Political Crisis Intensifies in Burundi: An Update

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the danger of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s intentions to run for a controversial third term, and how his efforts could undermine the country’s fragile peace.

Much has happened in two weeks: the ruling party did, indeed, nominate Nkurunziza as its candidate for June’s presidential elections. When he accepted the nomination, widespread protests in the capital Bujumbura—which began the previous week—surged. 

Burundi’s constitution contains an ambiguously worded ‎provision limiting the president to being elected to two five-year terms (Nkurunziza’s supporters claim his first term does not count against the limit because he was not popularly elected that time). The spirit of the law was more clearly articulated in the peace agreement that ended Burundi’s protracted and bloody civil war, but Nkurunziza’s political movement was not party to that accord. Despite these legal technicalities, the failure of the current president to amend the constitution in 2014 to deliver a reading favorable to his ambitions was indicative of the broad consensus in Burundian society.

The president’s opponents took solace in their ability to bring the question of a third term before the country’s constitutional court, one of the last legal avenues for ousting the sitting president after his second term expires. The decision was given Tuesday: Nkurunziza can legally run for a third term. The same day, the court’s vice president fled the country, citing “enormous pressure and even death threats” to approve a third term despite near-unanimous agreement that Nkurunziza was acting unconstitutionally.

Thousandsof Burundians demonstrated against Nkurunziza this week. Some threw rocks and other projectiles at police, who responded with tear gas, water cannons, and live ammunition. At least twelve people were killed in clashes with the police, tens more injured, and hundreds arrested. Nkurunziza’s government has also taken advantage of the unrest to arrest, and later, release, opposition leader and activist Audifax Ndabitoreye—who was leaving a meeting with foreign ministers from neighboring countries who were in Burundi to seek a peaceful solution to the crisis—for “insurrection.”

These demonstrations, and the violence that accompanies them, represent a worrying escalation in the current political crisis. The situation could rapidly deteriorate—the worst-case scenario being a re-start of civil war—if not immediately and comprehensively addressed. Demonstrators feel they have exhausted all legal options to prevent Nkurunziza from seeking what they deem to be an illegal third term; violent police responses to the demonstrations only further exacerbate tensions.

Burundian authorities responded to this week’s renewed protests by closing the University of Burundi, forcing students to leave their dormitories. Then, just days before World Press Freedom Day, authorities shuttered three of the country’s most popular private radio stations, which were providing live coverage of the demonstrations. Social media sites, including WhatsApp and Facebook, were soon reported inaccessible.

The country’s military has remained neutral and professional amid the demonstrations thus far, even forcibly separating the protestors and police to prevent further violence. The military appears to be trusted by both pro- and anti-Nkurunziza elements; recent statements from the Defence Ministry declare that the military’s role is to uphold Burundi’s constitution and its peace agreements, a nascent but positive signal that the military could serve as a stabilizing force.

The military is not monolithic, though, and is likely divided in its affection for the president. Should these political divisions be exploited by Nkurunziza’s party, it is possible that the military will split or choose sides and be drawn into a widening conflict.

Unlike the military, Burundi’s national police are largely considered to be the instigators of violence against protestors and beholden to the ruling party and to Nkurunziza.

Reports out of Burundi on Thursday indicate a dangerous new phase emerging in the crisis—targeting of the ruling party’s youth wing, the imbonerakure (“those who see far” in Kirundi), by opposition members, and vice versa.

Many of the nearly 40,000 Burundians who have fled into neighboring Rwanda, Tanzania, and Democratic Republic of the Congo accuse the imbonerakure—who they allege are supported by the ruling party—of killing, attacking, and intimidating opposition members. Nkurunziza and his party vehemently deny these allegations.

The Associated Press detailed at least one suspected imbonerakure member who was chased by a mob of stone-throwing demonstrators and trapped in a sewer until the Burundian military stepped in to protect him. Reuters reported that another suspected imbonerakure member was burned alive. These reports reinforce the complexity of the current situation and reiterate that the political crisis in Burundi is not one-sided: victims can become perpetrators, and perpetrators victims.  

Of particular concern are the increasing number of grenade attacks at the demonstrations, reportedly perpetrated by protestors, imbonerakure, and even police. A grenade on Monday injured at least forty people, and when police responded with gunfire, they injured an unknown number of protestors. This tit-for-tat violence is reminiscent of Burundi’s contentious 2010 elections, during which party youth groups traded atrocities. To this day, there has been little investigation or justice for victims of the 2010 incidents.

On Thursday, the African Union Commission Chairperson expressed doubt that elections were possible under current conditions, joining a chorus of criticism by Burundi’s neighbors, the United States, and the United Nations. The international community has yet to offer a solution to end the unrest; the Burundian government has done little more than promise that, if elected to his third term, Nkurunziza will not run for a fourth. The government insists that holding elections as scheduled is the only way forward.

Many observers thought that demonstrations against Nkurunziza would fizzle after a few days, when it became clear that Nkurunziza and the ruling party would not back down from their bid for a third term. But demonstrations have only multiplied, and with their growth has come an intensification of violence.

Until a realistic and inclusive political solution is on the table, protests—and the accompanying unrest—will continue to destabilize Burundi and threaten the modest progress that Nkurunziza has made.

Kelsey Lilley is Assistant Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Follow her on Twitter at @KelseyDegen.

Image: A riot policeman and military officers hold their position near civilians following recent clashes between protesters and riot-police against the decision made by Burundi's ruling party to allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third five-year term in office, in the capital Bujumbura. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya