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In Burundi, another strongman moves to extend his power – and Washington does nothing

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Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, is registered by an electoral official before casting his ballot at a polling center during the constitutional amendment referendum on Thursday in Mwumba commune in Ngozi province, northern Burundi. (Evrard Ngendakumana/Reuters)

Fred Muvunyi, a former chairman of the Rwanda Media Commission, is an editor at Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster.

Burundians voted Thursday in a violence-marred constitutional referendum that, if approved by more than 50 percent of all voters, could keep president Pierre Nkurunziza in power at least until 2034. He will then join the ranks of President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Idriss Déby of Chad and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, leaders who have expressed a desire to stay in office for the next two decades.

Tensions are high. Unidentified attackers armed with machetes and guns carried out a massacre last Friday in the rural northwest near Congo in which 26 people were killed, many of them children. Two weeks ago, the government suspended the BBC and Voice of America.

Sadly, what’s happening in Burundi is a replay of events in the Great Lakes Region under the West’s watch. Most dictators in the region are sponsored by Western nations. The aid money poured out into autocratic regimes is often used to sponsor the henchmen and to buy equipment used to spy on their critics.

The United States and its allies in Europe have a long history of supporting despots who, in return, can protect their strategic interests, such as plundering oil and other natural resources or keeping Muslim extremists in check while putting aside concerns over human rights and democratic principles. A vivid example: Uganda’s Museveni has dispatched thousands of soldiers to Somalia to fight al-Shabab militants. Chad’s Déby has added his men to a West African force fighting Boko Haram insurgents in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. Both correspondingly enjoy strong Western support despite their dismal records on human rights.

The United States and the European Union have no strategic interests in Rwanda, but they do use the country to access resources from Congo. Kagame has also contributed soldiers to United Nations peacekeeping forces across Africa, and he has been praised for making good use of aid money from the West by lifting 1 million Rwandans from poverty. The West sees in him a rare symbol of progress on a continent that has many failed


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