Burundi is currently in the midst of crisis, and while the most dangerous moments could be over, there also remains potential for devastating conflict. The instability in the tiny Central African country centers around President Pierre Nkurunziza of the CNDD-FDD party. Nkurunziza took power in 2005 as part of Burundi’s post-civil war transition. He has since served two terms as President, but intends to run for- and likely win- a third. Opposition to his plan has sparked large protests and even a coup attempt. With the Presidential election scheduled for July 15th, great uncertainty remains as to what direction Burundi’s future will take.
Nkurunziza had been hinting at a third term for many months. His party maintained that he was eligible as he had been elected by Parliament, rather than voters, for his first term, thus eliminating his first term from consideration in the two-term limit. Opposition parties strongly rejected these claims, and when the CNDD-FDD announced on April 25th that Nkurunziza would run again, protests broke out. Large-scale protests continued for weeks, with the Nkurunziza government cracking down heavily on protesters, the media, and the opposition.
On May 13th, Nkurunziza was in Tanzania attending a regional summit on the crisis. General Godefroid Niyombare, Nkurunziza’s former Intelligence Chief who was fired for his opposition to the third term, announced that Nkurunziza’s government had been dismissed. Nkurunziza attempted to return to the country but his plane was turned away. After returning to Tanzania he maintained his intention to return to the country, and over the next day many conflicting reports of his location emerged. In Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, Nkurunziza loyalists fought off the attempted coup. On May 15th, Nkurunziza returned to the country and the coup leaders admitted their failure. Prior to the coup, the military had been seen as a relatively successful organization. During the past few weeks of protest, while the police had reacted heavily to protesters, the military had been a relatively stabilizing force. The military factionalized, however, and sections of the military supported the coup while others opposed it.
Protests continued after the coup and the opposition maintained their stance opposing a third term. On May 23rd, the leader of the Union for Peace and Development, Zedi Feruzi, was assassinated. Although the perpetrator has not been confirmed, it is suspected to be someone affiliated with Nkurunziza, and many opposition parties responded by announcing a boycott of the election. Due to the unrest, elections were postponed and the government eventually decided to schedule Parliamentary elections for June 26th and Presidential elections for July 15th. In response to the actions of the Nkurunziza government, the influential Catholic Church withdrew its support for the elections. Agathon Rwasa, leader of the main opposition party, the FNL, altered his position on boycotting the elections repeatedly,and although he opposes the actions of Nkrunziza’s government, he no longer intends to boycott.
Most media sources continues to be shut down, as are all the universities. Around 80 people have been killed since April and over 100,000 people fled to neighboring countries during the peak of the conflict. Grenade attacks, usually against police, have increased in frequency and opposition supporters are suspected. There are also threats of violence from the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD. It seems likely that Nkurunziza will win the upcoming elections, as the the opposition’s chances of victory will be hindered by their fragmented nature, Nkurunziza’s repression, and their limited campaigning as a result of their threats to boycott. Nkurunziza also holds great popularity in rural areas. On the diplomatic front, the US has stated its opposition to Nkurunziza’s third term, and the UN has repeatedly expressed their concern at the situation and appointed a special envoy to aid peace efforts.
The conflict has demonstrated some positives. For one, if crisis is averted, it could very well go down as a model of atrocity prevention. Burundi has long been marked as a country at risk of conflict, and the atrocity prevention community has been able to quickly implement a fairly coordinated response. Also, conflicts provoked by this crisis have remained political and not ethnic, unlike the 1972 genocide and the Civil War from 1993 to 2005. Still, there remain many dangers. As conflict progresses politicians may attempt to mobilize along ethnic lines. Also, the opposition may turn to more violent methods due to their failure to create change in the political arena. Finally, it is unclear how the country will react to an expected Nkurunziza victory in July’s election. It is possible that this crisis is eventually seen as a hiccup on the path to a more prosperous Burundi, but there could just as easily be far worse to come.
Timmy Hirschel-Burns is a rising junior at Swarthmore College and STAND’s Policy Intern. You can follow him on Twitter at TimH_B