Briefing by the Foreign Minister of Burundi

Since late April, the small, central African nation of Burundi has been wracked by a political crisis, marked by sometimes-violent demonstrations as well as refugee flows into neighboring countries, following a decision by incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza to seek a controversial third term in office.

On Tuesday, June 23, the Africa Center hosted a briefing by H.E. Alain Aimé Nyamitwe, Minister of External Relations and International Cooperation of the Republic of Burundi, who presented his government’s perspective on the current situation.

After a welcome and introduction from Africa Center Director J. Peter Pham, Nyamitwe gave a short overview of Burundi’s history and its role in the region.

Despite being home to natural resources that include gold and nickel, Burundi’s economy is predominately based on small-scale agriculture. While the country has a high poverty rate, the government under Nkurunziza has made some progress: more than 5,000 schools and thousands of medical facilities have been constructed, Nyamitwe reported, and the country’s Revenue Authority has been especially successful in increasing tax and revenue collection.  

Nyamitwe also detailed Burundi’s involvement in regional affairs: the Burundian military is heavily involved in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) as well as other peacekeeping operations; some 10,000 Burundian soldiers, most trained by the United States or its European allies, have served in Somalia and more than 500 have lost their lives while deployed in the Horn of Africa.

On the topic of the current political unrest, Nyamitwe spoke about the strengths and weaknesses of the Arusha Accord, which ended the country’s twelve-year civil war and has been the basis for much international criticism of Nkurunziza’s third term bid. He noted that the Arusha Accords—which stipulate a two-term limit for all presidents—are not meant to supersede the Burundian Constitution adopted five years later, which differentiates between “elected” terms and “selected” terms (Nkurunziza was selected by Parliament for his first term rather than elected by universal suffrage).

Nyamitwe further noted that the constitutional court ruled in favor of Nkurunziza seeking a third (and final) term by popular election. He reaffirmed the government’s commitment to hold free, fair, and transparent elections—albeit at a postponed date as recommended by international community in May—with international observation and free press coverage. Parliamentary and local government elections are currently scheduled for June 29, with presidential elections to follow on July 15. This plan has been endorsed by the East African Community.

Also in attendance and participating in the briefing were H.E. Ernest Ndabashinze, Ambassador of the Republic of Burundi to the United States, and David Gilmour, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, as well as number present and former US government officials and Congressional staff as well as representatives of nongovernmental organizations and advocacy groups. During the discussion, there were several robust exchanges over the situation in Burundi and its management both by the country’s government and by other members the international community, including the United States.