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Why the experts are worried about Burundi

- July 21, 2015

Burundi holds presidential elections today after nearly three months of increasingly violent protests, a coup attempt and an armed incursion in the country’s north. The cause of the turmoil is the presumed third term of President Pierre Nkurunziza of the ruling CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense in Democracy, acronym in French), who has ruled the country since the end  of the civil war (1993-2005).

While the Burundian constitution only allows for two presidential terms, supporters argue that the first term of “Pita,” as the charismatic leader is colloquially known, was an exception to this statute, as he was elected by parliament and not through direct suffrage. The Burundian constitutional court affirmed this position in early May, although the U.S. and Tanzania, Kofi Annan, and many others remain against the extension of the presidential term and have suspended security cooperation and threatened to cut aid (Burundi relies on foreign aid for over half its annual budget) and impose sanctions.

The Burundian government’s ability to pursue what many believe to be anti-democratic and anti-internationally established norms is a classic example of what scholars call a “rogue state.” These dynamics are made more complex with the additional dimensions of post-conflict state-building, the politics of foreign aid in sub-Saharan Africa, and the emergence of regional international governing organizations like the African Union (AU) and the East African Community (EAC), presumed to be the first to intervene in times of crisis.

Burundi’s post-conflict transition has been successful in a number of ways: Until the protests broke out April 25, the Systemic Peace project rated Burundi as the only open democracy in Africa’s Great Lakes region. GDP has grown since the end of the war, and the army has ethnically and politically integrated to become a bulwark institution against violence and an effective partner in peacekeeping operations across the continent. Perhaps most importantly, the Burundian people themselves have seen a sea change in ethnic relationships.

Burundians go to the polls today, but it remains to be seen how the presumed new Nkurunziza government will approach its foreign relations tomorrow. Do donors, who have in some cases threatened to (or already) cut foreign aid, have leverage over a state that ignored entreaties and threats?
In a forthcoming article in International Organization, Desha Girod and Jennifer Tobin suggest that donors can leverage demands and conditionalities when the receiving state is in need (linked paper is an earlier version). The Burundian government is already in a state of economic crunch, as noted by the presidential spokesperson in this interview. Sources of revenue for the landlocked, agriculturally-dependent country have fallen, and with the prospect of new violence, commerce and especially integration in the East African Community (EAC) is likely to continue to flounder.

The next months will determine whether the Burundian government will return to the negotiating table with donors and international organizations, perhaps making some political sacrifices, such as co-opting opposition politicians for inclusion in parliament and local offices or cabinet positions. Other conditionalities likely to be imposed include the disarmament of the CNDD-FDD’s youth wing Imbonerakure, which is implicated in some of the protest and pre-election violence that has wracked the country in the past few months.

Burundi and the international community must also contend with the very real possibility of the replacement of major donors by other donors who impose fewer conditions in return for aid. In the past decade, China has become the donor and economic partner of choice for troubled regimes on the African continent. A recent paper using the Armed Conflict Locator Events Dataset (ACLED) explores this link between China, African pariah states and violence. There is real concern expressed by diplomats and Burundi watchers that an emboldened regime that has accomplished its political goals and has unconditional funding may commit further repression, especially if met with armed resistance by some parts of the population. It is notable that China and Russia have blocked United Nations statements (and presumably, action) on the Burundi crisis, while simultaneously being the only states to send diplomats to participate in CNDD-FDD political events. Russia in particular has called for non-interference in Burundian sovereign affairs by Western donors.

What are the prospects for conflict resolution in Burundi? The EAC has taken the lead on mediation and crisis management. President Nkurunziza was attending an EAC heads of state meeting on the crisis May 13 when the attempted coup occurred. The United Nations and the African Union (AU) support their efforts, although high-level negotiations did not occur until last week, too late to effect real change in the crisis or to have a deal in place before the presidential election. The failure of the EAC intervention before the crisis may be attributed to two things: inter-EAC politics, especially among those who prefer another CNDD-FDD term under Nkurunziza for reasons of political stability (Uganda and Tanzania) and those who do not (Rwanda), and the inability of EAC to resolve political crises.

Similarly, while the AU remained vigilant and refused to send electoral observers for the first time in the organization’s history, it has imposed few conditionalities on Burundi. While the AU may have some leverage over peacekeeping operations and Burundi’s participation within them, given the lagging troop contributions from other African countries, timing and training problems, and the fact that Burundian soldiers are already on the ground in the AU mission in Somalia, further action in this area seems highly unlikely.

So what are the possibilities for Burundi? The United States and others have discussed sanctioning actors who participate in violence, but these are unlikely to have regime-wide effects unless a blanket sanction is issued, as occurred during the civil war. While it seems probable some targeted sanctioning may take place, larger sanctions will likely not occur.

Another very real possibility is the potential of armed conflict re-emerging in Burundi, as the opposition and former CNDD-FDD who have already taken up arms against the regime will choose to regroup, rearm and prepare for further conflict against the government. However, the likelihood of mass atrocities still remains low, as the army (one of the brightest achievements of the Post-Arusha Accord state) remains uninvolved in the killing of civilians, and there is as yet little tangible evidence that international backers, regionally or otherwise, are providing support for armed rebellion.

The most likely scenario is the continuation of political dialogue and pressures from “inside negotiators” within the EAC to form a more inclusive post-elections government, similar to the post-2007 National Unity government in Kenya. However, given the extremely volatile and unpredictable nature of events in Burundi since April 25, we should be cautious of making any long-term predictions.

Cara E. Jones is assistant professor of political science at Mary Baldwin College. Follow her on Twitter.