By Getachew Gebrekidan, Southern Voices Network Scholar
CNDD-FDD forces voluntarily disarm to UN peacekeepers at
the end of Burundi’s civil war in 2005. President Nkurunziza
rose to power as chairman of the CNDD-FDD
The crisis in Burundi that began six months ago when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his controversial bid for a third term continues to deteriorate, threatening the still-fragile country’s peace. The president’s announcement led to deadly street protests and an attempted coup in mid-May, which plunged the country into a profound political and military crisis. This crisis has only continued since Nkurunziza won his bid for reelection in July, amid accusations of rampant electoral fraud.
The army, previously considered a symbol of ethnic unity in the post-civil war climate, is now deeply divided. Since the failed military coup in May, attempted while Nkurunziza was at an East African Community Summit in Tanzania, the army has been left fearful and fragmented. This was amplified by the August 2nd assassination of General Adolphe Nshimirimana, a former army chief of staff and Nkurunziza’s internal intelligence chief. Civil conflict is rising and bodies are being found in the streets of Bujumbura daily as Nkurunziza attempts to hold onto power. The regime, buffeted by international and regional pressure and internal security threats, must come to the negotiating table soon for a political solution to remain possible.
Legally, the president’s third term is a violation of Article 96 of Burundi’s constitution, which states, “the President of the Republic is elected by universal direct suffrage for a mandate of five years renewable one time.” Supporters of the ruling CNDD-FDD party (Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie–Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie) argue that Nkurunziza is eligible to run again because he was appointed by the national assembly to his first term in office (2005–2010) as part of the transitional period. As he was not technically elected to his first term, they argue, Article 96 does not apply.
However, Nkurunziza was not ruling the country as transitional period president during his first term, but rather as a post-transitional period president. Article 301 of the Constitution stipulates that “any person having exercised the functions of President of the Republic during the period of transition is ineligible in the first presidential elections.” This suggests that he is the first president of the post-transition period, despite the fact that he was appointed, rather than elected. This position is also supported by Article 302 of the Constitution, which states, “exceptionally, the first President of the Republic of the post-transition period is elected by the [elected] National Assembly and the elected Senate meeting in Congress, with a majority of two-thirds of the members.” Therefore, the opposition’s claim that Nkurunziza should not have been eligible to stand as a candidate in the 2015 elections is legitimate and supported by the constitution.
Furthermore, the ruling CNDD-FDD’s decision to nominate Nkurunziza for a third term was contrary to the spirit of the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, which was an important step towards ending the civil war. Nkurunziza’s willingness to subvert institutions limiting his power was further evidenced by the constitutional court decision in favor of his third term bid, which outside observers and a former judge claim was made under duress.
The International Response
Nkurunziza’s decision to run and the election that followed have both generated substantial international criticism. Before the election, the U.S.1 and other donors urged the president to stick to the two-term limit laid down in the peace deal that ended the civil war in 2005. Similarly, the EU warned the elections would not be credible, and criticized Nkurunziza for violating the two-term limit. In the aftermath of the July 21 presidential election, the U.S. and the UK both called the vote a deeply flawed process, and the EU and AU felt the electoral situation was too compromised to send observers.
The Regional Response
The East African Community (EAC), comprised of Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Rwanda, did send observers to Burundi. The elections observation team, however, reported the voting process in the country fell short of the EAC’s principles and standards for free, fair, peaceful, transparent, and credible elections. According to the team, the election process was hampered by insecurity, a tense environment, limited media freedom, and the violation of fundamental human, civil, and political rights. While the polls themselves were broadly peaceful, the United Nations Electoral Observation Mission in Burundi (MENUB) also agreed that the overall situation was not conducive to an inclusive, free, and credible electoral process. In addition, Burundian civil society organizations such as the Forum for Strengthening the Civil Society (FORSC) have announced they do not consider the election legitimate because Nkurunziza ran as an unconstitutional and illegal candidate.
Internal Security Threats
Since the CNDD -FDD announced in April Nkurunziza would seek a third term, more than 100 Burundians have been killed in protests. In addition, more than 175,000 people have fled to neighboring countries (including Tanzania, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda) to seek refuge. The UN has warned that more than half a million Burundians may end up leaving the country if the crisis persists .
Amid the political unrest, concern is growing over a possible new rebel movement based in the country’s northern provinces. Burundi’s army recently reported that rebels had carried out attacks on military garrisons. The army further announced that it had killed 31 suspected rebels and captured 170 others in fighting in the country’s north. Moreover, Al-Jazeera reported that Burundians living in neighboring Rwanda are being recruited to join a rebel group fighting the Burundi government. Regional tensions are rising over the issue of rebel groups, with Nkurunziza accusing Rwanda of supporting Burundian rebel groups and allowing them to operate in its territory.
The various efforts to foster dialogue, including the initiative led by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and the EAC, remain inconclusive. The Chairperson of the AU Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, has reiterated the AU’s deep concern about the serious political and security situation in Burundi. Many worry that Nkurunziza’s decision to hold onto power will cause a resurgence of violence, given Burundi’s long history of civil conflict. Since achieving independence from Belgium in 1962, it has had four coups and a civil war that killed over 300,000 people. Given that, the situation in Bujumbura is extremely worrying, with reports of a significant number of people having been brutally murdered, kidnapped, tortured, or imprisoned without trial and of tit-for-tat killings between rebels and security forces.
To address the political crisis in Burundi and avert further deterioration, short and long-term planning is required. In the short run, a unity transitional government should be formed immediately. As a part of this process, the government of Burundi can re-engage in a meaningful and serious dialogue with opposition and civil society leaders to reach a consensus on exactly how to form a unity transitional government and its timeline of implementation . This approach has been supported by Burundi’s influential Catholic Church, which has called for “meaningful dialogue” between the government and the opposition groups to avert a return to civil war. In the long run, both the government and the opposition should address any controversial articles in the constitution and prepare for holding free and fair national elections for a post-unity transitional government. To ensure a successful transition, and pull Burundi out of its spiral of conflict, the international community as well as the AU and the EAC must show their support for the transition process as soon as possible.
1 The U.S. provides training and equipment worth about $80 million a year for Burundi’s military and security forces, along with other aid.
Dr. Getachew Zeru Gebrekidan was a Southern Voices Network Scholar with the Wilson Center Africa Program from May-August 2015. He is an Assistant Professor in Peace and Security Studies at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.