What lies at the core of Burundi’s crisis?
The government’s use of repression over dialogue has put the country and region’s stability at risk.
In one of the latest bouts of violence in Burundi last week, at least three people died in Bujumbura as police battled with gunmen who reportedly threw grenades and fired machineguns.
This encounter was one of the more recent deadly clashes in a country facing a deepening political crisis, but was far from unique. Political violence has become routine. Gunfire is reportedly heard almost nightly in the capital and dead bodies are discovered in the streets every few mornings. The government has resorted to a very costly way to shore up its power in the face of prolonged protest.
At the core of the crisis lies the contested political legitimacy of the government and its use of repression over dialogue to deal with discontent. The core grievance of those opposing the government concerns President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in office. The situation escalated with Nkurunziza’s official nomination by the ruling party CNDD-FDD, and later with his electoral victory and inauguration in August 2015.
This episode has divided the ruling elite, military and electorate. The legality of Nkurunziza’s prolonged rule has been heavily disputed, while the elections were declared to be neither free nor fair by international observers.
Nkurunziza has managed to hold on to power in the face of open opposition. Although there had been protests on the issue before, the announcement on 25 April that the president would stand for re-election sparked sustained demonstrations that reached a peak in May, when there was a failed coup, and continued until mid-June.
The intensity of both the protesters and government’s response picked up again following Nkurunziza’s swearing into office on 20 August. Importantly, open confrontation has also been complemented by mass exit, with over 200,000 Burundians having left the country since the crisis erupted.
The government has resorted to a whole toolkit of repressive measures to manage the opposition. Most visibly, around 200 people have lost their lives to political violence since April, with more wounded.
This death toll includes many prominent opposition and activist figures who have been assassinated. Amongst them are UPD’s leader Zedi Feruzi and spokesperson Patrice Gahungu; FNL’s Pontien Barutwanayo; and MSD’s leader Charlotte Umugwaneza. Other targets include leading human rights activist Pierre Clover Mbonimpa who narrowly escaped death in August; AFP reporter Esdras Ndikumana, who was detained and abused by security forces; and Burundian journalist Christophe Nkezabahizi who was recently killed in his home along with his wife and two children.
Targeted assassinations and protest-related deaths are the most-reported human rights violations, but the government’s repressive strategies reach beyond this. The government has mobilised and armed Imbonerakure youth militias, which have harassed civilians across Burundi from even well before the protests started; it has imposed a media blackout and manipulated official discourse; it has attempted extradition of opposition; and it has deployed excessive police force on the streets and torture in detention.
The government’s strategy further includes “pacification” of opposition areas through civilian disarmament and weapon raids . A special police unit has been created to manage urban protests, and tough anti-terrorism legislation is being currently being drafted.
While the crisis has unfolded, many have noted the resilience of institutions such as the military. But there are various other points of strain. There is now a vast refugee crisis. Burundi’s relations with its neighbours, in particular Rwanda, have deteriorated. Donor countries have condemned the government’s actions, with targeted international sanctions being imposed on three figures close to the president for their role in fomenting the crisis. And the economic situation, particularly in rural areas, is dire.
What does this mean vis-í -vis power-sharing, democratisation and stability?
The current situation threatens to undermine the political accord that was signed in 2000 and marked the end of Burundi’s civil war. The Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement paved the way to a careful ethnic balancing of power, and Burundi subsequently implemented one of the most intricate power-sharing systems on the continent. The process was largely seen as a success, it assured political inclusion across ethnicities, and as a result diminished the salience of ethnicity in politics.
But other problems emerged, with equally important implications for stability and relapse into conflict. Political pluralism has steadily eroded during Nkurunziza’s tenure, with the trend culminating in his recent bid for a third term.
What is distinctive about now, however, is that substantial sections of the Burundian population – from across the ethnic spectrum, and including members of the ruling elite – are no longer willing to tolerate the democratic rollback.
Many have called for a political resolution to the crisis, but there are few signs the government is ready for genuine dialogue. Instead, it has resorted to demonising the opposition, representing the protests as an “insurrection” harbouring “terrorists“. Such language is a clear attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the protesters whilst legitimising the government’s use of force.
