The current humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Burundi was triggered in April by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in office, in an election that took place on Tuesday 21st July. The political crisis was instigated by a leader who refuses to leave office after ten years, and yet it is being mediated by a leader who has been in power for close to thirty years.
The Ugandan President Museveni, who is acting mediator in the peace talks, has been in power since 1986, having altered the constitution to remove Ugandan presidential term limits. Nkurunziza’s amendments to the constitution and his decision to run for a third term are far from unheard of in the region, and his bid is comparatively unambitious next to Museveni’s time in office. The irony, or absurdity, of the situation aside, Museveni’s arrival in Bujumbura to attempt to referee the unraveling situation highlights the relevance of Burundi’s political situation to regional leaders throughout the Great Lakes region.
Three months on from the announcement to amend the constitution, more than 100 people have died in street protests that have been met by a harsh government crackdown. Over 144,000 people have fled the country since the ruling party announced Nkurunziza’s candidature. With peace talks stalled, and the election just past, tensions are high.
There are concerns that the unrest in Burundi could further destabilise the African Great Lakes region. Crisis in the area has historically spread rapidly to neighbouring countries. The numerous genocides and civil wars have left permanent marks on the collective memory of the population of Burundi and its neighbours. A number of questions arise as to the regional implications of the recent unrest.
What effect could refugee flows have on neighbouring countries?
The Democratic Republic of Congo, where a protracted civil war has been ongoing since 1998, plays host to the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission and has drawn in most of its neighbors. It, along with Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda, now hosts many of the 144000 refugees who have fled Burundi. The governments in the region frequently accuse one another of harboring rebel refugees who wish to challenge the status quo from across borders.
Tanzania has seen an influx of almost 77,000 refugees from Burundi since the crisis began. Up to 1,000 people cross the border between Tanzania and Burundi every day. 78,000 Burundians are currently living in the Nyarugusu camp alone, having fled the recent civil unrest and rising violence in Burundi. They have joined 64,000 Congolese refugees in the camp who fled DRC in 1997. The camp was set up in the mid-1990s to hold 50,000 refugees. Most camps are overcrowded, affected by crime, and disease is often endemic. Tanzania has in recent years offered citizenship to some 200,000 Burundian refugees and their descendants. It is believed that this is the largest number of refugees ever locally integrated by a host country.
Rwanda has received over 25,000 refugees from Burundi, and DRC has received around 8,000. Camps in both of these countries are also said to be overcrowded to breaking point.
The presence of high numbers of refugees in a country compounds prevailing social, economic, environmental and political difficulties. As soon as refugees settle in a host country, they must compete with local citizens for resources that are often already scarce, such as land, housing and food.
The social and political impacts of mass migration into a country are likely to be long lasting in the region. When refugees are from the same cultural, ethnic or linguistic group as the host population, often there is widespread sympathy for them. However, in the midst of political and economical turmoil, different ethnicity can be a cause for serious problems, as traditional animosities exist between groups and the precarious ethnic balances that exist can be tilted. Nowhere is this truer than in the African Great Lakes region. Resentment between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups have led to genocide and long-lasting conflicts in the countries of the region.
The mass exodus of over 2million Rwandan refugees to neighbouring countries in 1994 led to politicisation and militarisation of camps in Zaire (which became DRC), which in turn escalated until the First Congo War broke out in 1996. The Hutu and Tutsi conflict in Burundi in 1993 left over 300,000 dead. The Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement in 2000 provided a framework to end the violence by ensuring power sharing among ethnic groups. Importantly, it mandated that no president could serve more than 2 terms in office. Nkurunziza’s bid for presidency is in direct violation of this Accord. The crisis could now devolve into a reprisal of ethnic conflict in the Great Lakes Region, uprooting essential peace building developments.
Tanzania is currently hosting the peace negotiations, which only representatives from Tanzania and Uganda attended. The Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his foreign affairs minister did not attend the crisis meeting, nor did the Presidents of Kenya or Burundi. This in itself does not bode well for lasting peace in the region. Bilateral relations between Burundi and Rwanda, and Rwanda and DRC, and Uganda and DRC are also on uneven ground, and could deteriorate alongside regional domestic instability.
What does this mean for the governments of neighbouring countries?
The President Joseph Kabila also faces a potential third-term vote next year. Nationwide unrest was sparked in January by a parliamentary bill seen as a ploy to extend his rule. At least 42 people were killed by security forces before Kabila cancelled the countrywide referendum on the bid to postpone elections, after mass demonstrations in Kinshasa.
DRC is still struggling to recover from the conflict dubbed “Africa’s world war” in which millions died between 1998 and 2003. The crisis in Burundi is itself affected by the pervasive situation in eastern DRC. The CNDD-FDD and the Burundian opposition group the FNL have both operated from bases in eastern DRC in their days as anti-government militias. Recent UN reports also accused Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD government of organizing military training for the Imbonerakure youth wind in the Ruzizi border region with DRC. Regional escalations in violence and spillovers of conflict would not be out of the ordinary.
Lawmakers in Rwanda in July backed a motion allowing President Paul Kagame to run again in elections in 2017, despite his being in power for two consecutive seven-year terms since 2000. This move completely goes against any semblance of democracy in Rwanda, and demonstrates that Rwanda is in effect a one-party state, as the last election established. Kagame is one of Africa’s most polarizing figures, praised for his improvements to Rwanda’s economy and education levels, but criticized for closing any semblance of political space in the country.
