Burundi: Better the Devil You Know?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza address reporters before their bilateral meeting at the U.S. Department of State on August 4, 2014. (Photo is public domain)


As he stood on the podium, Pierre Nkurunziza, freshly elected to his third term as the President of Burundi, would have noticed the conspicuous absences within the room. His inauguration had only been announced that morning. Senior military officials scrambled to get ready as they were told just a few hours beforehand to be present in full parade uniform. In his oath, President Nkurunziza swore loyalty to the constitution and “to dedicate all my forces to the defence of the best interests of the nation”. There were no foreign leaders present. Only one nation, South Africa, deigned the spectacle with ministerial representation. A few African nations sent Ambassadors, as did China and Russia, though no representatives at any level of seniority were present from the EU or US.

The decision to call a snap inauguration was pragmatic. Bujumbura, the capital, was too fragmented to risk the inevitable protests and violence that the inauguration would have caused. Violence erupted in April of last year when President Nkurunziza announced he would be running for a third term, despite constitutional limits that state a president is only eligible for two terms. Aside from security concerns, the inadequate time afforded to attendees to prepare also gave foreign governments a polite excuse for them not to formally refuse the invite.

On May 4th US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term as unconstitutional, as did representatives from the African Union. Nkurunziza’s party, the NCDD-FDD, however, stated he was eligible for another term as popularly elected president because lawmakers had elected him for his first. By their logic he was therefore eligible to run again under the auspices of popular sovereignty. The same day that Kerry made his remarks the Vice-President of the Constitutional Court fled the country following alleged death threats from senior figures in the government. He claimed that many of his fellow judges believed Nkurunziza’s pledge to run was unconstitutional. On May 5th, with the departures of four of the seven judges, Burundi’s constitutional court acceded to the NCDD-FDD’s semantic fudging, paving the way for Nkurunziza’s third term.

A week later, while Nkurunziza was discussing the state of his nation at talks in Tanzania, a coup led by Major General Godefroid Niyombare was declared. Nkurunziza immediately tried to fly back to Burundi, but was turned back in Tanzanian airspace because the airport at Bujumbura was compromised. By the next day however the coup had fizzled, never having managed to sway the army. Nkurunziza returned to Burundi and quickly reasserted power.

Though the coup leaders handed themselves in to the police, low-level violence continued throughout the run up to the election. Speaking to a Kenyan television station on 6 July, one of the coup leaders, General Leonard Ngendakumana, called for armed rebellion against Nkurunziza. On July 10-11 fighting broke out in the northern part of the country, with the military reporting on 13 July that 31 rebels had been killed and 170 had been captured during the skirmishes.

The election went ahead soon after on July 21st. With three of Nkurunziza’s seven opposition candidates formally boycotting the vote, he secured his third five-year term in a landslide, with 69.41% of the vote. His main opposition, Agathon Rwasa, merely 50% points behind, came in a close second. Rwasa said he would not recognize the vote and instead suggested forming a National Unity government. The government swiftly rejected the proposal, which demanded Nkurunziza truncate his third term to a single year.

And so it came to pass. Nkurunziza’s story is drawn from the singular plotline of post-colonial African leadership. Rising to power as a rebel leader from humble beginnings, it was his election ten years ago that ended over a decade of civil war that had seen nearly 300,000 killed. Cresting his wave of popular support his ten years in power have been marked by dashed hopes and crushing poverty.

Burundi, prior to this election, was in poor shape. Reeling from protracted ethnic conflict between Tutsis and Hutus, the economy stumbled for a few years before falling. In 2014 it was rated 184th out of the 188 countries ranked according to the UN’s Human Development Index. Life expectancy is a mere 56.7 years. The GNI per capita is a trifling $758. The landlocked nation has East Africa’s smallest economy and relies on agriculture, mainly coffee and tea production, for over a third of its economic output. Coffee production fell 52% in 2014 due to poor weather and a lower yielding crop cycle–a devastating blow for the already weak economy.

