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The Presidential Controversy Threatening to Pull Burundi Apart

Protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza have led to violence clashes between the police and demonstrators—and things don't look to be returning to normal anytime soon in the African nation.

Photo of President Pierre Nkurunziza via Flickr user GovernmentZA

On Monday, four civilians were killed in the Burundian capital of Bujumbura after police reportedly opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators who'd begun to hurl stones at them. The attack marked the second week of increasingly assertive rallies and clashes between the authorities and protesters who claim that it's unconstitutional for President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for another term.

The demonstrators took to the street for the first time on April 26 as a response to the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy—Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) party's decision to select Nkurunziza as their candidate in the nation's upcoming June 26 elections. It was a controversial move because Nkurunziza has already served two terms, the maximum allowed by the country's constitution—but his supporters say that since his first term was an appointment by parliament rather than a popular election, it doesn't count.

This technicality has ignited a struggle in the Southeastern African country, with over 300 anti-Nkurunziza groups mobilizing and the government banning protests, shutting down broadcasts by independent radio stations, and blocking access to social media. The police claim that the protesters are using grenades—they said that 15 officers had been wounded during the rally on Monday—and have arrested hundreds.

This is the most violent outburst to hit the nation of 10 million since the civil war— fueled in part by the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda—ended in 2005, and many now worry that the renewed unrest could shatter the nation's hard-won peace.

Opposition leader Agathon Rwasa voiced these fears himself on April 28. "I am calling upon President Nkurunziza to abandon seeking for another third term to prevent the country from massive violence and killings," the Christian Science Monitor reported him as saying.

Burundi was long ruled together with Rwanda by Belgium, which asserted the dominance of the 20 percent Tutsi minority over the 80 percent Hutu majority. When these colonizers left in 1962, the nation fell under the rule of Tutsi strongmen until its first democratic elections in 1993 yielded a Hutu-dominated government headed by President Melchior Ndadye. But within the space of a year, Ndadye and his Hutu successor, Cyprien Ntaryamira, were both assassinated—the later in the same plane crash that killed Rwanda's Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana and helped to trigger the genocide there. As ethnic clashes broke out in 1994, Tutsi groups rebelled against the government of a third Hutu president, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, kicking off 12 years of civil war that killed up to 300,000 people.

With the help of Nelson Mandela, the groups came together for a ceasefire in 2001 and the conflict officially ended in 2005, when the newly elected parliament picked Nkurunziza, formerly a Hutu militia leader, as the country's first post-war president. By 2009, the last rebel group had been disarmed and in 2010 Nkurunziza won a largely uncontested popular election.

But many have come to see Nkurunziza as increasingly dictatorial in recent years. A born-again Christian, he apparently styles himself president by the will of God. Most opposition groups believe he rigged the 2010 elections; in 2014, he banned a major opposition party and the popular sport of group jogging, which is seen as a possible way to foment rebellion as a possible means of fomenting dissidence. Protests have grown common, so they were inevitable after his candidacy announcement. But their escalation has been a bit unexpected.

Yet there have been ethnic overtones to the protests, which Nkurunziza seems ready to stoke for his own benefit. His administration has tried paint the protests as Tutsi resistance to Hutu rule.

"The government indeed tends to demonize Tutsi leaders," says Rens Willems, a research fellow at the University for Peace Center in the Hague who has carried out field research on conflict in Burundi, "thereby stimulating an anti-Tutsi sentiment."

"It feels to me like this is about power," adds Wiliam Timpson, a Colorado State University professor who has conducted extensive research on conflict prevention in northern Burundi over the past four years, "but the danger is that it might slide into something more familiar [like the civil war].

"Politics are politics and people use whatever leverage they can to make a point."

Some believe that Nkurunziza might be inciting violence so he has an excuse to clamp down on discontents. Local analysts have even suggested that the grenade attack was a government-orchestrated pretext to start treating protestors as terrorists. The big fear is that the government might stoke ethnic animosities to fracture the protests, leading to a new wave of violent uprisings.

Though US Secretary of State John Kerry, among others, have publicly disproved of Nkurunziza's candidacy, on Tuesday the Burundian constitutional court declared it to be legal—one day after one of its judges claiming he and others disinclined to support the president had been threatened. There's no doubt that the protests will continue as the election approaches, and the country's decade of peace is looking dangerously fragile at the moment.

"Chances are that [the violence] increases when youth militia from both CNDD-FDD and opposing parties get more involved," says Willems.

"There is then the question of the military's response," he adds. "If they step in and remove Nkurunziza, there is a very slim chance that they can control the situation... But there is a big chance that this leads to increasingly violent responses by Nkurunziza supporters, and also a chance that certain elements in the military oppose a coup.

"I don't foresee the violence to be ethnical, at least at first, but once conflict really breaks out, it may take on ethnic dimensions as political leaders look for ways to mobilize supporters and place blame for the situation."

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