Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on May 03, 2016
President’s quest for third term lands Burundi in crisis

Burundi is facing a serious crisis. In the last one year, more than 500 people have been killed and around 2,30,000 have fled to neighboring countries. According to the UN, at least 400 people were killed since April 2015. Now there is a widespread fear that it could lead to a civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis or even a genocide.  The problem started in April last year when Pierre Nkurunziza, who has served as the Burundian President for two terms since 2005, decided to contest again despite a constitutional cap on the third term.

This move of pro-Hutus Nkurunziza, born to a Tutsi mother and a Hutu father, was opposed by the opposition leaders belonging to Tutsis tribe, the Catholic Church and the civil society. Even some of his Hutu supporters opposed his move. This led to widespread daily protests. Nkurunziza immediately banned the protests. The government’s brutal reaction resulted in the deaths of around 80 people. The next month, one of his former generals attempted a military coup. It was led by General Godefroid Nyombare, the former chief of staff of President Nkurunziza and an ex-Hutus rebel.  After the coup was suppressed, the people involved in the attempt fled the country. Later in the month, a constitutional court gave a judgment in favor of Nkurunziza. There were reports that the judges were intimidated into ruling in favor of Nkurunziza.

In July, Nkurunziza, ignoring all requests, organised a questionable election, which was boycotted by the opposition. And obviously, he won the election. But, the political crisis took a turn for the worse. On December 11, assailants attacked three military barracks in Bujumbra, killing 87 people.

The people who oppose Nkurunziza’s third term hold that Nkurunziza is not only undermining the constitution of the country, but also violating the Arusha peace process. What is the Arusha peace process?

Before the Arusha peace process is discussed, one needs to study the ethnic divisions in Burundi. It gained its independence from Belgium on July 1, 1962. It is made up of three ethnic groups – the Hutus who make up 85 per cent of the population, the Tutsis who make up 14 per cent of the population and the Twa who make up 1 per cent of the population. Following independence, the Tutsis took over the power. In 1972, more than 120,000 Hutus were massacred by the government forces in the wake of a Hutu led uprising in the south. Again in 1988, thousands of people from the Hutus ethnic group were massacred and thousands more fled to Rwanda. In 1992, a new Constitution, providing for a multi-party system, was adopted following a referendum. And elections were conducted and Melchior Ndadeye won the polls, bringing to an end the army rule and leading to the installation of a pro-Hutu government.

But his government lasted a mere three months. The Tutsi army, which wielded power all these years, assassinated Ndadeye and tried to wrest power. This resulted in a bitter civil war which raged on for 12 years and resulted in killings of more than 300,000. During this war, Nkurunziza was the leader of the rebel army for the Hutus. This civil war came to an end following the Arusha peace accord which reserved 60 per cent of the Assembly seats for the Hutus and 40 per cent for the Tutsis. In the army, the positions were shared equally – 50 percent each. This agreement brought the conflict ridden country 10 years of peace and reconciliation.

The current conflict cannot be painted as a simple Hutus vs Tutsis issue once more, though the main opposition is coming from the Tutsis. There are many Hutu people also, who are not happy with Nkurunziza administration. There are also reports that some neighbouring countries are also interfering in fanning the unrest and violence. Some reports said Rwanda might be recruiting and arming Burundian opposition to take on Nkurunziza. In the past too, Rwanda had been charged with similar accusations. It was accused of interfering in the crisis of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

However, for Burundi to shift the entire blame for its own instability on Rwanda is also not right. Nkurunziza and his government should realize that the crisis was not caused by Rwanda but Nkurunziza’s own decision to subvert the constitution through seeking an illegal third term.

In Africa, however, subverting constitution is not unfamiliar. Leaders in many countries have done it.  In Uganda, President Yuweri Museveni had done it. He made the Ugandan Parliament to drop the two-term limit on presidency. He has been the president since 1986 and is currently serving the fifth term as elected president. After the success that Museveni achieved, President Blaise Compaore tried the same trick in Burkina Faso. But his moves to amend the constitution to remove the two-term limit set for Presidents triggered a mass uprising which ultimately resulted in his overthrow.

Even as Nkurunziza is trying to cling on to power, a similar attempt is being done in the DRC as well. President Joseph Kabila is delaying elections to hold on to power. Kabila too has given enough indications that he wants to remain as the DRC’s President in spite of the fact that the constitution does not allow a third term. However, he has not yet openly stated that he wants to extend his term.

In Burundi, President Nkurunziza has managed to keep the power in his hands till now. One never knows what is in store for him in the future. Will he be successful as Museveni or face the fate of Blaise Compaore? Only the future will tell. But the more important question is ‘How is the present political crisis affecting the country?’ The answer is simple. Chaos and confusion. And the people of Burundi are suffering.

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