It is against this dire backdrop that Nkurunziza mounted the podium during his snap inauguration. It seems unlikely that he will be able to force a 180 for the economy, especially as he will need to reconsolidate power and stave off mounting ethnic tensions.

On December 11th the quotidian bustle of Bujumbura was once again shattered by the stuttering cracks of gunfire. Rebel troops stormed army bases, wounding five soldiers. Reprisals that day by the army saw 87 killed throughout opposition suburbs.

These attacks, and the violent response to them, has lead to growing fears of tremors along the ethnic fault lines that tore Burundi apart during its twelve year civil war.

Burundi was scarred by genocide a year before Rwanda. Like its neighbor Rwanda, Burundi bifurcates between a Tutsi minority and Hutu majority. On October 21, 1993, Tutsi extremists assassinated Burundi’s first democratically elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye. This catalyzed violence that saw between 50,000-100,000 deaths that year. Order was temporarily resumed under Ndadaye’s successor Cyprien Ntaryamira, until he was killed in 1994 in the same plane crash as Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana. While this sparked the infamous Rwandan genocide, in Burundi the fires burnt slower and less intensely, but for longer. The resulting civil war lasted until Nkurunziza’s election in 2005.

The question is whether Nkurunziza, who put the country on a path of relative, though poverty-stricken, stability, is now the solution or the problem to what ails Burundi. Writing for the BBC, Ghanaian writer and former minister Elizabeth Ohene drew parallels between Nkurunziza and leaders such as Mobutu and Gaddafi. Both stayed on far beyond the end of their terms and watched as their countries stagnated under decades of corrupt authoritarian rule.

Ohene notes, however, that while those countries looked pretty awful at the time, we now look back to those leaders with nostalgia. Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire is depressingly preferable to the current Democratic Republic of Congo, and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya seems a paradise compared to the chaos left in his wake. It is this concern that undercuts African democracy today. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni is proposing to stand for another term after thirty years in power. Rwanda’s parliament has recently opened a path to allow Paul Kagame to once again stand for election, lest his good works be sullied by a successor. ECOWAS, the economic community of West African states, failed to impose two-term limits on its members.

Nkurunziza’s third term therefore poses an awkward question for observers. Would we rather see Burundi go the way of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, intact but bankrupt in every sense, or shattered into pieces like Libya and the DRC? While criticisms have rained in, there is a somewhat compelling argument to be made that it might well be better the devil you know.

If Nkurunziza manages to claw Burundi away from mounting ethnic tensions then he will be vindicated. The evidence however appears to suggest that his brinksmanship is steering Burundi ever closer towards the precipice. After the attacks on December 11th Burundi warned the African Union to not send peacekeepers, lest they be fired upon as invading troops. In the absence of AU observers, Time magazine has reported that groups of young men, members of the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerkure, have been killing Tutsi’s and raping Tutsi women. Around 250,000 of the country’s population of 10 million have already fled to neighboring Rwanda.

The main issue now is whether or not Nkurunziza manages to maintain control of his army. The country will be doomed if it is allowed it to split along ethnic lines. In late December a Tutsi lieutenant colonel, Edouard Nshimirimana, announced that he was forming a new rebel group. The risk is that Tutsi’s within the military, perceiving that the government is responsible for the persecution of Tutsi’s, will go rogue. According to a report in The New York Times, Mr. Nkurunziza is now restacking the military, removing Tutsi officers he does not trust from vital positions and disarming others. Whether this works or not remains to be seen.

Nkurunziza may have had Louis XV’s famous maxim, “après moi, le déluge”–after me, the flood, running through his mind as he contemplated a third term. As he descended the podium and ushered in a torrent of violence one wonders if he hadn’t got his grammar wrong. Perhaps it was “auprès de moi, le déluge”–near me, the flood.

Barclay Bram has an MSci in International Relations and Global Issues from the University of Nottingham. An excerpt of his Thesis, The Dragon & The Flea, about terrorism in Western China, was published by Taylor & Francis in the journal The International Affairs Forum. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, The Huffington Post, and The Millions.


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