The government has made a nominal move towards negotiations by establishing the National Commission for Inter-Burundian dialogue. But several aspects undermine the legitimacy of this mechanism, including the unmediated nature of the talks, the broadly conceived nature of the “insurrectionist forces” excluded from the talks, the unwillingness to discuss the issue of the third term, and the exclusion of the platform aimed at uniting opposition forces known as CNARED (National Council for the Respect of the Arusha Accord). All of this paints the dialogue as little more than a delay tactic and a way to assuage international pressure.
If the political path were to prevail, Nkurunziza’s tenure in office is just one issue in need of address. Importantly, the future of the Arusha Peace agreement also has to be discussed. Will the agreement be reinforced, amended, replaced? And how will it be guaranteed? A mixed constitutional court composed of national and international judges could assure greater impartiality, but it is questionable whether such a proposal would be acceptable to the ruling elite.
What we do and do not see
When examining Burundi’s crisis, it is important to keep in mind that verifiable information is in short supply and the resultant uncertainty is in fact part of the political dynamics.
The independent media sector, especially radio stations, was rapidly destroyed around April and May and there have also been attempts to control platforms such as WhatsApp. Rumours are omnipresent and the situation is highly fluid, evolving almost daily.
This uncertainty and difficulty of obtaining reliable information has also contributed to a very particular perspective on the crisis – the focus lies on urban unrest and repression, institutional processes and the issue of the third term. Meanwhile, little is known about the crisis as understood and lived in rural areas, where anxiety and fear have more to do with broad threats and a more diffuse sense of insecurity, rather than direct attack.
Viewed from the rural areas, the crisis reaches well beyond the issue of the third term. The Arusha agreement is more than a peace treaty. It sets the ground for a new, post-war social contract and this complex political promise has been broken on a number of levels. The most obvious of these is physical security, but the problem also reaches to economic security and the viability of livelihoods, recovery of land, corruption, accountability, and the inability and unwillingness of the government to deal with the past and present of impunity.
The situation in Burundi is fragile and the way in which it is resolved – or not – will have serious repercussions for the country not just in the short term but also with regards to the political gains made since the end of the civil war. The danger here is that if acceptable political channels of negotiation do not open, military solutions might be sought, with not just Burundi’s but the wider region’s stability at stake.
Andrea Purdeková is Departmental Lecturer in African Politics at the African Studies Centre, University of Oxford and Junior Research Fellow at St Antony’s College.
Acknowledgments: In writing this piece, I have benefitted immensely from a recent academic workshop on Burundi held in Ghent, Belgium on October 14-15, 2015. The workshop has brought together researchers from across different disciplines. Where appropriate, I hyperlink further reading. Any errors of interpretation, fact or omission are my own.
[Correction 6/11/15: The date for Nkurunziza’s swearing in was originally wrongly stated as 26 August rather that 20 August. Thanks to the commenter who pointed this out.]
This is quite an interesting piece with regard to the rural dimension of the crisis. Just a quick note, Nkurunziza was sworn in on the 20th of August, not on the 26th.
The essential tragedy in this crisis in Burundi is why those entrusted with power crave to extend their positions of power which makes this crisis existential to all others who seek similar non choice non sanctioned extensions.
No one is indispensible. Change is atavisitic in our human DNA. Change for pure change not necessarily change for a preferable alternative. Rules including limits on power retention sadly seem now to be lacking in substance. In this situation, the loosers will be once again the people and primarily those people lacking voice. Triste, as these words are being written by me in Kinsashasa, DRC where I am attempting to advance the conversation in the promotion of civic civil social cohesion in the respect and regard for rule of law in process and procedure.
