There are still African countries which are notorious when it comes to not upholding constitutional terms limits and amending constitutions so that the presidents get to stay in power for long. The desired system of checks and balances is eroded away and ultimately constititutions become mere tools that the presidents use to entrench their power.
The situation is Burundi is a cause for concern for anyone who sees sense in upholding the rule of law and the separation of powers. Constitutions are meant to define where power lies, how it is exercised, who appoints those that exercise the power, who removes them, and circumstances in which they can be removed. Burundi's president Pierre Nkurunziza has sought to tilt the constitutional provisions in his favour. All he wants is to be in power for an excruciatingly long time.
Recently a referendum was held in Burundi to bolster the moves to increase the powers of the president and to make provisions for two more terms. Nkurunziza's insatiable taste for power pushed this into happening and the percentage of those who voted "Yes" was 73%. One would be baffled why such a majority can approve such meaningless approach to governance but this can only be explained by the climate of fear and repression prevailing in Burundi. Only 19% voted "No" in the vote which scored a turnout of 96%. Spoiled ballots made up 4%of votes cast.
Nkurunziza is the latest in a long line of African leaders to tweak the constitution in order to stay in power, along with Rwanda's Paul Kagame, Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, Cameroon's Paul Biya and others.
What is evident in Burundi has been a gradual but powerful erosion of constitutionalism, only confirmed on the day of the referendum. This now means Nkurunziza now has a lot of powers and he will stay in office for much longer. The country's laws are weak and wide, the perfect concatenation of a repressive state. A presidential decree was issued earlier this month that anyone advising voters to boycott the vote risked up to three years in jail. Three years of intense crackdown on dissent, media and civil society have managed to cultivate an atmosphere of fear and people are willing to comply with the dictates of the regime.
A majority turned out (a factor which dictators use to rally for legitimacy) but this can only be explained by what the opposition and rights groups say to be a climate of fear. Clearly, rule of law in Burundi is an elusive concept. The principle of separation of powers is very weakened as the executive, in the name of the president, is effectively ruling the country on decree, only using mechanisms like referendums to legitimise the decrees.
"The electoral process has been neither free nor transparent, nor independent and still less democratic," former rebel leader and main opposition chief Agathon Rwasa said in a statement. "Burundi's referendum took place amid widespread abuse, fear, and pressure - a climate that is clearly not conducive to free choice," said Ida Sawyer, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Nkurunziza, 54, who has been in power since 2005, plunged his tiny east African nation into crisis in 2015 when he circumvented a constitutional two-term limit, arguing his first term came after an election by parliament.
What Nkurunziza has aimed towards is simply a concentration of powers in the president, something which betrays a repressive regime. In essence, there are no more limits to what Nkurunziza can do. There is a deplorable degradation of the minimum standards of justice and fairness in the country, and because Nkurunziza is now obsessed with keeping his tight grip on power, the proliferation of arbitrary judgments will become repulsing.
That constitutionalism has died in Burundi is no longer a secret, for it has been ratified by a coerced population for the world to see. It is worrying. It only puts a retrogressive tag on the politics of Africa, despite spirited efforts being made to encourage good practices of governance.