For the last few months, Burundi has been the center of a nerve-wracking political drama, with the future of a country of 10 million people on the line.
First, Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, violated both the constitution and a peace agreement in seeking a third term in office — which led to a failed military coup, followed by a flawed and undemocratic election.
Many feared that war would break out after that election and the weeks of tension building up to it. The country isn’t at war, but the crisis is nevertheless unfolding within the ominous context of Burundi’s checkered and often violent recent history.
Burundi is a small, landlocked Central African nation, and the 8th-to-last country in the United Nations’ Human Development Index.
Its economy is mostly based on agriculture, with coffee and tea as the country’s leading exports. This leaves the country at the mercy of an unpredictable harvest. The nation lacks manufacturing infrastructure and sound educational institutions. As a result, 42% of Burundi’s national income comes from foreign aid. It’s also in an unstable region, as it borders both Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, countries that have been the site of devastating conflicts over the past 25 years.
After its own bloody and ethnically-charged Civil War, which started in 1993 and only formally ended in 2005, Burundi actually made modest gains in its economy, seeing 4% GDP growth from 2006-2014.
Like neighbouring Rwanda, Burundi is a former Belgian colony composed of two major ethnic groups, the Tutsi and the Hutu. Shortly after gaining Independence in 1962, the Hutu president was assassinated by a Tutsi gunman, and the nation became engaged in a bloody civil war that culminated in the 1972 slaughter of around 100,000 Hutus, mainly from the educated elite.
Today, Burundi’s crisis of governance isn’t along ethnic lines — most Burundians appear to oppose Nkurunziza’s power grab, and it’s overly simplistic to say that the country is lapsing back into its previous conflict.
But the nation’s complicated past is a reminder that there’s still a real potential for widespread violence.
On April 25th, Nkurunziza declared that he would run for a third term in office, something that would be in direct violation of Burundi’s constitution and the peace treaty that ended the civil war. Burundians from across the country’s ethnic divide weren’t happy about the illegal power grab.
Protests erupted in May. Several high-level military officers decided that they only way to defuse the situation was to depose Nkurunziza. A military coup was launched on May 13 but crushed a mere two days later with the arrest of army general Godefroid Niyombare.
Participants in the coup were then hunted down and tried in court. Some were severely beaten and in some cases were dragged out of hospitals. Ndayirukiye is said to have been abused particularly badly.
Nkurunziza violently struck back against his civil society opponents as well. Throughout June, machete-armed gangs on both sides of the political divide hunted down and assassinated protest leaders, with 80 people killed in acts of political violence that month. Intellectuals fled the country amid the crackdown while neighbouring countries demanded an election delay.
Despite the protests, elections took place on July 21, with Nkurunziza winning a third term in office. But more violence appears likely and may be unavoidable.
The election itself was far from credible. The United Nations called the elections “deeply flawed,” adding that the “overall environment was not conducive for an inclusive, free and credible electoral process.”
Nkurunziza took the election by a wide margin, capturing 69.41% of the vote. His opponents boycotted the elections, and encouraged their supports to do the same, in order to avoid legitmising an illegal poll. The result was a sweeping victory for the incumbent.
The situation threatened to unravel after Nkurunziza’s landslide victory. Violence had erupted in the week before the election and many international observers feared that another civil war could be imminent.
The US came out against Nkurunziza as well. In his remarks to the African Union on July 28, President Barack Obama said, “When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it risks instability and strife.”
Obama directly cited Burundi, saying that breaking constitutional terms limits was “often just a first step down a perilous path.”
The European Union’s foreign policy chief also expressed concern over the elections, stating that they were prepared to sanction six Burundian government officials should the situation deteriorate. For a country so dependent on foreign aid, sanctions like those discussed by the EU could be disastrous, even if they’re aimed at preventing Burudi’s crisis from entering an even more dangerous phase.
With sanctions looming and Nkurnziza in a dominant position after the crushing of the coup attempt and his persecution of opposition leaders, his remaining opponents are starting to realise they may have little practical choice beyond participating in a political process that many of them consider to be illegal.
On July 30, Agathon Rwasa, the leader of the party opposing Nkurnziza, was elected deputy head of the national parliament, despite being an outspoken advocate of a boycott of the elections. Rwasa explained to Reuters that “Instead of shouting outside the institutions, it’s better to be inside them.” He said of his election that, “It’s a mandate given by the people, we can’t disappoint them. They have the right to be represented.”
Rwasa also called for a unity government, in which power would be shared between the president and the opposition parties. Nkurunziza said that such a move would not be opposed — a glimmer of hope, however conditional, in a country that’s been on the verge of conflict for weeks.
Though other opponents of Nkurunziza have continued to boycott the government and abstain from the parliament, this recent twist gives hope that Burundi might make it out of this impasse without falling into full-on civil war.
Still, there is cause for concern over Burundi’s likely course. Already as many as 175,000 people have fled Burundi. The government has silenced popular radio stations, while government-sponsored outlets have appeared in order to spread disinformation.
The African Great Lakes region is emerging from a long period of instability. Things have been relatively dormant in Burundi for years — but Nkurunziza’s third term threatens to spark another big eruption in a conflict-prone part of the world.
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