Tensions have been rising in Burundi, a landlocked country in the African Great Lakes region, ahead of presidential elections slated for June. Many fear that incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza, who has been in power since 2005, will seek a third term in the upcoming elections, despite the two-term limit imposed by the constitution.
Keen to avoid a crisis like the one that precipitated the fall of Burkina Fasos's President Blaise Compaoré in October, the international community has waded into the debate and called on Burundi's decision-makers to consider "peace" before anything else. The Elders — an independent group of global leaders and peace advocates, chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan — traveled to Burundi Thursday to urge the government to respect the limit on presidential terms.
Meanwhile, Belgium has earmarked 300,000 Euros to finance an electoral observation mission in its former colony.
According to Amnesty International, Burundi's ruling party has been "perpetrating a relentless campaign of intimidation" against its critics, and also has a lousy record when it comes to the freedom of the media and free speech.
Last month, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Burundi's capital Bujumbura to celebrate the release of popular radio host Bob Rugurika, who was detained for airing the confession of a man allegedly involved in the murder of three Italian nuns last year. Rugurika's arrest provoked outrage among the population, who ignored the government ban and staged mass demonstrations.
Burundi's influential Roman Catholic Church has also urged the incumbent president not to stand for a third term.
Pierre Nkurunziza believes he has every right to push for a third term. He does have a rural support base, and you have to bear in mind that his party, the CNDD-FDD, did not sign the Arusha agreement. He doesn't feel he's beholden to [the agreement].
On March 2, Burundian dissident Hussein Radjabu escaped from jail, where he was serving a 13 year sentence on charges of "plotting against the State." Radjabu had formerly headed the president's political party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), but was removed in 2007 after reportedly falling out of favor with Nkurunziza. The BBC says Radjabu, a former rebel leader and the country's most powerful politician before his imprisonment, was aided in his escape by the prison's warden and three guards. He is currently believed to be in exile.
Burundi, which was under Belgian administrative authority until 1962, has recently emerged from a long history of violent civil conflict. Ethnic violence between the Tutsi and the Hutu left 300,000 dead in a bloody civil war that lasted from1993 to 2008.
In 2000, Burundi signed the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement to bring stability to the country and provide a framework for a transitional government. Parliamentary elections took place in 2005, followed by presidential elections, in which Nkurunziza was elected.
The Arusha agreement and the 2005 Constitution both limit the number of consecutive presidential terms to two. Unlike the agreement, the Constitution outlines that this limit only applies to a president elected "by directed universal suffrage."
Nkurunziza's supporters argue that the president has only been elected by universal suffrage once, not twice, since his first nomination was the result of a parliamentary vote. According to the Constitution, they say, the first term doesn't count, and Nkurunziza should by right be allowed another term.
A lasting mobilization
Christine Deslaurier, a researcher at France's Institute for Research and Development (IRD), told VICE News that the international community's recent voicing of support is "the icing on the cake for the campaign against a possible third term for president Nkurunziza."
Opponents of the president have been protesting since March 2014, when the ruling party failed to obtain parliamentary approval to amend the constitution in a move critics said would upset the country's delicate sectarian balance between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis. (Nkurunziza is a Hutu).
"The [anti-government protest] movement really exploded and gathered momentum after February 19," said Deslaurier, "during the protests that followed the release of Bob Rugurika, the head of African Public Radio [Radio Publique Africaine — RPA]."
Rugurika, the researcher explained, became a symbol for the opposition's dissatisfaction with the government's tactics.
"This radio station is the voice of the voiceless in Burundi, and has always brought to light the biggest scandals, regardless of the powers-that-be." Demonstrations gathered so much momentum that the government staged its own nationwide counter-protest on February 28. According to French radio station RFI, Burundian students claimed they had been forced to demonstrate to show off a united pro-government front.
For Deslaurier, former CNDD-FDD party leader Radjabu's jail break on March 8 dealt a further blow to the ruling party, particularly since the dissident leader was reportedly aided by incumbent party officials, which "just goes to show how much pressure there is within the ruling party," the researcher said. According to media reports, several "rogue" elements have also been barred from the party in the past few months.
Many see Radjabu's 2007 arrest as politically motivated, but for Deslaurier, the former CNDD-FDD leader is not a direct threat to Nkrurunziza in the June elections. "I don't think Radjabu will be able to come back to Burundi [to stand in] the presidential election," she said. "He's a fugitive, so, from a legal standpoint, he can't stand. But it's likely he will field other candidates."
The opposition under pressure
On Saturday, the wife of leading Burundian opposition politician Agathon Rwasa was shot and wounded at a hair salon in the capital, Bujumbura — the latest incident in a decade of political harassment. "People often settle [political] matters with brutality," said Deslaurier. "Last year there were murders."
Burundi is heavily dependent on the international community for aid, and 55 percent of the country's budget is currently financed by international donors — a factor that may come to weigh on Nkurunziza's decision.
"Pierre Nkurunziza believes he has every right to push for a third term," Deslaurier said. "He does have a rural support base, and you have to bear in mind that his party, the CNDD-FDD, did not sign the Arusha agreement. He doesn't feel he's beholden to [the agreement]."
"Pressure will continue to rise in the country," she added. "A solution for the president might be to field another candidate from his party. Particularly given the current context in Africa: people aren't all that supportive [of efforts] to take the power by force."
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray
Image via Dave Proffer / Flickr