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What explains Burundi's protests?

- April 28, 2015

A protester jumps to evade detention by riot policemen during clashes in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura, April 28, 2015. Hundreds of people marched in the outskirts of Burundi’s capital on Tuesday in a third day of protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term, a move critics say violates the constitution and a key peace deal. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)
Some of the international community’s worst fears for Burundi begin to come to fruition on April 26 as police clashed with demonstrators protesting President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement that he will seek a third term in office.
At least six people were killed in the first two days of ongoing protests. On Monday the government shut down multiple radio stations and arrested a prominent civil society leader, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa. Worryingly, there have also been reports that the militant youth wing of the ruling party, known as the Imbonerakure, were seen armed with clubs, ready to do battle with the protesters in certain neighborhoods around the city.
Those contesting the government so far have been primarily civil society and opposition political party supporters who see the president’s seeking a third term as an unlawful attempt to hold on to power while violently suppressing any dissenting voices.
These protests were a long time coming.
It has been widely speculated that Nkurunziza would win the nomination, despite the two-term limits outlined in the Arusha Peace Accords that ended Burundi’s most recent civil war in 2005. Burundi’s Constitution, in which the spirit of the accords are enshrined, does allow for some interpretation, requiring both terms to be directly elected by the people. Nkurunziza argues that he was not directly elected to his first term, but put in office as part of the county’s transition. However, most Burundians oppose the idea of a third term.
In the months leading up to the president’s announcement, there have been several lesser demonstrations against the ruling CNDD-FDD government. Interestingly, these protests were not anti-third term. Rather they were general protests, not unfamiliar to Burundian politics, about economic conditions and taxes.
Given these protests and other signs of the CNDD-FDD’s crackdown on opposition voices suggesting looming unrest, the international community has repeatedly warned that if Nkurunziza ran for a third term it would risk upending Burundi’s precarious peace and could potentially send the country back to war.
A key player to watch as events unfold in Bujumbura is the national army, known by its French acronym FDN. Burundi’s post war army is considered one the great success stories on the African continent. Comprised of former national army and CNDD-FDD rebel forces who were primary actors in Burundi’s last civil war, the army is now well-integrated and a major contributor to African Union peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Central African Republic. Training by American, Dutch, and other international forces have led to a professional, established and respectful military, in direct contrast to military coups of the past.
By all accounts, the FDN has protected protesters and has not engaged in willful violence toward the opposition, in stark contrast to the national police and internal security services. While this respect for democracy seems healthy, the army has thus far failed to call for governmental accountability. This could engender a low-intensity conflict between the opposition and the security forces in the country, where the FDN witnesses atrocities. It is also possible that pro- and anti-third term factions within the army could split.
Outside Bujumbura, it is clear that the paysan population is scared that the election will bring imminent danger. At least 20,000 Burundians have reportedly sought refuge in neighboring Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, potentially destabilizing the region.
While the issues at stake in Bujumbura center on debates within and between political parties, should the protests spread to the countryside, there are risks that simmering local conflicts (such as the brutal competition for land) become inflamed.
Finally, some observers have raised the explicit question of ethnicity and the potential for ‘genocide’ in Burundi. While the Hutu ethnicity enjoys a sizable majority (80 percent) to the minority Tutsi (20 percent), there is little ethnically divided sentiment of the sort that sparked the civil war of 1993-2005. However, complicating the ethnicity issue are reports that pro-Nkurunziza forces have started publicly identifying political organizations sympathetic to the protests and ‘labeling’ neighborhoods where demonstrations occur, setting in place the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ framework of ethnic conflict. In some cases they are even using the civil war terminology of ‘sans echecs,’ a reference to the notorious Tutsi youth militia responsible for grave acts of violence in Bujumbura during the war.
With the protests continuing, it is hard to predict how events will unfold. It possible that the protests in Bujumbura will peter out, and Burundi will muddle through its election season, in a similar vein to the 2010 cycle. However, there are many possible scenarios in which the protests could beget more violence. Of particular import will be how the army reacts in the next few days — whether they remain united and neutral, united in support of the government, or split.
The international community can use this moment to engage regionally, nationally and locally to prevent further spread of conflict. In particular they may consider sending a special envoy to negotiate and encourage dialogue between all political parties, providing financial and material support of early warning systems on the ground already, or even cutting off material aid to the government in exchange for political conditionalities. The U.N. election monitoring body, MENUB, and others should be fully supported to monitor elections if they do happen as scheduled in the next few months (which is not guaranteed at this juncture). Moreover, monitors should be well briefed on issues specific to their local commune postings as they may differ from the national contest. International partners should also continue to publicly support the professionalization and neutral stance of the FDN.
Most importantly, the Burundian people deserve our full and complete attention now. Exercises in democracy can be a double-edged sword, often leading to renewed bouts of violence in countries transitioning from civil war. Although Burundi has fared slightly better than some of its peers in recovering from civil war, practicing free, fair and peaceful democracy is no small feat. Given what we know about the Great Lakes region, and elections as triggers for violence, the international community should be on high alert. It seems clear that unlike Nigeria’s surprisingly peaceful election, the CNDD-FDD will not leave political power without a fight. More violence is certainly possible, if not imminent. The international community, including the African Union, United Nations, European Union and United States, should be actively considering the tools at their disposable to protect civilians and to prevent mass atrocities.
Cara Jones is assistant professor of political science at Mary Baldwin College. Stephanie Schwartz is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University.