President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term – defying the nation’s constitution – has caused chaos in Burundi. In May, President Nkurunziza was attending an emergency summit in Tanzania when Major-General Godefroid Niyombare, a respected former army chief, tried to seize power, and for more than a day pro-coup forces prevented the president’s return to Burundi. The president has signalled that he will continue to crack-down on street protests that are calling for him to step aside in July’s election. Recent events have caused observers to fear a return to the ethnic conflict of the past which culminated in a bloody civil war.
Nkurunziza, the 51-year-old former rebel leader, argues that he is entitled to run for a third term because he was first appointed to the role by parliament in 2005, rather than being elected by the people. The constitution states that a president should govern only for two terms. However, in early May, a court upheld Mr Nkurunziza’s interpretation. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets and were confronted by teargas and warning shots from police. Crowds gathered from early morning in a south Bujumbura suburb, mostly inhabited by members of Burundi’s ethnic Tutsi minority, waving placards, burning tyres and chanting slogans accusing the president of breaking the constitution. The army and police were deployed to quell the protests, which have been described by government officials as an insurrection. The phone lines of private radio stations have also been cut by the authorities in order to prevent news of protests from spreading. The ruling party’s Vice-President, Joseph Ntakirutimana, compared one radio station to a former Rwandan broadcaster, accused of fuelling the 1994 genocide. Messaging services including Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter have been cut off.
When General Niyombare announced a coup on 13th May, thousands of protesters marched to the capital, Bujumbura, alongside soldiers and tanks. However, Niyombare’s coup ultimately failed and at least two protesters were killed by police retaliation. Tens of thousands of Burundians have fled to neighbouring states in recent weeks since the crisis began.
Burundi, one of the world’s poorest nations, with half of the population living below the poverty line, is still struggling to emerge from a 12-year, ethnic-based civil war. It comes second in the world in stunting, the main symptom of chronic child malnutrition, yet is a country fertile enough to be self-sufficient in food. Unfortunately, it is a land sucked dry by corruption. Since independence in 1962, Burundi has been plagued by tension between the usually-dominant Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority. The ethnic violence sparked off in 1994 made Burundi the scene of one of Africa’s most intractable conflicts. Burundi’s ex-President, Pierre Buyoya, has warned that Burundi could return to war if the present crisis is not resolved. 18 people have appeared in court, accused of helping to organise the failed coup against President Pierre Nkurunziza, in what appears to be a crackdown against those suspected of involvement in the plot.
The present situation makes the task of reviving a shattered economy and forging national unity even more difficult. Burundi’s democratic future is uncertain, and the residual scars of ethnic warfare risk turning a political crisis into a humanitarian one.