Explainer: what’s gone wrong in Burundi’s search for stability

The president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza. GovernmentZA/Flickr, CC BY

In July 1962, when the former Belgian colony of Ruanda-Urundi gained independence, the two landlocked kingdoms that comprised it were separated. The two countries subsequently went through periods of bloody strife during which political parties deliberately played on common delusions and fears to mobilise their “people” and promote ethnicity over collective solidarity.

In Burundi, the 1972 genocide of the Hutu population killed some 100,000 to 200,000 people.

More ethnic cleansing took place in 1993, following President Melchior Ndadaye’s assassination, when more than 100,000 Hutu and Tutsi lost their lives. In Rwanda, during the 1973 civil war and the 1994 genocide, more than 800,000 Tutsi and tens of thousands of Hutu were slaughtered. In its aftermath, a long civil war broke out in Burundi, with the loss of another 200,000 to 300,000 lives.

A shaky peace

In February 2005, after 12 years of conflict, negotiations and political upheaval in Burundi, a referendum paved the way for a new constitution establishing a democracy founded on power-sharing at all levels of society. The very fact that a referendum was held, the massive turnout and the subsequent landslide result (91%) pointed to a real desire for peace and stability.

In the subsequent elections, the two major pro-Hutu parties, CNDD-FDD and Frodebu, won 80% of the vote. This confirmed the vote of 1993, when Melchior Ndadye’s Frodebu party had won the landmark election, only for the president to be assassinated three months later in an army coup. In 2005, peace-seeking voters gave a large majority to the CNDD-FDD, the most powerful Hutu movement. On August 19 of that year, both chambers elected Pierre Nkurunziza to the presidency.

It took five long years for the new government to impose its authority. In the meantime, the opposition parties tore each other apart and, despite the CNDD-FDD’s own leadership crises and Nkurunziza’s lack of influence over the conflicts, the party grew from strength to strength.

In 2010, a few months before the end of the parliament’s term, the president was confirmed in his position.

The local elections resulted in a 64% vote in favour of CNDD-FDD candidates in rural areas. The result was a clear indication of a desire for stability, and revealed genuine support for a government that had managed to smooth over ethnic polarisation and integrated the armed forces.

The people of Burundi also had more freedom: There were more independent radio stations and a vibrancy within society. But the opposition parties boycotted the remainder of the election, something few of their voters understood. The CNDD-FDD thus had a free rein to govern, and Nkurunziza, the sole candidate for the presidency, was elected in June 2010 with 91% of the votes.

The first real term of office

With the legitimacy provided by the landslide victory, Nkurunziza was able to spend two years building a dedicated team to govern and take control of the youth wing of the party, the Imbonerakure (Kirundi for “those who see far”). With head of intelligence General Adolphe Nshimirimana and police superintendent Gervais Ndirakobuca, two of his closest allies at the helm, the Imbonerakure became a powerful politico-military force for the president.

As time passed, Nkurunziza gradually shifted the balance of power in his favour. He and his allies, now firmly in control, decided to maintain a tight grip. However, there was one more hurdle: the constitution needed to be amended to ensure the sustainability of a “reformed Burundi”.

In the months before the 2015 election there was an escalation of violence towards actual or potential opposition groups. Given the structural divisions within these groups, there was no doubt that the CNDD-FDD would triumph. The ruling party required a two-thirds or four-fifths majority to be free of the persnickety details of power-sharing democracy, as outlined in the 2000 Arusha peace agreement.

Democratic aspirations

On April 25, when the party congress laboured to nominate Nkurunziza for a third term, the authorities were confident that they could overcome the political backlash. Yet the seemingly smooth-sailing campaign entered choppy waters. With the uprising in the Bujumbura province, it rapidly became obvious that opposition to the government ran deeper than a mere refusal to reelect the incumbents to a third term.

The disillusionment was present in both urban and rural areas, and particularly among the youth – many were either unemployed or forced to work tiny plots of land to survive. Everyone, regardless of their ethnic origin, could relate to that, yet those in power were either oblivious to the problem or turned a blind eye.

On May 13, Major General Godefroid Niyombare attempted to suspend the president’s authority, and failed. In response, the president’s camp deployed all its power in an attempt to bring the rebels under control and neutralise the media. Then came another period of killings, violence, assassinations, and defections in the ranks of the military and the police. Refugee camps were set up on the country’s borders.

The sole intention of the July elections was to formally re-elect the incumbent administration. By the end of the month, the CNDD-FDD was recognised as the only governing party, parliamentary elections kept incumbents in office, Nkurunziza was re-elected and the government asserted control over the armed forces.

Hanging by a thread

According to the authorities, Burundi is now safe and peaceful. However, continued attacks by armed groups and retaliation operations hint at a brewing civil war, in the capital and beyond.

Neither the principles of the Arusha agreement nor Brundi’s constitution can be blamed for the failure of the country’s power-sharing model. The system simply required too much virtue from the governing authorities, and ended up strengthening their power. The citizens of Burundi learned that lesson the hard way.

Up to now Burundians have been relatively restrained in their response. But they now have little other choice than to silence the weapons themselves. Those committed to peace must be allowed to express their views and make themselves heard. It is up to them to initiate talks to reinstate and improve on the “Burundi model” that once held such promise.


Translated by Emma Paulay/Fast for Word.

This article was originally published in French

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