% of the vote and his party became a super-majority in parliament.
In the DRC Joseph Kabila, who centred his 2006 campaign on the reunification of a country divided by war, was elected President of the Republic in the second round with a comfortable majority of 58%. The exercise of power in the country became more and more authoritarian, leading to the 2011 changes to the constitution which reduced from two to one the number of rounds in the presidential election. This, of course, favoured the re-election of Joseph Kabila in the chaotic elections of November 2011.
In all four cases, these elections created the illusion that the accession to power was decided at the ballot box, even if the elections weren’t totally transparent. This illusion kept everyone happy, except that they were not about an accession to power but rather maintaining power.
Aside from the electoral irregularities in certain cases, you can see that the people, ground down by war, often preferred to vote for ‘those who brought peace and stability’ or to prevent a defeat which would be synonymous with war. We remember for example, from 2011: “If Kabila loses, it’s war.” We must, however, admit that it is difficult for an incumbent regime to lose an election. Faced with an often impoverished and divided opposition, the ruling party frequently uses State resources (finances, justice, media, administration) to establish itself, unseating its rivals and assuring electoral victory.
The International Community also contented itself with the illusion these elections offered, partly so as not to jeopardise their interests in these countries by getting angry with their “strong men”, but also because they couldn’t see any alternative. They also looked the other way during the constitutional changes in the DRC in 2011 and the rise of authoritarianism in Rwanda for the same reason: “Who else if not Kagame? If not Sassou? If not Kabila?”
The end of a cycle
It is between 2015 and 2017 (which means now) that the four presidents will arrive at the end of their final terms in office. The different parties involved (the people, the opposition, the International Community and even some at the heart of the current regimes) have tried to act as if they believe that the presidents will leave power in accordance with the constitutions. The opposite has in fact happened; they have all tried to stay in power through a revision of the constitution or similar procedure.
It has already happened in Congo and Rwanda. The “strong men” have just granted themselves the right to stay in power for several more years through illusion-elections.
In Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza appears, for the moment, to have succeeded in staying in power thanks to the support of the majority of the security forces. His constitutional revision failed but he nevertheless managed to obtain a third term which has thrown the country into a cycle of violence.
In the DRC, there is no longer any doubt that Joseph Kabila wants to stay in power, although his opposition, civil society and the International Community are all pushing for democratic change. Like his counterparts, it is unlikely that Joseph Kabila, who is in complete control of the State (army, justice etc.) will accept to give up the power that his father obtained by force.
The events of the last few months in Central Africa have demonstrated that the theory of “two terms and leave” was an illusion, that the civilised transfer of a power which has been obtained by force is not straightforward. It is, therefore, the end of a cycle, the failure of a certain approach to stabilizing post-conflict countries which started at the beginning of the century.
Is the use of force the only way to get rid of those leaders who remain? This option would constitute a return to square one without the slightest guarantee that the new victors would leave power peacefully when the time comes.
Should we, nonetheless, despair at the sight of democratic change in Central Africa? Today all the regimes in power feel obliged to hold elections, even if they are imperfect, to give the appearance of normality. Elections have thus become the norm and we should capitalise on this advance in the future when considering the stability of post-conflict countries. The important thing now, is to ensure that these elections reflect the will of the people.
Pictures : Photo: (From left to right) President of Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza (EPA/BRITTA PEDERSEN) ; President of Congo Denis Sassou-Nguesso (EPA/JULIEN WARNAND); President of Rwanda Paul Kagame (EPA/GEORGI LICOVSKI); President of DRC Joseph Kabila (EPA/MICHAEL KAPPELER).