For many, the fluidity of the situation in Burundi is confusing. Mainstream media have gone from reporting protests, to peace talks, to a military coup and then back to protests again. In the space of a week, President Pierre Nkurunziza has been deposed and then reinstated. The political situation is complex, and directly relates to the country’s history, ethnic divides, corruption and elitism.
It is first essential to understand why people took to the streets in the first place, before discussing the events, and the probability of further unrest. Dissimilar to the narrative within mainstream media, this is due to a complex amalgamation of factors:
Corruption and Inequality
Contextualising the environment in which unrest has grown, it should be noted that Freedom House have consistently rated Burundi as “Not Free” since the end of the civil war and the accession of President Pierre Nkurunziza. Corruption is an endemic problem in Burundi, with Transparency International rating the perception of political clarity in the country as 159th in 175 in 2014. In the words of the organisation: “a poor score is likely a sign of widespread bribery, lack of punishment for corruption and public institutions that don’t respond to citizens’ needs.” Indeed, the regard for the welfare of the populace is known to be extremely low, with the most current World Bank data reflecting near 85% of the population living within “Multidimensional Poverty.” These levels of poverty becomes increasingly significant to the levels of inequality in the country. The political elite are seen to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle regardless of these figures, many analysts describing an endemic issue of neopatrimonialism in the country.
In this environment of poverty and inequality, what also must be understood is the ethnic divisions in the country. When discussing ethnicity, it also must be contextualised in the environment of perceived access to the structures of power and resources, arguably transforming arbitrary divisions to be political tools. The effects of Burundi’s civil war (which took place between 1993-2005) is complicated, and has links with the Rwandan genocide. Simplistically, the conflict in Burundi was linked to centuries deep ethnic divisions, reflected in the separation between Hutu and Tutsi groups. As in any war, there are many historical and political factors for the conflict. Generally, the accepted narrative portrays the Tutsi ethnic minority persecuted by the majority Hutu peoples following the assassination of the Hutu elected president, Melhior Ndadaye. The war claimed the lives of Hutu and Tutsi’s alike, and the tensions from this period of mass brutality are still evident today. As the civil war came to an end in 2005, the Arusha Accords (originally signed in 2000) were agreed as a blueprint for democratic transition and peace building in the country. In these decrees, it stated that power of the President must transition between a Hutu and a Tutsi after two terms of presidency. Therefore, the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD – which is perceived to identify to the Hutu ethnicity) nomination of Nkurunziza for a third term undermined these accords, jeopardising the peace-building process.
The seeming disregard for the Arusha Accords makes the 2015 elections and the relevant unrest different from previous trends of political violence. Indeed, in 2010, the elections were marred with violence, targeted killings and street violence. The major opposition parties boycotted the elections, and thousands affiliated to the organisations fled the country. Therefore, many have described the rule of Nkurunziza as increasingly authoritarian and marred by intimidation. The number of opposition political actors who have gone into hiding are not known, but are believed to be high. In this environment of intimidation, the violent techniques of the “imbonerakure” – the youth league of the government were commonly referenced. The group, or criminal network are thought to have participated in the murder, rape, beatings and torture of Burundians believed to be linked to opposition groups. It is thought that often the imbonerakure dress themselves as police to represent themselves as authority and then conduct violence on opposition members. Historically, clashes have also occurred with the youth branches of the opposition, Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD) and the imbonerakure. In the on going unrest, these youth groups have been active in intimidating protestors.
Through the knowledge that this backdrop creates, the situation in Burundi and the security risks it poses becomes evident.
So, what has been happening?
