Until quite recently, Burundi seemed like the Central African country with the best record of post-conflict progress. The country achieved majority rule in 2005 after a tragic history and cruel civil war and a complex peace process. The war ended with the signing of the Arusha Peace Agreement in August 2000.
It was only in November 2003 that the most significant rebel group – the CNDD-FDD – was integrated within the army. This integration immediately normalised the security situation, except in some areas where the FNL, the other main rebel movement, continued its armed struggle.
In 2005, CNDD/ FDD won elections which were considered free and transparent by local and international observers. They provided a clear result that was accepted by all players from the political and military landscape. In August 2005, CNDD-FDD leader, Pierre Nkurunziza, was sworn in as President of the Republic.
In spite of pressure put on them by the authorities, press and civil society continued to play a significant role in the country. The division between Hutus and Tutsis was no longer seen as the cause of all the country’s problems and the army no longer functions as the instrument of one community to protect its privileges against the other.
The country was a largely functioning multi-party democracy, with a lot of poverty, of course. But history has proved that Burundi is a country of unwinnable wars: no party in the conflict was strong enough to achieve victory by force – meaning that dialogue was the only way forward. This culture of dialogue, embedded in recent history, seemed Burundi’s most important capital to be carried forward in to the future.
But all this is now under pressure.
Progress began to unravel with the elections in 2010. The electoral cycle started in May with local elections. The participation rate was 92% and the victory by the CNDD-FDD was resounding (64%), followed at a great distance by the FNL (14%). After the local elections, six of the seven candidates for the presidency withdrew from the elections at the end of June, thus reducing the ballot to a plebiscite on outgoing president Pierre Nkurunziza.
The decision to withdraw was the result of what the opposition denounced as “massive fraud.” However, although the election observation missions certainly talked about irregularities, they did not report what the opposition had claimed.
On July 5th, twelve opposition parties founded a platform, Alliance of Democrats for Change (ADC-Ikibiri) and confirmed their boycott of the rest of the electoral cycle. Soon after that, most of their leaders left the country.
The boycott of the presidential elections probably did not have a big impact on the results, but ADC-Ikibiri’s decision to remain absent from the legislative elections in July was a historic mistake. It showed a disregard for the role of parliamentary opposition. The FNL (who had ceased their struggle a few years earlier), FRODEBU and MSD could have played a significant role in Burundi’s institutions.
The 2010 elections were a significant step backwards in the democratisation of the country. The result was a near monopoly by the ruling party in institutions at every level (a situation that evokes bad memories of the time of one-party rule) and a frustrated and marginalised opposition outside of the country. The potential for violence significantly increased because some parties within the opposition had their roots in armed struggle.
No new rebellion
The regime feared that FNL leader Agathon Rwasa would return to the maquis he quit only two years before. Would he envisage resuming the fight as the ‘old school’ FNL, of would there be a new type of rebellion that went beyond the ethnic divisions of previous rebellions by capitalising on the synergies offered by ADC-Ikibiri?
Other leaders in the new alliance also had their roots in armed conflict. First, Léonard Nyangoma; founder and leader of the CNDD after the death of Ndadaye – (until he was pushed aside by Bosco Ndayikengurukiye, who in 2001 was replaced by Nkurunziza.)
The existing UPD leaders then fled the country. Their supposed leader, Hussein Rajabu, was in prison, but he had shown that he was able to coordinate a group of militants despite his detention. As former president of the CNDD/ FDD, Rajabu was responsible for numerous army appointments and could, perhaps, still count on loyalty within the army and the ranks of the ruling party.
Even leaders of FRODEBU started to suggest in informal settings that its own youth wing or demobilised soldiers within their ranks might decide to join a new rebellion. But the people who could realistically find a new format for a rebellion were the Tutsi military personnel or ex-FAB demobilised soldiers who belonged to Alexis Sinduhije’s electoral base.
But nothing much happened in this regard after 2010. There is currently no armed movement able to challenge the regime in Bujumbura. Possible candidates lack the people, the money and the credibility to do so. Unlike previous rebel movements, a new armed struggle would not currently find support within neighbouring countries.
Since 2010 there have been waves of violence that could be attributed to a rebellion, but have never lasted long nor created the impression that they could realistically threaten the government nor confront the army.
For the last few years there has been close cooperation between the Burundian and Congolese armies in the southern part of South Kivu. This cooperation is intended to prevent any form of rebellion becoming organised on Congolese soil.
