The background to Burundi’s current turmoil, sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term, is complicated, to say the least. Burundi, as all Africa watchers know, has a history of intercommunal violence, often revolving around elections, which began in 1972 and has accounted for as many as 450,000 deaths over those four decades, as well as massive numbers of refugees and displaced persons.
This violent past seemed to have come to an end after the signing of an internationally brokered peace agreement in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2001, a subsequent ceasefire in 2004, and peaceful elections in 2005 that brought Nkurunziza to power.
Nkurunziza, who had been a university professor, led an armed group, the CNDD-FDD, in rebellion against the sitting government for over a decade. The CNDD-FDD didn’t sign the Arusha Peace Accords, but did agree to the ceasefire in 2004 and transformed itself into a political party.
Despite the current unrest, Nkurunziza had proved to be a popular president in the past. He was a master at old time populism, spending inordinate amounts of time in the countryside interacting with people, attending church, playing soccer – his favorite pastime – and joining in planting cassava and other crops with subsistence farmers.
A Gallup Poll in 2011 that gauged the popularity of African heads of state listed Nkurunziza as the most popular on the continent, coming in with an 89% approval rating. This, despite the fact that his government had been ineffective, done little to create jobs or enhance revenue flows, and was massively corrupt.
Even with irregularities at the polling places, violence, and opposition boycotts, he won re-election in 2010 with 91.62% of the votes cast. Few observers thought he would lose a free and fair election in 2015.
The question that prompted the protests and subsequent violence, however, was not on his popularity but whether or not Nkurunziza had the right to run under the Arusha Accords and subsequent constitutional term limits provisions.
Even before he had announced his intention to run there was an international and domestic outcry that he should not. Even a group of “elders” from within the ruling party privately counseled Nkurunziza not to run.
In fact, this issue is a rather fine legal point. The Arusha Accords and the constitution, established after Arusha, both prohibit more than two terms for a president. The logic used by Nkurunziza and his supporters was that in 2005 he was not popularly elected – instead, he was appointed, and had, therefore, the right to run again for two terms via popular direct election.
With both sides having some rationale behind their views, this seems a legal question that should be left for the Constitutional Court to decide on its constitutionality. So it was and the court ruled in favor of Nkurunziza having a third term.
That might have been the end of the matter, at least legally, but the court’s ruling was discredited when the vice president of the court fled the country and issued a statement that he and fellow justices had been threatened and coerced into the ruling by the government. A number of the “elders” who had advised against a third term, including the second vice president and the speaker of the assembly, have also fled, fearing for their safety.
The international media too often casts the conflict in Burundi in historical terms as an inter-ethnic, inter-communal, majority Hutu versus minority Tutsi struggle. While there are historical roots to the current crisis, the one thing it is not, at present, is ethnically driven.
While stability has eluded Burundi in recent years, the one positive outcome of the last 15 years, since the signing of the Arusha Accords, has been a society that has largely overcome the ethnic divisions which had provided the fault line along which political rivalries of the past were played out.
The nexus of conflict itself is basically Hutu versus Hutu, with the most prominent challenger to Nkurunziza being Agathon Rwasa, leader of the FNL (National Liberation Forces), which is a Hutu group that had fought the former Tutsi-dominated government and army. In the countryside, particularly in southern provinces like Makamba, where intimidation and threats are a constant fact of life, Tutsi and Hutu alike live in fear.
However, it goes without saying that continued protests and the violent government response leaves the country in danger of sliding into days of old when conflict in Burundi was divided along ethnic lines. Hate speech is beginning as government radio identifies Tutsi neighborhoods as the perpetrators of protest.
Along with the possibility of this situation eventually evolving into a conflict along inter-ethnic, inter-communal fault lines as it was from 1972-2004, it also has profound implications for the Great Lakes Region. Already there are tensions among neighboring states Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda over the different positions that have taken on Nkurunziza’s third-term bid and the attempted coup against him.
These tensions could deepen if violence mounts and refugee flows continue. The possible staging or harboring of dissident forces opposing Nkurunziza in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo could reignite open conflict there and further damage inter-state relations.
Rumors are already rife that elements of the Banyamulenge in North and South Kivu in the DRC are coming to support protesters against Nkurunziza. Fighting broke out on July 10 between police and uniformed military, thought to be dissident elements of the national army, in Kayanza in the north of Burundi.
With no sign of Nkurunziza relenting, the international community is left standing on the sidelines now as the election process plays itself out. Presidential elections will follow this month, with every indication Nkurunziza will win.
He will have no opposition and continued intimidation in opposition areas will keep those votes from being cast. So, all international players will be faced with a probable post-election scenario similar to Kenya in 2007 where serious violence occurred, elections irregularities were rife, and a president was installed despite an unsavory process and actions on the part of his supporters. What avenues will be open to the Western governments and international institutions in response?
Can they, in good conscience, stop developmental and humanitarian aid to the people to punish Nkurunziza? Will they push for sanctions í la Zimbabwe? Or, will they say business as usual, as happened in Kenya?
The world doesn’t want to do the former and does not have to do the latter. Here are a set of responses that the international community should consider, even while maintaining diplomatic relations and keeping humanitarian aid flowing.
- Push publicly and strongly for upholding democratic principles, the rule of law, freedom of the press, an independent judiciary and an independent election commission.
- Revive and strengthen efforts by local NGOs, community groups and religious organizations to prevent mass violence associated with elections opponents and ethnic conflict that may emerge from the current crisis. Re-start efforts to promote reconciliation and peace efforts across political, community, sub-regional, religious and ethnic lines.
- Mobilize greater international attention to the rising political and ethnic threat that Burundi’s current political violence and potentially polarizing ethnic violence represents to the country and the region. While still a remote possibility, the international community should monitor closely events with an eye to genocide prevention.
- Strongly encourage regional states to not engage in activities that will further destabilize Burundi or provoke greater political or ethnic conflict there or in the region more broadly.
- Make it clear to President Nkuranziza and his closest political associates that they have violated international agreements and norms in their actions and that they bear the greatest responsibility for the current political crisis. They will be held responsible by the international community for any breakdown in any law and order or any mass violence that occurs as a result of their political actions.
- There should be no immunity from violent deeds by youth militias like Imbonerakure, the police, or any other party that has engaged in violence and loss of life. Establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be urged as a priority.
- Since 2008, when preparations began for the 2010 elections and in subsequent years as they were underway for 2015, international funding for democracy and governance (D&G) support, reconciliation and peace building has fallen away dramatically. The US embassy had no D&G funds in its budget for the years 2010 -2014. The work with political party reconciliation, leadership development and the integration and capacity building of the armed forces command that had occurred between 2002-2008, was discontinued. We cannot ignore the preparation and lead-up to the next elections cycle in 2020 as we have done for the last two.
- Burundi’s role in international peacekeeping in Somalia, the Central African Republic, Cí´te d’Ivoire, Sudan and Haiti, where it has over 7,200 troops committed, nearly one fifth of its standing National Army, has been a laudable contribution to international peace and order. However, Burundi is reimbursed by the UN $1,028 for each soldier deployed, or a return of $45 million annually, along with the salaries of $750 a month received directly by the soldiers. The Burundian government should be warned that mass violence in Burundi and any human rights perpetrated by their security forces domestically could jeopardize their ability to serve in future peacekeeping operations.
Steve McDonald is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars with over 40 years of experience living and working in Africa as a diplomat and private sector activist on democracy, governance, and conflict resolution issues. He has done extensive work in Burundi, dating back to 1972.