Burundi’s president Nkurunziza vies for reelection — at all costs
by PETER DÖRRIE
Bloody protests have rocked Burundi’s capital Bujumbura and several other cities for more than a week after the country’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, launched a controversial bid for a third term.
At least nine people have died and dozens of protesters and security personnel have been wounded. Whether or not Nkurunziza’s campaign is legal depends on who you ask.
What’s not in doubt is that his campaign for a third term risks chaos, the loss of lives and even the resurgence of Burundi’s devastating civil war.
On the surface, it all comes down to a technicality. Does Burundi’s constitution allow Nkurunziza to stand for a third term? His party says yes and has nominated him as a candidate, a move that sparked mass demonstrations by the political opposition.
The constitution indeed allows for some wiggle room. Article 96 of the 2005 document states that “the President of the Republic is elected by universal direct suffrage for a mandate of five years renewable one time.”
Nkurunziza has already been reelected once … in 2010. His supporters argue that he’s entitled to another term because he was originally put in power not by “universal suffrage,” but by a vote in the country’s legislative in 2005.
But while this argument works great for throwing a country into chaos, it almost certainly doesn’t hold water. Burundi’s 2005 constitution derives from the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, a peace treaty signed in 2000 to end the country’s devastating civil war.
The Arusha Agreement unequivocally states that the president “shall be elected for a term of five years, renewable only once. No one may serve more than two presidential terms.”
It doesn’t get much clearer than that, especially given that the constitution specifically references the Arusha Agreement in its preamble.
Few people outside Nkurunziza’s inner circle share the president’s interpretation. On May 4, Sylvere Nimpagaritse, the vice president of Burundi’s constitutional court fled the country citing immense political pressure and even “death threats” from the government.
If you’re a judge, the message is — rubber-stamp the president’s re-election campaign or else bad things will happen to you. The court then predictably did just that.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Nkurunziza’s bid would “fly in the face of the constitution.” Nkurunziza loyalists also purged party members who wouldn’t support the president’s renewed candidacy.
Like its neighbor Rwanda, ethnic violence has plagued Burundi for much of the 20th century. Around 300,000 people died in fighting from 1993 to 2005 alone.
Burundi’s civil war only ended after the various rebel groups and the government agreed on a complex scheme to share power between the country’s two main ethnic groups, Hutu and Tutsi.
Government institutions must abide by ethnic quotas, guaranteeing representation to majority and minority alike. This system is markedly different from Rwanda, which officially abolished ethnicity as a concept.
But while Rwanda’s civil war had a clear winner — the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front — Burundi’s post-war order is marked more by careful compromise. The political system is precariously balanced even 10 years after the official end of the fighting.
Nkurunziza’s move risks upending this balance.
According to a 2014 Afrobarometer poll, 62 per cent of Burundians support a two-term limit for the presidency.
Even more significantly, support has risen by more than 10 percent since 2012, indicating waning support for Nkurunziza’s ambitions. These numbers correspond with a recent spate of protests over high cost of living, indicative of a population broadly disillusioned by Nkurunziza’s rule.
Nkurunziza’s party, the CNDD-FDD, has its base in the rural parts of the country, where support for a third term is comparatively high at 41 percent. Most observers estimated that even without Nkurunziza, the party would have handily won both the presidential elections in June and legislative elections in May.
But opposition toward the CNDD-FDD runs deep in the cities, especially the capital Bujumbura. Here, 82 percent of the population opposes Nkurunziza’s bid.
To be sure, the electoral process might favor the more numerous rural population, but Nkurunziza has played into the hands of the opposition by giving the urban youth a good reason to protest against him.
Thousands of people have participated in demonstrations in recent days. Police answered with tear gas and lethal bullets. The opposition has said it will keep protesting until Nkurunziza backs down, but the government has shown no intention to do so. It’s unclear how the situation will develop in the coming days and weeks.
By all accounts, Burundi has come very close to falling off a cliff. Nkurunziza could probably defuse much of the tension by reneging on his candidacy, but this will have unforeseeable consequences for his party’s performance at the upcoming polls.
More likely, he’ll dig in and attempt to find another way out.
One of the most important factors is the role of the army, which has shown no preference for either side.
In shambles after the civil war, the Burundian military rebuilt itself with help from foreign advisers, and it’s integrated various rebel groups and increased its level of professionalization. Today, the Burundian military is an important troop provider for international peacekeeping missions.
The military leadership has called for all actors to “respect the constitution and the Arusha Accords,” indicating that it might be unlikely to throw its support against Nkurunziza. But that doesn’t rule out a split within the military — with some parts aligning with the president, just like the police and other security services have done.
There’s also the fear the the government might arm its paramilitary youth wing, the Imbonerakure, and use it against protesters and opposition members.
A degeneration of the current protests into an armed conflict would almost certainly lead to a wave of refugees. Already, more than 20,000 people have fled into Rwanda for fear of violence and reprisals.
Widespread violence and refugees would in turn lead to a response from Burundi’s neighbors. Rwanda especially has a history of military intervention in neighboring countries.
The Rwandan government has made only cautious public statements on the situation so far, but it’s almost guaranteed to act if Nkurunziza’s government, which is Hutu-dominated, should target Burundi’s Tutsi minority.
Burundi also borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a chronically unstable country. Armed groups from the DRC could contribute to a destabilization of Burundi and vice versa. Tanzania, Burundi’s third neighbor, would not stand by idly while Rwanda and Congolese militias intervene.
Whether the crisis worsens or not depends to a large degree on the actions of the international community. Burundi’s neighbors should rapidly come to a common position, and should declare that they won’t accept Nkurunziza’s third candidacy or any delay of the elections. Western governments should support this.
Both the African Union and the United Nations should also begin discussing a potential intervention. One reason for the horror that engulfed central Africa in the 1990s, with millions dead, was that the international community failed to act decisively during the beginnings of the Rwandan Genocide.
There’s no indication that Nkurunziza has prepared for such a doomsday scenario. But why should anybody take that risk, two decades after the world declared its intention to “never again” allow mass murder in the region?