Burundi on the brink of a cataclysm

Like a tragedy unfolding in slow motion, impoverished, landlocked Burundi appears to be slipping inexorably towards another of the apocalyptic crises that have ­disfigured its short history with ­dismaying and bloody regularity.

The latest act in this all too familiar drama came on Tuesday with a ruling by Burundi’s Constitutional Court, allegedly made under duress, upholding the legality of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial bid for a third term in elections due on June 26. 

Under the 2000 Arusha power-sharing accords and subsequent agreements in 2006 that ended Burundi’s 13-year civil war, a president is limited to two terms. 

Like many African leaders past and present, such as Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Nkurunziza is experiencing enormous difficulty in voluntarily relinquishing power. Resulting street protests in the capital, Bujumbura, have left dozens of people dead or injured at the hands of police, according to the Red Cross. 

But this unrest may be only a foretaste of worse to come as accelerating political instability stirs up unhealed ethnic enmities between Burundi’s Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. 

Appeals for calm
Government spokespersons appealed for calm this week and offered to release protesters detained in recent days. But claims by Judge Sylvere Nimpagaritse, vice-president of the Constitutional Court, that panel members had faced enormous pressure and even received death threats from senior figures to rubber-stamp the president’s candidacy looked certain to further inflame the situation. Nimpagaritse has reportedly fled the country. 

Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel leader and head of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, has held power since 2005. The born-again Christian was re-elected in 2010 after opposition parties boycotted the poll, deeming it unfair. 

So far, he has stubbornly resisted internal and international pressure to stand down and threatened harsh reprisals against opponents. The army has remained neutral until now, but its restraint may not last. 

John Kerry, the United States secretary of state, weighed in this week at the start of an East African tour. Speaking in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, he said: “We are deeply concerned about President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision, which flies directly in the face of the Constitution of his country. “It is my understanding that an African Union delegation will go there [Bujumbura] soon to meet with him to try to underscore the importance … of the Constitution … It is our hope that ultimately that is what will happen.” 

What influence the AU can bring to bear is hard to gauge, given the imperfect democratic records of many of its members. But AU officials, and those of the East African Community and Great Lakes regional groupings to which Burundi belongs, will be keen to nip the crisis in the bud and build on the recent, exemplary success of Nigeria’s elections. 

Rwanda’s response
Neighbouring Rwanda’s government is more mindful than most of the consequences of past Hutu-Tutsi friction, following the 1994 genocide that left more than 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead. Kigali says at least 24 000 refugees, mostly Tutsis, have recently fled to Rwanda, and thousands more are on the move elsewhere. 

“While we respect Burundi’s ­sovereignty in addressing internal matters, Rwanda considers the safety of [the] innocent population as a regional and international responsibility,” Rwanda’s foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, said. “We appeal to leaders of Burundi to do everything in their power to bring the country back to a peaceful situation.”

Like other regional states, Rwanda is concerned the unrest could be stoked or exploited by Rwandan FDLR Hutu rebels who fled to Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo after 1994. 

Meanwhile, some people in Kigali are also pressing for President Paul Kagame to follow suit and stand for a third term. 

Burundi has suffered periodic bouts of extreme violence and mass killings since it won independence from Belgium in 1962. Its problems are exacerbated by its plight as one the world’s poorest countries – and its hungriest, according to the Global Hunger Index. The population of 9.8-million (roughly 85% Hutu and 15% Tutsi) has been reduced by poor healthcare, preventable diseases and the ravages of Aids. 

But misgovernance also plays a major role. The current crisis has been slowly building as elections near. A United Nations report last year warned that the government was arming its supporters, including the ruling party’s volatile Imbonerakure youth wing, in preparation for the vote. Imbonerakure has been linked to a covert campaign to intimidate Tutsis. 

“Government repression of critical voices intensified during the year,” Amnesty International’s 2014-2015 report said. “Violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly increased. Members of the opposition, civil society activists, lawyers and journalists were among those who faced heightened restrictions as the 2015 elections approached,” it said. 

An International Crisis Group report warned in April: “The prospect of a third term for President Nkurunziza calls into question the preservation of peace in Burundi. The president is risking it all by trying to force his name on the ballot, against the Catholic Church, civil society, a fraction of his own party, and most external partners. The opposition’s survival is at stake and the security forces are unsure how to react. 

“The return to violence would not only end the peace progressively restored since the Arusha agreement, it would also have destabilising consequences in the region.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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Simon Tisdall
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