Analysis: Burundi’s fragile peace hangs in the balance

By Simon Allison 29 April 2015

These are troubled times in Burundi, where the president is determined to hang on to power – even if it violates the decade-old peace agreement that ended the country’s devastating civil war. And once he breaks that agreement, what’s left to keep the peace? By SIMON ALLISON.

Making peace is an imperfect, messy business, constructed on equal parts hope, good faith and good fortune. In Burundi, where the South African-brokered peace has held for just over a decade, the fragility of these foundations is only now becoming apparent.

The problem lies, as it so often does, at the very top. President Pierre Nkurunziza – the avocado planter-in-chief who loves football but hates jogging – is nearing the end of his second term in office. He has ruled Burundi for the entirety of its post-civil war history, and he’s not quite ready to give up yet. Last week, the ruling party, CNDD-FDD, confirmed that Nkurunziza would be its candidate in the presidential election scheduled for later this year.

This was not a universally popular decision. Quite the opposite, in fact. Opposition parties and civil society organisations have accused Nkurunziza of violating Burundi’s constitution, which limits presidents to just two terms, and he’s been on the receiving end of stinging criticism from international rights groups and even the US state department. “Burundi is losing an historic opportunity to strengthen its democracy by establishing a tradition of peaceful democratic transition,” said a US spokesperson.

Following the announcement of Nkurunziza’s candidacy, thousands of people in the capital Bujumbura took to the streets to register their displeasure. Riot police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons, and by arresting 157 protestors, including prominent rights activists. At least six people were killed in the violence.

The ruling party described the protests as “nothing short of rebellion”, and maintain that Nkurunziza is perfectly entitled to stand for a third term. The crux of the argument in Nkurunziza’s favour is that his first term doesn’t really count because he was selected by parliament rather than elected by the people.

Unfortunately for Nkurunziza’s many critics, this is not without some legal substance. Burundi’s 2005 constitution states very clearly that “the President of the Republic is elected by universal direct suffrage for a mandate of five years renewable one time”. Nkurunziza has only been elected by universal direct suffrage once, in 2010.

In response, the opposition wave copies of the Arusha Agreement – the peace deal which ended Burundi’s 12-year civil war (the civil war that killed more than 300,000 people). Article 7.2 of the Arusha Agreement is unambiguous: “No one may serve more than two presidential terms,” it states.

So what takes precedence? Burundi’s constitution or its peace deal? Should the peace deal inform how the constitution is interpreted? These are fascinating questions for a constitutional court to decide, and in a model republic that’s what would happen next.

But Nkurunziza’s Burundi is not a model republic. While the president has brought a measure of stability to the country, he has also favoured a hard-line authoritarian rule. This has involved clamping down on independent media; persecuting genuine opposition; and co-opting the key institutions of state, including the judiciary, which is perceived to act in the interests of the ruling party. The constitutional court is therefore unlikely to provide an impartial judgment.

Disappointing too has been the silence from the South African government. President Jacob Zuma was the lead mediator in the Arusha talks, and counts democratic Burundi as one of his proudest foreign policy accomplishments. He would be perfectly positioned to remind Nkurunziza of his obligations under the Arusha Agreement, and to mobilise African pressure to reverse his decision to run again.

For whatever the legal technicalities, it is clear that Nkurunziza has violated the spirit of the Arusha Agreement and the national constitution which followed, both of which were designed to limit presidents to just two terms. Moreover, in pushing for a third term – in full knowledge of the social upheaval it would cause – Nkurunziza is displaying a callous disregard for Burundi’s all-too-fragile peace and stability.

That’s certainly what Burundi’s citizens are worried about. While it’s hard to gauge the mood on the street in the absence of a free media or opinion polls, there’s another metric which is even more compelling. Burundians are voting with their feet. According the UN Refugee Agency, more than 21,000 civilians have fled to neighbouring Rwanda over the last month. “Most of the refugees are women and children, who say they have experienced intimidation and threats of violence linked to the 26 June presidential election,” the agency said. A surge of 5,000 people crossed the border this weekend, in the wake of the confirmation of Nkurunziza’s candidacy, and thousands more are expected to follow.

Fuelling the exodus are the actions of the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party that is increasingly resembling a dangerous, unaccountable and well-armed militia. With an estimated 50,000 members, the Imbonerakure have been accused of waging a campaign of violence and intimidation on Nkurunziza’s behalf.

“… as Burundi edges toward a precipice, parallels with 1994 Rwanda are not unfounded. Like the Rwandan Interahamwe, the civilian group responsible for the much of the killing in Rwanda’s genocide, the Imbonerakure – or at least its more radical elements – appear ready to target civilians en masse. Although Burundi’s crisis is primarily one of politics, with antagonisms crossing ethnic boundaries, there is also an ethnic dimension. Many people who’ve fled the country are Tutsis who say they’ve been targeted in an effort by Nkurunziza loyalists to give the Imbonerakure a clear-cut enemy,” wrote Burundian civil society activist Jean Claude Nkundwa, with journalist Jonathan Rosen, in the New York Times.

These are dangerous times for Burundi. Its hard-won peace hangs by a thread. Will Nkurunziza’s determination to hang on to power be the final straw? DM

Photo: Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza speaks during the Presidential plennary session of the 1st European Development Days in Brussels, Friday 17 November 2006. EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET


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