The first attack was on Sunday evening. General Adolphe Nshimirimana, a colleague and confidante of the president, was attacked in his car by men in military uniforms. The general was killed, as were his bodyguards.
Nshimirimana wasn’t just any old general. He was the president’s right-hand man, his war buddy, perceived by many to be the power behind the throne. Whoever killed him – and speculation ranges from armed opposition to plots from within the government’s inner circle itself – struck a devastating blow against the heart of the regime.
The second attack was on Monday evening. Human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa was also in his car, near his home, when he was surrounded by motorcyclists who fired into the vehicle. Mbonimpa didn’t die, but he was seriously injured and rushed to hospital. It’s believed his injuries are not life-threatening.
Mbonimpa wasn’t just any old human rights activist (although there are precious few of them left in Burundi). “I would say he is Burundi’s leading human rights activist. [He] has been threatened by all sides, but he’s carried out his work regardless, and I think the authorities just can’t handle that,” says Human Rights Watch’s Carina Tertsakian. Mbonimpa was also a leading critic of Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in office.
Whether by coincidence or design, there’s something ominous about the symmetry of these assassination attempts. It’s hard to escape the feeling that they presage a new and disturbing chapter. “Up until now I’ve been resisting the more alarmist interpretations of what’s been going on, but in the last few days the situation is really spinning out of control. These two dramatic and quite shocking incidents are a sign that the violence is likely to escalate,” says Tertsakian.
Her fears are echoed by the International Crisis Group’s Thierry Vircoulon. “The re-election of Nkurunziza has put Burundi on the path of war,” he says. “It sent the signal to the opposition that there is nothing left to negotiate and all they can do is to accept his ‘victory’. As a result, the opposition is trying to unite on the political front (with the creation of an opposition coalition in Addis Ababa) and some parts of the opposition have opted for the armed struggle and decided to strike at the top of the Burundian regime’s power system. The change of the pattern of violence, from street demonstrations to targeted assassinations is a clear sign of things to come.”
InterventionWhile the signs aren’t good, it’s important to note that the violence is still relatively small-scale and targeted. Burundi has yet to become the bloodbath some have been predicting. Comparisons with Rwanda in 1994 remain off the mark – for now.
“What you see now is really very similar to what you saw following [the] 2010 elections. But concern is that you have high-level targets, compared to mid to low-level targets previously,” says Yolande Bouka, senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies. “Until you see an escalation of violence in the street or in up-country violence, then we’re not at the worst-case scenario.
Naturally, attention turns to what comes next, and specifically what can be done to prevent that worst-case scenario. Options are dangerously limited for the international community, which remains reluctant to be drawn into a costly, open-ended military intervention.
Moreover, it is hamstrung by its reliance on Burundian soldiers to keep the peace in Somalia. Amisom, the African Union Mission in Somalia, has sent 22,000 peacekeepers from around the continent to fight against al-Shabaab – and more than 5,000 of these are from Burundi.
If Nkurunziza withdrew these troops or Burundi’s membership of the African Union was suspended, it would be a major blow for Amisom, the continent’s flagship peacekeeping operation. The chances of finding any country willing and able to replace this commitment at short notice is slim. As the AU and the international community considers how to deal with Burundi, they must also consider how any action taken against Nkurunziza will negatively affect Somalia.
To complicate matters, the measures that are being taken are failing: neither the regional East African Community nor the chief mediator, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, have been able to make any headway in negotiations. And while the African Union has been vocal in its condemnation of the assassination attempts, its military observers – deployed only late last month – have been powerless to prevent the violence.
" Power struggle in Burundi - the Guardian briefing Violence has broken out over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s attempt to run for a third term in office Read more"
A version of this article originally appeared Daily Maverick