Don't turn your back on peace, Burundi

Today, 29 April, marks the fourth day of protests against the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy’s (CNDD-FDD) decision to nominate President Pierre Nkurunziza as the party’s candidate for a potential third mandate.

So far, at least seven people have reportedly died in confrontations between Burundian police and protestors, while scores of others have been injured.

Nkurunziza’s nomination, which was announced on Saturday, 25 April, is a direct violation of the 2000 Arusha Agreement as well as Burundi’s constitution. It comes on the heels of over a year of speculation about the president’s intentions and a backdrop of heightened tensions as the government continued to close the political space.

In various Bujumbura neighbourhoods, young people have taken to the streets, chanting slogans that condemn the nomination despite the government ban on protests. What started as peaceful demonstrations quickly turned violent as security forces attempted to suppress the movement and protesters barricaded numerous streets. The army, which was deployed on Monday, has thus far remained impartial.

This can indicate a number of things, among them that the army, one of the most singular accomplishments of the Arusha Agreement, has become so integrated and professional that it is able to withstand such a highly politicised climate. Alternatively, it may show that many in the Ministry of Defence do not approve of the ruling party’s decision. It remains to be seen, however, how long the military will be able to remain neutral.

It remains to be seen how long the military will be able to remain neutral

On Monday the government, true to form, used the judiciary and security forces to silence dissent by issuing arrest warrants against prominent civil society leaders and by shutting down independent radio stations. Human rights defender Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa was briefly arrested and released, while others are still sought by the police. Radio Publique Africaine in Bujumbura has been accused of promoting an insurrection and was suspended along with two other radio stations, while more pro-government media continue to operate freely.

Concerned for their safety, more than 20 000 civilians have fled to Rwanda with hundreds more attempting to leave the country through Tanzania, and up to 4 000 to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Any large displacement of population towards Eastern Congo can further destabilise the region, as it has experienced an in increased military activity by a number of armed groups.

Prior to Saturday’s announcement, a number of international and regional actors, including the African Union, the European Union, the United States, Tanzania and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have called for the ruling party to respect the constitution and the Arusha Agreement to restore prospects for peaceful, free and fair elections in Burundi.

Additionally, there were strong indications that some forces inside the ruling party were also opposed to Nkurunziza’s third term, which offered a possibility for the party to respect its obligations under the peace agreement. But as the 25 April congress date approached, it became apparent that Nkurunziza was poised to secure the nomination.

It is important to note that popular Hutu opposition leader Agathon Rwasa, who heads one wing of the National Liberation Front (FNL), has stayed away from the protests. He has stated that while he was against any attempt by Nkurunziza to secure a third mandate, he would not join the protests. FNL members have delayed in actively joining the protests. For the moment, this has left the movement lopsided, with the Hutu-dominated government cracking down on what some call mostly Tutsi protesters.

More than 20 000 civilians have fled to Rwanda, with hundreds more attempting to leave

Indeed, most of the confrontations have taken place in neighbourhoods such as Ciboteke and Musuga, which are predominantly home to partisans of the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD); a Tutsi-led yet ethnically mixed party. Another neighbourhood, Ngagara, is home to many students – a demographic that is not new to anti-government protests. This dynamic has led to speculations that the violence might be ethnic in nature.

The legacy of ethnic violence cannot be forgotten or discounted in Burundi. And the fact that some pro-Nkurunziza elements are holding ethnically divisive discourse is cause for concern. However some observers, along with Rwasa, maintain that the current struggle is mostly political, not ethnic. Indeed, during the previous elections, much of the confrontation took place between the two main Hutu parties; the CNDD-FDD and the FNL. It remains to be seen if and when the Kamenge and Kinama neighbourhoods, which are the FNL strongholds, will mobilise.

Protestors have vowed to stay in the streets until Nkurunziza withdraws his candidacy. However, given that the president has continued to disregard calls from international partners to reconsider the nomination, the message may be falling on deaf ears. This raises serious questions about whether the electoral process can begin in a month’s time.

Tuesday morning, senators called on the Constitutional Court to rule on the issue. The Court will have to decide whether to rule on the intent of the drafters of the constitution; or on the wording that precludes Nkurunziza from running again. Given the strong pro-government bias of the court, it is likely that it will rule in the party’s favour.

The legacy of ethnic violence cannot be forgotten or discounted in Burundi

While some observers have recently argued the ambiguity of the constitution, it is essential to recall that the Arusha Agreement was used to frame the document, and there was never any doubt about the meaning of Article 96, which limits the presidency to two five-year terms. Article 302, which allowed president Nkurunziza to ascend to the presidency by parliamentary vote did not invalidate Article 7.2 of the Arusha Agreement, which clearly states that ‘no one may serve more than two presidential terms.’ This is despite the pro-Nkurunziza argument that since he was not elected by universal suffrage for his first term, he is now eligible for a third mandate.

It is also important to remember that the Arusha Agreement is a peace treaty that has allowed Burundi to escape decades of violence. We may need to examine the domestic legal weight of this peace treaty, which anchors the preamble of the constitution. In the meantime, we can only hope that the CNDD-FDD’s violation of its Arusha obligations will not lead other parties to the agreement to likewise turn their back on peace.

Meanwhile, the government must allow the press, civil society organisations and their leaders to operate freely. The shutting down of media outlets and arrests of activists is an affront to the basic freedoms included in international protocols to which Burundi is a signatory. On the other hand, protesters must voice their opposition and their demands in a peaceful manner, while the security forces must maintain their neutrality and restore order in a manner that respects human rights.

As the situation unfolds and the United Nations has dispatched its special envoy to the Great Lakes, the opposition must remain engaged and peaceful. The 2010 elections boycott paved the way for near complete control of the government by the CNDD-FDD. They had hoped to delegitimise the electoral process in the eyes of the international community, which turned out to be a costly miscalculation that contributed to the current situation. Should the international community and regional actors fail to mediate an acceptable agreement between the ruling party and the opposition, the latter needs to plan on occupying as much political space as possible.

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