Nonetheless, Rwanda has become increasingly vocal in its condemnation of Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term. Kagame implied to China Central TV that the Burundian president is unpopular, incompetent and unwanted by the people of Burundi, a claim not wholly without substance.
Rwanda has also claimed that the Imbonerakure, the militarized youth wing of the ruling party, has been supplied with weaponry by the rebel Rwandan Hutu group FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) that operates out of the DRC, and is opposed to Tutsi influence and rule in the region. A Tutsi himself, Kagame sees the groups’ potential affiliation as a huge threat.
Accusations have also been levied at Rwanda. The Burundian governor of Kayanza has accused Rwanda of involvement in a series of attacks in the province. Having previously been known to support various rebel groups in the DRC, Rwanda will have a hard time convincing its neighbors it is not supporting dissident groups in Burundi. There is a great deal of speculation in the region that Kagame supports the opposition. The presence of hundreds of journalists, refugees, and opposition leaders that Rwanda is currently playing host to is likely to have an effect on Kagame’s stance. Moreover, Kagame has external opposition in the form of the RNC (Rwanda National Congress) that could take advantage of the crisis in Burundi and use the territory to destabilize Rwanda from over the border.
East African Community heads of state appointed Museveni mediator. Nkurunziza was happy with the decision, but so far the opposition has rejected his appointment as mediator. Museveni is also seeking re-election for his seventh term in next year’s presidential election in February. One of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, Museveni has ruled Uganda for three decades already. Opposition has intensified to his rule, and his critics complain of pervasive corruption and the breakdown of public services.
He is undoubtedly a problematic choice, having abolished term limits himself via a constitutional amendment in 2005. He is known for clamping down harshly on opposition in Uganda. Having only assumed his role as mediator in Burundi on 6th July, he has since arrested two well-known opposition party leaders in Uganda. Two UN-appointed mediators have already stepped down from the Burundi process following pressure from the Burundian government.
Presidential elections are due to take place in Tanzania in October 2015, and President Jakaya Kikwete has not stated any wishes to alter the constitution to run for a third term. In many ways Kikwete would have been more of a legitimate choice than Museveni to mediate talks in Burundi, as he is standing down from office in October after serving his constitutionally allowed time in office. However, with the opposition divided, and over 35 candidates in the running to succeed Kikwete, it is unlikely the opposition will mount a strong challenge, meaning that the CCM party (previously TANU), which has been in power since 1961, will likely be in charge for another five years. The CCM party has already nominated John Magufuli as its leader for the October elections, and the leadership change looks set to transition smoothly.
Tanzania appears to have shifted its stance on the crisis in Burundi. Nkurunziza was in Dar-es-Salaam at a summit in May when army leaders staged their failed coup in Burundi, and it is at this point in time that Kikwete shifted his position on Nkurunziza’s bid for presidency.
Having previously been resolute in his assertion that Nkurunziza ought to leave, in May, Kikwete dropped his insistence on Nkurunziza’s departure, and ceased discussing the issue of term limits in the region. A possible reason for this is the strained relationship Tanzania has with Rwanda. Kikwete may have believed Rwanda had supported the coup attempt in May, and saw a way to antagonize an old adversary. Now Tanzania’s focus is on attempting to find a political solution to the Burundi crisis.
On Friday 17th July a “national dialogue” meeting was held in Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo between state officials, academics and other figures who were proposing making modifications to the Republic of Congo’s constitution, in order to open the doors to President Denis Sassou N’guesso being allowed to stay in power. Opposition parties have decried the meeting as a stage-managed attempt to let the president bypass age and term limits and run again in elections in 2016.
While further north, in Burkina Faso, the ex-president Blaise Compaore, who ruled the country for almost 3 decades, was charged with ‘high treason’ over his bid to change the country’s constitution and run for a third term. Compoare’s attempt to remain in power had prompted mass demonstrations and civil unrest in Ouagadougou and many other regions of the country in October 2014. Compaore resigned and fled the country to the Côte d’Ivoire as a result of the increased unrest.
What does this signal for ‘democracy’ in the African Great Lakes region?
The pervasive corruption and oppression of opposition parties throughout the region does not allow for democracy to function in a progressive, inclusive manner. Open dialogue between the ruling party and opposition parties of a country cannot be instigated when the latter are oppressed and their activists are imprisoned.
Burundi’s democracy is only ten years old. The protests, public demonstrations, and acts of civil disobedience currently seen across Burundi all represent open forms of opposition to the government, a staple of democracy. Many see in the (mostly) peaceful demonstrations a growing democratic maturity.
However, Nkurunzizas decision to ignore the advice given to him by CNDD-FDD party members and to seek another term, his reaction to dissident voices taking the form of a threat to imprison them for threatening the peace, and his warnings to opposition leaders all bare the marks of an autocratic state. Elections may only serve to legitimize and rubber-stamp a regime that refuses to respect the basic rules of democracy.
As to the rest of the region, the principles required for genuine democracy – the transparency of wealth, human rights, proper rule of law, an effective justice system, a regulated financial system, separation of powers and judicial independence, and a functioning political system – are in short supply in the countries across the Great Lakes Region. Given the age of the democracies, this is unsurprising. The issues seen in governments throughout the area may only be teething problems of governments struggling with the challenges associated with democratisation.