The hypocritic analysis of the political situation in theGreat Lakes region is at the core of the prolonged destabilisation of the entire region. What has been happening in the DR Kongo is a well-designe plot by Rwanda and Uganda as puppets for the Tsutsi powers to be imposed in all the region. They have succeeded in DR Kongo with Hyppolite Kanambe (So-called Kabila), Kagame in Rwanda and Museveni in Uganda. The plan is to impose another Tutsi in Burundi which has failed until today. Tanzania has been in the loop as well but the candidate that was sponsored to hold the office has not succeded in elections. While in Tanzania the plot has failed, Kenya is also in the project for a Tutsi individual to hold office. While I do not support violence, Nkurunzinza is resisting to the plot, which makes him a threat to kagame and museveni’s wish to take the entire region. The death of pastor Christopher Mtikila after three days hedenounced the plot by declaring that Hyppolite Kanambe (So-called Kabila) is a proof. To read the article, follow this: http://softkens.com/news/2015/11/01/the-assassination-of-rev-christopher-mtikila-is-another-indication-that-the-tutsi-hima-empire-is-live-in-tanzania/ Sadly, most of these conflicts are from planned out of this continent.
I am not surprised by this piece of another Western propaganda and misinformation coming from a professor at Oxford University. The crisis in Burundi is simple. On the local scene we have two forces on the ground: On one side there is the silent majority who support popular democracy, the president and democratically elected institutions, and on the other side the anti-democracy forces who have been historically against democracy, plotting military coups and killing democratically elected leaders.
On the regional scene Burundi is confronted by hostile forces from Rwanda and Uganda who want to impose a Tutsi-led empire in the entire Great Lakes Region of Africa.
On the international scene, Burundi has become a war zone between Western declining powers and the former and new colonialists and imperialist on one side, and the emerging powers on the side. In fact Burundi is a victim of a new Cold War for the control of the country and regional (DR Congo) natural resources.
What has been written by this Oxford professor is just nonsense, good for the consumption of uninformed Western public opinion in order to conceal the damage, deaths and destruction their governments are causing in Burundi.
Diaku, you are right! That’s exactly what is happening. Surprising is that the whole world never said anything about demanding the opposition to put the guns down. Even if the so called gunmen kill a member of government or anyone in ruling party, is like nothing happened. Where those gunmen get the guns from? I am sure someone supply them and got to be one of those countries talking against Bdi government .
I am not supporting the killings in that beautiful country, but go back in years of 88-89, 93-2000, when people were dying no one raised the voice about what was happening. Someone got be behind this
This analysis is circular and clearly one sided. It is intended to justify the resort to the use of acts of terror as a means of political expression. The article fails to acknowledge the well publicized claim of responsibility by a renegade army officer who participated in the failed coup attempt that he and others supplied the weapons which are used for armed attacks in some areas of urban Bujumbura. The article still equates these acts of terror to the exercise of freedom of expression. The article mentions Rwanda but ignores the claims made by some Burundi refugees and admitted by the representative of the UN High Commissioner for refugees in Rwanda that in violation of the Refugee Convention 1951, some persons who sought refuge in Rwanda are routinely recruited and trained in Rwanda by fugitives who participated in the failed coup attempt to infiltrate and attack Burundi. The recruitment, training, arming and deployment of child soldiers to participate in these attacks is a crime against humanity. To its credit the government of Burundi disarmed and released these child soldiers to the ICRC , their families and schools. It is unfair to ignore the judgment of the constitutional court of Burundi validating the elections that took place in that country or that of the East Africa Court of Justice that upheld it. If Bush V Gore were to be a template on which to assess election judgments, then that of the Burundi judiciary should be celebrated as being consistent with due process and the respect for the rule of law. It is preposterous to dismiss the national and regional efforts put in place to resolve the political crisis in Burundi. The putting in place of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by the government of Burundi shows the determination of the government to seriously look into the dark pages of Burundi history and provide the much needed healing that is required to bring lasting peace and stability to the country. Many victims of past crimes by past regimes believe strongly that the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was recommended by the Arusha Accord may be one reason persons with the blood of hundreds of thousands on their hands are riding on the current political crisis to subvert the functioning of the commission. To dismiss this and other efforts aimed at resolving the current crisis through dialogue is unfortunate. The same rural communities that the article mentions is entitled to be heard by a mechanism close to them about their own problems which may or may not be entirely of a political nature. The combined effect of this and sub-regional peace efforts using diplomacy rather than condescending threats will bring a rapid resolution of these crisis. The author confesses his lack of independent and credible sources on which to rely to make an informed balanced analysis of the situation. My recommendation is that the writer should approach verifiable sources and cross- check the information received with the parties in conflict prior to writing a piece full of serious allegations with no credible evidence in support.