Democracy and dialogue under pressure
In the current legislature, a number of existing tendencies were reinforced. The autocratic ambitions of the CNDD-FDD had become clear shortly after the 2005 elections, but the regime was not strong enough to fully implement them. But, as a result of the 2010 elections and the flight of the opposition, the party had absolute majorities at all levels. The regime continued to weaken its opponents by dividing them. Much like its counterpart in Rwanda, the Burundian government actively and systematically took steps to create disagreements within the opposition parties by co-opting the “˜loyal’ wing.
The absence of a real parliamentary opposition puts a lot of pressure on civil society, which wants to participate in the national debate and to be considered a partner to be consulted regarding the great issues of the nation. In a context in which the opposition plays a marginal role, it becomes (together with the media) one of the rare places where divergent opinions and critical comments are expressed. But both civil society and the press have become subject to new and repressive legislation.
The most recent civil society leader to be arrested on questionable grounds is Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, president of an NGO for the defense of the rights of detained persons (APRODH).
Civil society leaders remain very active in the traditional as well as the new social media. This gives them a large visibility and a wide outreach for their key messages. But somehow this has taken place at the expense of in depth research work. This generation of civil society activists, by “˜twitterising’ itself, has lost the habit of producing high quality dossiers and reports.
Towards new elections
The next elections in Burundi will take place between May and September 2015 and what we see is a regime wanting to remain in power at any cost. It has developed its autocratic tendencies (which started to be visible shortly after the 2005 elections) to such levels that it seems quite unlikely that it will have anything to fear. Especially not since the opposition lost much of its credibility after leaving the arena in 2010.
Only Frodebu carried out a policy of active extra-parliamentarian opposition in the first years after the last elections, led by Léonce Ngendakumana. But the repression was harshest against FNL and MSD militants. The FNL was feared because their long armed struggle had given them exactly the same kind of street credibility which made CNDD-FDD successful in 2005 elections.
MSD (Mouvement pour la Solidarité et la Démocratie) was considered a threat because its leader, Alexis Sinduhije, had developed, using his plentiful charisma and intelligence, a political programme that seemed to go beyond the classic schemes of Burundian politics. As former director of the independent African Public Radio, he had played an important role at the end of the war, contributing through his radio programmes to a climate of reconciliation, negotiation and change.
Sinduhije counted a lot of intellectuals, journalists and civil society people in his ranks. But the fact that the 2012 report of the UN Group of Experts on the DRC had extensively focused on his alleged attempts to contribute to a new rebellion obviously played against him.
Sinduhije returned to Burundi in March 2013 but left again one year later after some violent confrontations, including the incident of March 8th 2014 where policemen were disarmed and taken hostage in the MSD HQ. Several of his party members have been arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for organizing an armed insurrection.
Agathon Rwasa, the historical leader of FNL, came back from exile in August 2013 and seems the main challenger to the regime, but he is considerably weakened by the disintegration of his party. And the regime prevents him from moving freely in the country and organising meetings.
In the 18 months before the 2010 elections, a lot of speculation circulated about the internal cohesion and a possible implosion of CNDD-FDD. There were indications that several factions within the party fought each other behind the curtains of the political scene. CNDD-FDD eventually went to the elections in closed ranks, and that seems to be the case leading towards 2015.
The party is, of course, not monolithic, but there are no indications that the different interest groups will seek now seek to polarize it. The party remains firmly in the hands of the group of high officers who led the armed struggle: the people around President Nkurunziza like Adolphe Nshimirimana who leads the intelligence service and former interior ministers Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni and Evariste Ndayishimiye.
The group of potential reformers, which is considered by the donor community as a source for democratic change in the future (e.g. vice-president Gervais Rufyikiri, ombudsman Mohamed Rukara and Pascal Nyabenda, the first civilian president of CNDD-FDD), remains significant but is at least for the time being unable to challenge the generals in charge.
One important issue is the question of President Nkurunzinza’s third mandate. He is supposed to quit power after the upcoming election because, according to the Constitution, a president can only serve 2 terms. But some CNDD-FDD supporters have argued that the president was elected by the National Assembly in 2005 and not directly by the people. For them, he can run for another term in 2015 because the Constitution stipulated the president can have two mandates through direct elections.
By standing for a third mandate the president might not be violating the letter of the Constitution, but he would be in contradiction of the Arusha Peace Agreement of 2000, which was and is the main source on which the Constitution was based.
