On Tuesday morning, weeks of violent protests in the East African nation of Burundi ratcheted up considerably when Major General Godefroid Niyombare attempted to overthrow President Pierre Nkurunziza.  At the time of the announcement, President Nkurunziza was in Tanzania attending a Heads of State Emergency Summit that the East African Community (EAC) had convened to discuss the escalating situation in Burundi.  Although the President Nkurunziza reportedly has returned to the country and coup leaders have conceded defeat, uncertainty prevails as to the situation in Burundi and its implications for the region as a whole.

At the root of the conflict is the decision by the ruling party CNDD-FDD to designate President Nkurunziza as its candidate for the June 26 election.  President Nkurunziza already has served two terms in office and his eligibility to seek a third term turns on the party’s interpretation of Article 96 of the Burundian constitution.  This Presidential term limits provision reads: “The President of the Republic is elected by universal direct suffrage for a mandate of five years renewable one time.”  President Nkurunziza and his party assert that he is eligible for a third term because he was appointed to his first term by Parliament rather than “elected by universal direct suffrage.”

Opponents of President Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term note that the ruling party’s creative constitutional interpretation comes a little more than a year after it tried — and failed by a single vote — to amend the constitution in order to, amongst other things, remove presidential term limits altogether.  Furthermore, the interpretation contravenes the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, which is the delicate power-sharing agreement that ended the country’s long-running civil war.  Although the Agreement states that the President “shall be elected for a term of five years, renewable only once,” it then continues on to state explicitly that “[n]o one may serve more than two presidential terms.”  All of these machinations by the ruling party have been regarded as part of a larger effort to flout the Agreement and shore up and entrench the ruling party’s power.

The Constitutional Court of Burundi officially has agreed with CNDD-FDD’s interpretation and cleared President Nkurunziza to run.  However, the court’s vice-president Sylvere Nimpagaritse has claimed that “most of his colleagues thought the third-term bid was unconstitutional, but they were under pressure to change their minds.”  He fled the country rather than sign on to the ruling.

The situation remains fluid.  There are yet no indications that the Burundian government will postpone the elections but the EAC Heads of State, the African Union, and the international community all have agreed that elections should not be held in this climate.  It is imperative that these words translate into actions that safeguard the Burundian people’s right to free and fair elections.  More so, the handling of this situation will set a critical precedent for the region particularly with respect to the elections set to be held in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda in 2016 and 2017 respectively.  In both countries, the sitting president has reached his constitutional maximum term limit but there are warning signs that third terms may be sought.