Africa: A Tale of Two Elections

Hilbert headshotLast week the world witnessed two important elections that demonstrate Africa’s struggle to instate and protect the rule of law and accountable democratic governance. The recent elections in Nigeria and the upcoming process in Burundi are a study in contrasts.

On May 29 Nigeria inaugurated President Muhammadu Buhari. It was the first time in Nigeria’s 55 year history that it had conducted a peaceful and democratic transfer of power from one ruling party to another. The 2015 elections were peaceful and relatively free of fraud despite the real fear of post-election violence. Throughout the election, the Church in Nigeria was a constant voice for the common good. Church leaders met with both Presidential candidates to urge them to conduct a free and fair election.

President Buhari faces a host of serious challenges. The terrorist-insurgent group Boko Haram continues to attack mosques, villages and towns in the northeast of the country despite some recent successful operations by the Nigerian military and neighboring countries. Oil revenue makes up 53% of Nigeria’s federal budget and the fall in the price of oil has forced the government to make drastic budget cuts. The country ranks an abysmal 136 out of 175 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. And although Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil exporter, 62.6% of its population lives in poverty. Life expectancy is only 52 years. Despite these challenges, the election gives Nigerians renewed hopes for positive change.

The successful elections in Nigeria contrast sharply with recent events in Burundi. For ten years Burundi has lived in relative peace under a democratically elected government, a unified national military, and a new constitution that provides for majority rule (demanded by the majority Hutu population) with solid safeguards against repression of the minority Tutsi ethnic population.

Recently, President Pierre Nkurunziza has intensified repression of political opposition leaders, independent radio stations and the press. He has created and armed a political youth group that attacks political opposition members, resulting in about 100,000 people fleeing the country. In 2014 the Parliament foiled the President’s attempt to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. This year the President announced his candidacy for a third term arguing that the parliament had elected him in 2005 for his first term and not the people. Demonstrations and riots broke out, leading to 20 deaths. Tensions led to a failed coup d’état against the President in May.

Throughout the past year Church leaders have spoken out repeatedly to oppose a third term an action that would violate the constitution and the Arusha peace accord that brought an end to the bloody civil war. After the coup attempt, the Church urged an end to the violence and the start of political negotiations to end the impasse. When the President launched his bid for a third term, the Church called for the elections to be postponed until peace was restored, radio and media outlets were reopened, and all civil and political rights were restored. The government has failed to reinstate the rule of law, prompting the Church to withdraw its clergy from the election monitoring teams and the local electoral committees.

In response, the government did not renew the tenure of a Catholic priest who was the head of the country’s national human rights commission. On May 31 the Archbishop of Bujumbura, the capital, was the victim of a failed assassination attempt. The Church now seems under attack because of its opposition to the President’s actions.

In April, Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote a letter of solidarity to the Church in Burundi and another letter to National Security Advisor Susan Rice to urge the United States to support the positions that the Church in Burundi had taken to restore stability to the country.

The tale of two elections in Nigeria and Burundi demonstrates the challenges of fostering unity among diverse ethnicities and religious communities, building stable democratic governments, and establishing the rule of law. In both cases, the Church played a prominent role in lifting up the common good. The Church can be proud of its work to ensure fair elections.

Steve Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa for the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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