Ringing in the new year amid gunfire and intrigue

Tensions ahead of this year's elections have made way for a drastic rise in political violence in Burundi.

As the world ushered in the new year, approximately 100 Burundian combatants were killed in fierce battle against the army in north-west Burundi. The five-day gunfight erupted when militants attempted to cross into Burundi from eastern Congo and ended with a decisive victory for the army.

Although the surviving combatants are now in custody, it’s still unknown to which rebel group they belong. The mystery surrounding these events adds to an already heightened sense of insecurity in Burundi. Initial reports suggested that the rebels were members of an extremist splinter cell of the National Liberation Front (FNL), a Hutu-dominated opposition party in Burundi with known bases in eastern Congo.

A few days later, instead of launching a military offensive against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in the Congo (MONUSCO) and the Congolese army (FADRC) launched an offensive against mostly abandoned FNL bases in eastern Congo, consolidating the theory that the FNL was behind the attacks. However, on 5 January, Colonel Gaspard Baratuza, the Burundian Army’s spokesman, declared that the assailants in custody had not revealed the group’s identity.

All eyes are now turned toward the possible emergence of a new, mystery rebel group

Until late last year, the main security concerns in Burundi focused on the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), who operate freely in the countryside. Last year, when the United Nations (UN) alleged that the CNDD-FDD was arming and training the Imbonerakure, the government vehemently denied the accusations. Yet, acts of violence involving members of the group have doubled in 2014, and this in complete impunity.

But while the Imbonerakure still have carte blanche, all eyes are now turned toward the most recent events and the possible emergence of a new, mystery rebel group. Further putting Burundians on edge is the assassination of three activists affiliated with the ruling party on 4 January in Gisuru, by men dressed in military uniform.

What should now concern both international and regional actors is the new role the army has played in recent weeks. Last year, most observers agreed that as long as the army remained uninvolved in the political conflict, the chances of a return to large-scale violence were negligible. Indeed, the power-sharing arrangement hammered out a decade ago in the peace talks between all armed groups and their subsequent integration into the Burundian army has long been hailed as a peacebuilding success.

Some fear that this uncertainty has been encouraged by the government

So far, Burundi has been able to avoid politicising the armed forces. However, since late last year, the Burundian army has been involved in fighting rebels in eastern Congo, and now on Burundian soil. While protecting the territorial integrity of the state falls under the normal role of armed forces, witnesses in Cibitoke have accused the army of extreme brutality and irregularities during the most recent confrontation. It has been suggested that the army executed some of the rebels it had apprehended and then quickly buried the bodies, making identification of the militants impossible.

The government denies these allegations, and maintains that evidence found at the scene shows that the combatants belong to a terrorist organisation aimed at carrying out attacks to disrupt the electoral process. The army has vowed to ensure the safety of the people ahead of the polls.

While members of the mainly Hutu FNL have been arrested and interrogated with regard to the recent clashes, witnesses alleged that the rebel group was made up of both Hutu and Tutsi members, adding to the mystery around the group's identity and motives. Some sections of civil society fear that the government has encouraged this uncertainty to bolster its allegations that the opposition has supported and contributed to the attack; this despite the opposition coalition promptly condemning the incursion. According to the opposition, linking its members to the armed group would enable the government to further persecute the opposition.

Recent events must be analysed within the context of the already tense political situation

Recent events must be analysed within the context of the already tense political situation in Burundi. Since last year, the government has been muzzling the opposition using restrictive legislative tools and the judiciary to neutralise key political candidates who could pose a challenge in the next election. Despite the code of conduct it signed to ensure peaceful and transparent elections, the government does not appear to have any intention of providing the political space needed for opposition parties to campaign without being hindered.

There have also been concerns over the electoral registration process, as well as the transparency of the national electoral commission (CENI). The CNDD-FDD stands accused of stacking the CENI with CNDD-FDD partisans, which allegedly gives the president and the ruling party an unfair advantage. These claims of impropriety have led the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD) to withdraw from the CENI. This raises concerns over whether the opposition will again boycott the elections, as it had done in 2010.

There is also frustration about the voter registration process, with some sections of civil society arguing that the new identity cards, which are required to register, were distributed overwhelmingly to supporters of the CNDD-FDD while distribution to opposition supporters faced delays and irregularities.

Finally, there remains the issue of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s eligibility to run for a third term. While the CNDD-FDD’s attempt to amend the constitution to that effect failed last year, the ruling party appears determined to push for Nkurunziza’s third term even without a constitution change.

As the country inches towards more instability, international and regional actors have been struggling to concretely respond to early warnings. With the ongoing stabilisation efforts in eastern Congo dominating the security agenda in the region, strides towards peace and democratic consolidation are losing ground in Burundi. The United Nations Office in Burundi’s Security Council mandate expiration could not have come at a worse time.

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

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