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The decision by the country’s president to seek a third term has sparked a political and humanitarian crisis — one that may extend well beyond the country’s borders.
Terror has once again gripped Burundi. The typically bustling streets of Bujumbura, the capital city, are still. Universities, schools, shops, and restaurants are closed. Many taxi drivers aren’t working, and no one dares leaves home after dark.
For months, tensions over whether President Pierre Nkurunziza would seek a third term in the upcoming elections have been rising ominously. According to Burundi’s constitution and the peace deal that in 2005 ended a 12-year civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis that killed 250,000 people, a sitting president can only serve two terms. Nkurunziza, elected at the conclusion of the war, contends that his first term is void because he was elected as part of a transitional government. On April 25, he announced he would run again, sparking protests that quickly turned deadly as demonstrators clashed with the police. This Tuesday, Burundi’s constitutional court announced that Nkurunziza could run for a third term.
In the lead-up to the court’s decision, cadres of opposition groups, activists, and members of civil society in Bujumbura staked out roadblocks with tree branches, logs, and, rocks, and burned tires as an act of protest. Young men carried signs with writing in French, Kirundi, and English decrying Nkurunziza’s hopes for a third term. They brandished sticks and metal bars and occasionally threw stones. On May 4, three were killed and 45 injured as police fired live ammunition into a crowd of thousands flooding the capital’s streets. In the wake of the court ruling, hundreds of people gathered in renewed protest.
With demonstrations seemingly set to continue, Burundi’s domestic political crisis threatens to affect the surrounding region. On April 28, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, reported that more than 20,000 people had fled to neighboring Rwanda since the beginning of April. In the past two weeks, UNHCR has opened up a new refugee camp, Mahama, in Rwanda’s Eastern province. As of May 5, the camp’s population had already swelled to more than 12,000. These refugees have spoken of a climate of localized terror whipped up by the Imbonerakure, an armed pro-government youth militia that has been roaming the streets carrying guns and nail-studded sticks. According to a spokesperson with UNHCR, 80 percent of those coming to Rwanda are women and children, while many men have stayed behind to protect their land and livestock.
Burundi could easily be the fuse for a region-wide crisis. What happens there could set a dangerous precedent for a restrictive state and volatile public, as several of Burundi’s neighbors — Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Rwanda — look ahead to their own presidential elections.
Burundi’s latest troubles began in late April. Every day since April 25, there have been protests in parts of Bujumbura, such as the middle-class neighborhood of Musaga, as well as the locales of Nyakabiga, Ngagara, Cibitoke, and Mutakura. On May 1, they stretched to Matana in the southwest of the country. Protesters have encountered intimidation both from the police, who have been firing live ammunition, tear gas, and water cannons and arresting hundreds, as well as from the Imbonerakure. According to the Red Cross, at least seven people have died, and 66 others have been wounded. But sources in Bujumbura think this reported number is low, citing incidents of deaths at the hands of the Imbonerakure in recent days that they suspect have not been included in the official count.
Nkurunziza has said the demonstrations are illegal, calling them an “insurrectional movement.” On April 26, the government, citing security concerns, closed the University of Burundi, leaving more than 600 students without a place to stay. They sought refuge at the U.S. embassy and have been staying outside it since then.
The government has also accused African Public Radio, an influential independent broadcaster, of inciting people to revolt, and shut it down on April 25. In Bujumbura, the government has also cut access to Facebook, Whatsapp, and other social networks, saying protesters are using them to instigate violence. “If the Burundian government does not halt its brutal clampdown on protestors contesting President Nkurunziza’s bid to stand again, the situation risks spiraling out of control,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for East Africa, the Horn, and Great Lakes.
On April 27, the government deployed the army to Bujumbura to keep the peace. Sources say the army has been encouraging the police to not react aggressively to the protesters, and that civilians feel safer with the army’s presence. On May 2, Burundi’s defense minister, Maj. Gen. Pontien Gaciyubwenge, said the army will remain neutral and behave in a way that “conforms to the spirit” of the constitution, a statement interpreted by many as granting legitimacy to the protests.
As conditions decay in Burundi, the odds of its problems spilling across its borders increase. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Bujumbura-based peace activist Jean Claude Nkundwa and Rwanda-based journalist Jonathan W. Rosen called on the international community to pay attention to Burundi, or once again risk regretting not intervening in an East African country on the brink of chaos.
If Burundi further destabilizes, it’s likely that Rwanda would intervene, leading to major cross-border unrest that would send more refugees over into the DRC and Tanzania, Nkundwa and Rosen argued. Since April, thousands have fled to these two nations as well.
Contributing to the cross-border concerns, pockets of another restive Burundian group are based in the DRC. According to Human Rights Watch, between last December and early February, the government clashed with a well-armed group in Cibitoke, a region in northwestern Burundi bordering DRC. The army, aided by the Imbonerakure, summarily executed at least 47 members of the group.
By seeking a third term and cracking down on the media, Nkurunziza and his ruling party have already set an undemocratic tone for East Africa’s election season. Tanzania, which will hold elections in October, recently passed a controversial “data law” making it illegal to publish any data not approved by the government. Analysts inside and out of Tanzania consider it no coincidence that this new law was passed only a few months before presidential elections in which the ruling party will desperately try to hold onto power.
In Uganda, meanwhile, President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, has already made it clear he will run again in 2016. Analysts expect that the DRC’s Joseph Kabila and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame will also both attempt to extend their terms.
Leaders of opposition parties in the region have taken notice. Raila Odinga, leader of the main opposition leader in Kenya, has called on the both the East African and international community to intervene in Burundi. According to an article in Kenya’s Standard Digital, in a statement to newsrooms, Odinga had said prior to today’s ruling that by seeking a third term, Nkurunziza was creating a crisis that would threaten peace in the region.
For some, the announcement from the constitutional court was anticipated. Willy Nindorera, a political analyst and independent consultant, expected the court to say the candidacy is legal. Now, he assumes, the president is emboldened and will continue his bid for a third time. “Even some African states will say that the opposition should understand that now the issue has been solved,” Nindorera said.
But the opposition won’t stop, he continued. They will argue that the court is close to the ruling party, and they will keep contesting the candidacy. If Nkurunziza wins, they will contest that, too.
For now, Nindorera isn’t worried about another civil war. “Perhaps in the coming years,” he said. “I don’t know how Burundi is going to face a situation like this. I don’t know.”
SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images