Are we about to witness the breakdown of one of Africa’s smallest nations? With so many other things going on in the world, Burundi hasn’t yet made the front pages of newspapers outside of East Africa, and we can only pray it doesn’t. But the current situation suggests there is worse yet to come – whether physical violence, floods of refugees, political demise or all of the above.
Update on 10 May 2015: On Friday, President Nkurunziza officially launched his campaign for a third term by filing his candidacy. Horrible pictures of murdered and injured citizens have been filling social media this week – including that of a pregnant woman apparently dragged from her home. As the situation seems to be worsening, numbers fleeing the country have risen to over 50,000. Leaders across Africa are getting involved and calling for dialogue – Uhuru (Kenya). Tanzania’s Foreign Minister, Bernard Mwembe, announced that EAC Heads of State will meet to discuss the Burundi crisis in Dar on May 13 and President Zuma of South Africa is sending an envoy to help diffuse the situation. On Saturday a one day truce was held but overnight protestors have set up barricades again in defiance of the President’s order to end activity within 48 hours. Opposition leader, Agathon Rwasa, has also filed his candidacy – though he clarified he did not see this as an endorsement of Nkurunziza’s third term but rather in respect to the country’s law. Mothers Day (Sunday) started with an all female protest – police appeared confused – in the centre of Bujumbura.
The African Union has said elections cannot take place under these conditions resulting in harsher crackdown on protestors. Diaspora demonstrations continue, particularly in Canada, Kenya. Ambassador Samantha Power has voiced what many have been thinking – the fear that events in Burundi could destabilise the region and lead to other crises. The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, which Burundi has been a State Party since 2004, made a statement on 8 May, sharing her concerns about the growing tensions and said her office would not be scared to investigate if crimes within the Court’s jurisdiction were committed.
Original Blog: On 25 April 2015, a series of protests were organized in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, contesting President Nkurinziza’s bid for another term in the upcoming elections. Under the Arusha Accords, the peace agreement that ended the civil war, the president is not eligible for re-election. The President’s supporters claim that the President has only served one term, for in 2005 he was appointed by Parliament and not elected by general suffrage.
Since the start of the protests, social media and radio have been shut down, curtailing freedom of speech and media. The closure of these venues of communication has intensified rumours and fear in the country. The majority of the population only have access to two radio stations, the government-owned RTNB and the party-affiliated RemaFM. Locals report that the messages being broadcasted on RemaFM are ethnically-charged (though open to interpretation), in an attempt to shift the conversation regarding the president’s bid in the upcoming elections as well as to regain support.
Together, these developments have led almost 40,000 Burundians to flee to neighbouring countries, particularly Rwanda (21,000), DRC and Tanzania (over 2,000). Tanzanian officials have warned that we could see a humanitarian crisis. Inside the country hundreds have fled to foreign embassies seeking refuge.
On Saturday 2 May, the Minister of Defence and the Minister of Public Security both made public statements. While the former asked the military to act in accordance with the spirit of the constitution and the Arusha Agreements that ended the decade-long civil war, the latter stated that they do not want any more protestors propping up a “terrorist enterprise”.
The public statements come after a military officer was shot and killed by an intelligence officer and two police officers were killed in the grenade attacks of Friday, May 1, 2015. Although the discourses of the two security institutions diverge, it is highly unlikely that the police and military would confront each other. The question of whether or not the military will stay united is less easy to answer.
Starting on Monday 4 May 2015, the protests recommenced in full force, with reports that three protestors or four protestors had been killed and many more injured. The deaths included a 12 year old boy. Following the fatalities, the former leader Domitien Ndayizeye called for the President to withdraw, whilst from Nairobi, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Nkurunziza seeking a third term “flies directly in the face” of Burundi’s Constitution.
Yet things got worse on Monday afternoon. Burundi’s Constitutional Court was due to decide on the legitimacy of Nkurinziza running for another term, when it was reported that Sylvere Nimpagaritse, Vice President of the Court had fled to Rwanda. Nimpagaritse has apparently said that four out of the seven judges were against another term and it now appears that three of the judges have fled the country. The Minister of Defense has said that he would deploy the Army if necessary.
The Constitutional Court has now backed the Presidency’s bid for another term. The response was clear: “It is a clear message to the people that they count for nothing”. It has since been reported that police fired rounds on the protestors leading protesters to use leaves as camouflage and branches as fake weapons. On Wednesday 6 May in the evening the President addressed the nation and stated that if re-elected this, his third, would be his last term (read the full statement here).
Africa responds to African problems: Ministers from the East African Community (EAC) are travelling to Burundi to help with finding a solution for the political unrest. This comes in the wake of a UN led mediation between civil society and political groups started yesterday.
In support, the diaspora and others have organised rallies e.g. in London and Canada. The hashtag #Sindumuja which means ‘I am not a slave’ in Kirundi is being used by many to share their concerns, grief and anger on twitter. Concern is spreading on social media to the Rwandan community and it cannot be denied that there is a fear for the peace of this delicate but beautiful part of East Africa. An EU election observation team is due to deploy shortly (@MoeUeBurundi).
At the moment, it is unclear how this conflict will be resolved. For many, succeeding in the protests may become a matter of life and death. The election is due to take place on 26 June 2015. Neighbouring Tanzania has a similar situation coming up in October, when the incumbent Kikwete is also ineligible for a third term and there will be a general election in Ethiopia on 24 May.
For latest information, see this crowd map.