Underneath the political order of the day, public mismanagement continues to be a major threat for Burundi’s development and stability. The country has no tradition of good governance. Over the years, corruption and nepotism have penetrated all sectors of public life. The International Crisis Group rang the alarm bell already two years ago:
“Despite the establishment of anti-corruption agencies, Burundi is facing a deepening corruption crisis that threatens to jeopardise a peace that is based on development and economic growth bolstered by the state and driven by foreign investment. The “˜neopatrimonialist’ practices of the party in office since 2005 has relegated Burundi to the lowest governance rankings, reduced its appeal to foreign investors, damaged relations with donors; and contributed to social discontent. More worrying still, neopatrimonialism is undermining the credibility of post-conflict institutions.”
In 2012, Burundi was 165th of 174 in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. The situation improved slightly by 2014, Burundi being 157th of 177. Some of the people I met in Burundi last June thought that the bad political governance and the reinforced autocratic tendencies of the regime weren’t justified by its fear of losing power. Its main reason for existence was to cover up the bad economic governance and the corruption and keep it out of sight of the watch dogs.
“Those who see far”
The main tool of repression is the youth league of the ruling party, Imbonerakure. It is held responsible by local and international human rights defenders and for acts of violence, including killings, beatings, rape, threats, and extortion against their perceived opponents and other Burundians.
Imbonerakure (“Those who see far” in Kirundi) consists of CNDD-FDD members between 18 and 39 years old. Part of this group is demobilized militiamen from the rebel period. The youth league is present and active in the rural areas, where they seem to be part of a strategy to control and intimidate the electorate in one of the least urbanized countries on earth. They are almost paramilitary in their appearance, with their parades, exercises and outfits. Poverty, a lack of economic opportunities and the practice of nepotism make it attractive for youngsters to become part of it.
They have been a major source of concern for several years. Already in 2010 they were a source of intimidation and violence, but the post-electoral tendencies of the strengthening of CNDD-FDD dominance and the difficult relationship between government and opposition have resulted in a further increase in their systematic intimidation, harassment and violence. There have been many rumors about Imbonerakure being trained and armed, but no independent investigation has been carried out to verify and quantify this. Some opposition party members threatened to retaliate in kind through their own youth groups.
In the past, Imbonerakure functioned as a tool of the CNDD-FDD summit, even if the party always denied its involvement and claimed the violence was caused by undisciplined youngsters. But the youth league has been reinforcing itself and has started to behave as an actor of its own. This could have a destabilizing impact on the cohesion of the regime.
Already now certain sources report that some high ranked officers are getting very annoyed by the fact that Imbonerakure are starting to behave as an independent military force. It is not unthinkable that Imbonerakure will, at some point, get involved in an intra-party power struggle. According to some sources, they already are sometimes used for internal CNDD-FDD settlements of accounts.
Violent months ahead?
There wasn’t a single moment during my last trip to Burundi in which I got the impression that this was a country where genocide was being prepared (as was suggested after the leaked confidential UN cable in April.) Burundi remains a place which has managed to eliminate the ethnic factor in the media, public opinion and national psychology as the ultimate source or cause of the problems and violence the country faced since independence.
The ditches between Hutu and Tutsi do, of course, remain deep and it will take generations to build up confidence between the two communities, but today’s power struggle is much more an intra-Hutu issue than a matter of ethnicity.
Neither did I see a country on the edge of civil war. There is no support for a proper rebellion, not in the population and not in the neighboring countries. But I saw a country which is about to lose some its recent achievements in terms of post-conflict development: a culture of dialogue, freedom of expression and a functioning multiparty system.
CNDD-FDD has constructed the first government in Burundi’s history which has its electoral basis and legitimacy in the rural areas. The party is determined to remain in power and keep the electorate under an iron grip. The 2015 elections will not replace the regime, but hopefully it will provide it with the watch dog – crucial in any democracy. It is important that the opposition participates in the elections in all liberty and accepts its role in Parliament and the other institutions.
In the meantime, the risk of violence remains very real. The regime does not only want to remain in power, it is not looking forward to handling its watch dogs. It is very likely that Imbonerakure will continue and even intensify its harassment and intimidation in the lead-up to the 2015 elections. And it can’t be ruled out that this will trigger more general violence, given the weakness of the Burundian state, the extreme poverty of the population and the fragile post-conflict security situation.
Kris Berwouts has, over the last 25 years, worked for a number of different Belgian and international NGOs focused on building peace, reconciliation, security and democratic processes. Until 2012, he was the Director of EurAc, the network of European NGOs working for advocacy on Central Africa. He now works as an independent expert on Central Africa.
Kris’ current field research is made possible by a working grant from the Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism.