A house divided in Burundi: rifts at the heart of the ruling party

President Pierre Nkurunziza seems to be losing control over both the ruling party and his political future.

If there was any doubt before recent weeks, the rift inside Burundi’s ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) is now undeniable. In a letter signed on 20 March, 17 high-ranking members of the party asked President Pierre Nkurunziza to respect the constitution and refrain from seeking a third mandate.

A notable signatory to this letter was none other than Leonidas Hatungimana, who at the time was the personal president’s spokesperson, and therefore the mouthpiece of the executive. While this letter may come as a surprise so close to the elections, which have been scheduled for June this year, observers have for some time suspected that there are important rifts within the party.

Indeed, while the opposition’s internal splits have long been recognised, discussions about dissent within the CNDD-FDD have mostly been muted. Nevertheless, it has become clear that there are ideological differences between the generals and the civilian members of the CNDD-FDD. To the frustration of the more technocratic elements within the party, real decision-making powers have mostly rested in the hands of those who forged ties on the battlefield.

Some generals in the party have grown increasingly frustrated with the notorious levels of corruption

A newer phenomenon is the growing tension between former military- and security-oriented members of the party. Some generals in the party have grown increasingly frustrated with the notorious levels of corruption of the president’s inner circle, and have recently been increasingly forceful in calling for more transparent governance. In order to ensure continued support from the military base of the party, the president dismissed two important figures close to him in November, namely General Adolphe Nshimirimana, Head of the National Intelligence Services, and General Alain Guillaume Bunyoni, Head of the Civil Cabinet at the presidency.

The move exposed Nkurunziza’s vulnerability to mounting pressure inside the party. The political sacrifice of his trusted allies, intended to maintain the support of the powerful CNDD-FDD generals, cannot have fallen on deaf ears. Shortly after replacing Nshimirimana, General Godefroid Niyombare was also dismissed as head of the National Intelligence Services. Niyombare, a man with great clout in the party, became the first Hutu chief of staff of the army in 2009. His removal is linked to an internal memo addressed to President Nkurunziza, which made a clear case against the latter’s attempt to run for an additional mandate. The memo, which was eventually leaked, questioned the constitutionality of Nkurunziza’s potential third mandate.

Additionally, it suggested that a continued push for a third mandate could endanger the country’s peace and security, especially considering the influential Catholic Church’s vehement opposition to Nkurunziza's candidacy, the rise in civil society-driven popular protests domestically and in Africa (for example in Burkina Faso), and the lack of cohesion in the party. This document clearly demonstrates the determination of some key party members to delegitimise Nkurunziza’s attempt at a third bid, and may have set in motion additional forms of dissent.

The move exposed Nkurunziza’s vulnerability to mounting pressure inside the party

Approximately two weeks after the drafting of the document, the former chairman of the CNDD-FDD, Hussein Radjabu, escaped from prison. Radjabu, a charismatic leader with a great deal of support within the ruling party, fell out of favour with Nkurunziza in 2007 and was soon after tried and sentenced to 13 years in prison – allegedly for plotting an armed rebellion and insulting the president.

The move was seen as a way for Nkurunziza to permanently sideline Radjabu and to consolidate his control over the party. Radjabu’s arrest angered his supporters, many of whom were subsequently demoted from key positions. Just two months before the general elections, Radjabu’s escape – allegedly facilitated by high-ranking supporters in the government – exposes the rift between those who support Nkurunziza and those who want a change in leadership.

The recent letter therefore appears to be the culmination of years of fomenting discontent. The movement has since gained momentum, as its leaders claim to now have over 300 signatures within the party. Unsurprisingly, the regime promptly responded to the letter by removing 10 of the initial signatories from the CNDD-FDD ranks; among them Leonidas Hatungimana and Onésime Nduwimana, former party spokesperson.

One may ask why these disgruntled members of the party waited until now to voice their dissent. While President Nkurunziza has managed to maintain a certain level of personal popularity in rural areas, his regime and the party have lost the once-unequivocal support of the people. Indeed, the Nkurunziza regime has failed to display the leadership necessary to improve the stagnating economy, which led Burundians to go on strike against the rising cost of living in early March.

After 10 years of loyal acquiescence, patience appears to be running out

The government’s development failures are striking when compared to the progress made by other members of the East African Community, where Burundi ranks lowest in governance performance.

Recent demonstrations welcoming the release of journalist Bob Rugurika also indicate growing fatigue of the regime’s overreach. Early this year, Rugurika’s radio station, Africa Public Radio, aired an interview where a man who claims to have been acting on the orders of senior intelligence officials, confessed to murdering two Italian nuns in September 2014.

Rugurika was promptly arrested and charged with, among other things, complicity in the murder and the disclosure of confidential information. After relentless pressure from Burundian civil society and the international community, he was released and welcomed by crowds who defied the country’s strict laws on public demonstrations.

Disillusion over the leadership’s failure and widespread discontent have surely affected a section of the CNDD-FDD’s leadership. It is important to note, for instance, that many members of the CNDD-FDD were initially members of the Front for Democracy in Burundi until their defection in 2005. After 10 years of loyal acquiescence to Nkurunziza’s inner circle, patience appears to be running out. Similarly, those loyal to Radjabu may see this as an opportune moment to push out Nkurunziza.

Finally, given the increased pressure from the international community, United Nations Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon, the African Union, and other regional actors, such as Tanzania, for the CNDD-FDD to respect the Arusha agreement, the dissenters may have seen this as a chance to corner the president at his weakest. A recent AfroBarometer survey reveals that 62% of Burundians interviewed are against a third mandate for Nkurunziza.

Since Hatungimana and others signed the letter opposing the mandate, the Belgian Parliament, usually quiet on the issue, has passed a resolution demanding their government ask Nkurunziza to respect the Arusha Accords and the spirit of the constitution. The Burundian Catholic Church has also increased its pressure on the ruling party by calling for leadership transition in the most recent Sunday mass.

These recent events have definitely shaken up the Burundian political landscape, especially with the reorganisation of the opposition. Former war enemies Agathon Rwasa of the Hutu-based National Liberation Front, and Charles Nditije of the unrecognised wing of the Tutsi-based Union for National Progress, joined hands in a new political coalition. This is likely to further erode Nkurunziza’s ability to control the party and his political future. It remains uncertain, however, whether this internal revolt and increased international pressure will continue to gain momentum, or if the push for an alternative presidential candidate for the CNDD-FDD is too little, too late.

Yolande Bouka, Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Nairobi

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