Protests began to increase from the 26th April onwards. This originally began as authorities declared that any rallying or demonstrations linked to the upcoming elections would be dealt as“insurgency.” Hundreds joined the streets to express their fury over such control, and their condemnation over the third term bird of the incumbent President. On the first day of protests, three were killed as reports of live ammunition used by police circulated on social media. Following this sign of further unrest, the government attempted to tighten their grip on the situation by detaining civil society members. This only furthered the anger of protestors, particularly due to the treatment of the ever popular African Public Radio Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) and its consequent shut down. As tensions began to escalate, Burundi’s constitutional court said Nkurunziza was allowed to run for a third term. Signs of coercion were rife due many of the high judiciaries fleeing before participating in the verdict. Following this, a further 12 people were killed as violence escalated even further. By May the 12th, up to 20 people had been killed on the streets of Bujumbura, with unrest spreading to other areas of the country.
Regional Talks and Military Coup
On the 13th of May 2015, Nkurunziza travelled to neighbouring Tanzania in order to participate in regional peace talks to deal with the crisis. As he was out of the country, Major General Godefroid Niyombare declared that Nkurunziza had violated the constitution and the peace accords and consequently been “dismissed from his functions.” Consequently, thousands of people celebrated in the streets as uncertainty circulated on the wires. Many were sceptical if the military coup was legitimate, and if it could hold. It was believed that thousands of “imbonerakure” joined with the police in order to counter balance the shifting political implication of the military. Further confused by the nature of the divided military itself, there were reports of revolt and mutiny.
Once more, it dragged into the fore the issue of civil military relations in the country. Indeed, Burundi has had a long history of blurred distinctions between polity and professionalism of the troops, and the divides that the coup presented will continue to be a source of instability to the force.
On the ground however, the coup seemed to have failed. Within days, government forces had arrested many as Major General Godefroid Niyombare fled. A quick trial was conducted, and Nkurunziza returned. A heavy security presence on the streets of the country seemed to stunt protests, and the situation remained at a knife edge. The coup may have failed for many reasons, including a divided will of the military, populace, police and a lack of alternative solutions. What became increasingly obvious was the deep-rooted divisions at all levels of society.
The return of Nkurunziza
It would be reductive to suggest that the return of Nkurunziza signposted stability. Already, international actors are urging the incumbent President to renegotiate the date of the elections until the a conducive environment of peace allows for the legitimacy of the event. Bizarrely, on his first address to the nation since the attempted coup the President spoke of the risk of Al-Shabab to the country, instead of addressing the endemic political breakdown. This signifies an attitude unwilling to deal with the deep rooted problems that the unrest suggests.
On May 18th and into 19th demonstrations have began to build confidence once more. Hundreds of people have been arrested as people brave security forces to express their condemnation of the third term. It is unclear at this time how, if these protests, continue, the incumbent President will deal with this.
What may happen?
There is fear that violence will escalate further in the country. The African Union speaks for many analysts as they describe the toxic environment for elections, urging for an interim period to be established before any electoral process can continue. The elections, if they go ahead will likely be marred by violence, corruption and the result redundant of popular opinion. There is fear that ethnic links as a result of this political situation will be magnified through government propaganda. Vigilantism may increase as organised criminal actors are used to support a political agenda. The situation is fluid, and pervasive insecurity remains.
Already, the regional implications of the political problem are being felt. On Friday 15th May 2015, the UNHCR specified that over 105,000 people had fled Burundi in the midst of the crisis, with 70,187 in neighbouring Tanzania, 26,300 in Rwanda and 9,183 to the province of South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is seen as a destabilising influence for these host countries, who have struggled to provide essential shelter to the influx of refugees. This huge increase in refugees has also caused political tensions in the host countries.
Maxwell Lucas will continue to monitor the events in Burundi, as the situation continues to fluctuate and transform. As it stands, the international airports and land borders have been reopened, although they will react to the tides of the political current. We have previously warranted an evacuation declaration across the country, strongly focussed on the capital of Bujumbura. We continue to enforce this definition. As this transforms into an increasingly regional affair, the pressure on Nkurunziza will increase which may result in further violent techniques used to impose control. Without doubt there remains a huge amount at stake in this tense time; the advances of peace building in the nation, the lives of thousands, the reputation of the electoral advance in the country and the longevity of stability.