Burundi’s growing mess

How did Burundi go from being the hallmark of power-sharing success to an increasingly polarized country?

Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza on a visit to Somalia in 2014. Image: WikiCommons.

In 2005, when President Pierre Nkurunziza rose to the presidency by indirect vote as dictated by the country’s then new constitution, Burundians and observers alike let out a sigh a relief. After decades of ethno-political violence and years of negotiations to ratify the Arusha Agreement (signed in neighboring Tanzania), Burundi had finally gone through a peaceful transition. Or so it seemed at the time.  To avoid the zero-sum politics that often characterize divided societies, the Arusha-inspired political framework established a power-sharing agreement that provided political and security guarantees for all those involved. Additionally, Burundi succeeded where others have failed in fully integrating various warring groups into a single republican army.

Right now, after nearly a week of protest resulting in at least 7 dead, dozens wounded, and tens of thousands of refugees, we are hard-pressed to understand how Burundi went from being the hallmark of power-sharing success to an increasingly polarized country.

The escalation of tensions seems to have taken many by surprise. Yet, for over a year, scholars and analysts have warned of the growing tensions in Burundi, such as in here, here, and here. In fact, there were early signs: In the beginning of Nkurunziza’s presidency, he hinted at his contempt for dissent. Early in his tenure, he shut down civil society organizations and disciplined party members who disapproved of his leadership.

But the 2010 elections should have been another, yet crucial sign of things to come. The electoral campaign was marred with harassment, intimidation and arrests of opposition members. By the end of the local elections, most of the opposition opted to boycott the remainder of the polls. This decision turned out to be a severe miscalculation. Instead of delegitimizing the electoral process, it emboldened the ruling party, which gained a crushing majority in the legislature. Burundi becoming a de facto single-party state is one of the contributing factors to the current crisis; and the fractured and, at times, ego-driven opposition is partly to blame.

What followed over the next 2 years was low-grade post-electoral violence between forces and institutions loyal to the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) and the opposition. The ruling party and National Forces for Liberation (FNL), a predominately Hutu party, then headed by Agathon Rwanda, bore the brunt of the casualties. Opposition leaders such as Rwasa, and the journalist Alexis Sinduhije of the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD) went into exile. They returned in 2013 under robust security guarantees brokered by the United Nations to prepare the roadmap for the 2015 elections.

The current crisis over whether or not President Nkurunziza is eligible for an additional mandate is rooted in article 302 of the constitution. It stipulates that the post-transition president was to be elected by the national assembly and the senate. The aim was to minimize tensions during the post-transition period. However, article 96 states that a president is to be elected by universal suffrage, renewable once. The Arusha agreement, which was used to frame the constitution, clearly states in article 7.3 that ’no one may serve more than two presidential terms.’

The official position of the ruling party is that since Nkurunziza was not elected by universal suffrage the first time around, his first term did not fall under the limits outlined by article 96, making the post-transition president eligible for thee mandates. Moreover, the ruling party recently that some of the provisions of the Arusha agreement were “nul and void.”

Dissenters, argue that any interpretation articles 96 and 302 should be done in accordance in article 7.3 of Arusha.

The Constitutional Court recently ruled President Nkurunziza’s candidacy to be constitutional. This ruling, however, is not without controversy. Indeed, the court’s legitimacy is now tinted by allegations from its Vice President, Sylvère Nimpagiritse, who claims that supporters of the President have intimidated and threaten members of the court to support Nkurunziza candidacy. He stated what while others initially opposed gave in to the pressures, he chose to flee to neighboring Rwanda. The court decision, in light of these allegations, will likely strengthen the protestors’ resolve to remains in the streets.

Regardless of where one stands on the constitutional issue, the fact that President Nkurunziza is now rejecting the very document that has allowed him to go from rebel leader to president of the Republic, can potentially have dangerous consequences for the stability of the country. By reneging on its peace treaty obligations, the CNDD-FDD may open the door for other actors who abided by the treaty, to turn their back on it. While this disregard for Arusha may or may not have domestic legal implications, a peace treaty is only as good as the trust the parties have in it and in each other. Nkurunziza and his inner circle have violated that trust and protestors are letting him know.

That breach of trust, constitutional or not, may lead to more violence in the coming days.

Further Reading