Recent events in Burundi, including mass protests over the President’s attempt for a third term, a failed coup attempt and a massive refugee flow over the Burundian borders, have triggered fears of a renewed internal conflict and (additional) regional instability.
Burundi’s descent into an internal conflict with ethnic overtones in 1993 following the murder of the first democratically elected Hutu president came after a violent history of mass killings and several bloodless coups against dictators. The conflict came to an official end with the Arusha Agreement in 2000, popularly called the ‘non-agreement’ because of the many reservations against it. Yet, not until the last rebel group, the Hutu-dominated FNL (Forces Nationales de Libération) signed a ceasefire agreement with the ruling party, CNDD-FDD (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie – Forces pour la défense de la démocratie – also a former Hutu rebel group) in 2006 and integrated the army in 2009, could Burundians talk about an actual peace. However, neither of the last two rebel groups, CNDD-FDD and FNL, were part of the peace negotiations in 2000, nor were they signatories to the Arusha Agreement.
This is also part of the explanation to the current crisis that the country faces today, as the President and leader of CNDD-FDD, Pierre Nkurunziza along with his supporters have decided to reinterpret the constitution which is based on the Arusha Agreement, to run for a third term. Regardless of previous reservations against the agreement, there is no doubt that it has been instrumental in creating a stable situation in Burundi based on a carefully calculated ethnic balance, symbolized by 50-50% quotas in all important institutions. This includes the army, which used to be considered a mono-ethnic (Tutsi) elite institution but which is now a relatively balanced mixture of former FAB (Forces Armées Burundaises) members and ex-PMPA (Partis et Mouvements Politiques Armés). The President’s actions have thus rocked the boat that Burundi has been sitting in for the last 15 years, with expected results of mass demonstrations, violent opposition and, more surprisingly, internal divisions within the leading party.
Yet, the attempt for a third term does not come as a surprise for observers of Burundi’s increasingly authoritarian climate, where oppression of opposition leaders and nightly visits of Imbonerakure have lined the road to elections for a long time. Unfortunately, it is neither a surprise that the international community as a whole, regional actors (EAC) and international key partners, such as Belgium, have taken an unreasonably long time to respond to these events. The ‘laissez-faire’ attitude that international actors have adopted in the case of Burundi has been characterized by a “good enough” peace where autocratic tendencies and an increasingly limited political space have been the price to pay for relative stability. The main actor in Burundi to maintain this stability is the new army, which is the (successful?) result of local and international efforts to merge former FAB soldiers with ex-PMPAs.
In an unexpectedly short period of time, a new national army emerged after the demobilization process of mostly former FAB members in 2004 – again to the surprise of external observers. Unlike Rwanda, where ethnicities ‘no longer exist’, in Burundi a mixed General Staff managed to integrate the different forces along ethnic quotas. Part of the explanation behind this relatively smooth integration between the two main forces, CNDD-FDD and ex-FAB is to be found in the facilitating roles played by certain key leaders from both sides, among which the former Minister of Defence, Lieutenant-General Germain Niyoyankana has been mentioned. It is this deal, struck between the main military forces, that has maintained relative stability during the last decade in Burundi, greatly facilitated with timely troop contributions to international peace operations which has enhanced both military finances and prestige, that is now being put under pressure.
During the first few weeks of protests over Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term, the army also did play the stabilizing role it was accredited with, contrary to the police which was reported to respond heavy-handedly against demonstrators. Yet the coup attempt two days ago, which came among rumours that another ‘false’ coup by forces loyal to the President was underway to reaffirm Nkurunziza’s position, revealed divisions within the army, resulting in rivalling factions trying to take control over leading radio stations. As the coup attempt failed and the President returned home, the independent media was silenced, recalling the current climate of oppression against the opposition. Yet Nkuruniziza still enjoys strong support from the rural population, which often is forgotten in capital-centred analysis of the political landscape. This support was put on show in his demonstrative return to Bujumbura in a large convoy from his hometown Ngozi on Friday the 15th. However, civil society leaders appeared to be unmoved by the failed coup attempt and called for new protests against a third term despite the President linking the protests to the coup attempt in his announcement to the public on Friday afternoon. Four former Presidents of Burundi have also officially denounced the President’s attempt to run for a third term as ‘unconstitutional’, which also signifies that the current crisis is far from over.
The coming weeks will be decisive for the future of Burundi and the region as a whole. Indirect messages between President Kagame and President Nkurunziza have increased regional tensions, as Kagame referred to the FDLR as a possible actor in Burundi’s crisis while Nkurunziza has warned that he will retaliate against anyone who launches an attack on Burundi. This should be put in the context of a growing flow of Burundian refugees crossing the border to Rwanda which is likely to have considerable influence on the region’s political landscape, strengthening Kagame’s position as the leader of a Rwanda considered a relatively stable safe haven for refugees while simultaneously putting his own possible future third term under international pressure.
The key to coming developments within Burundi is to be found within the military. So far, the divisions within the military seem to have ignored ethnic lines, as has the deepening political crisis, with Brigade General Niyombare Godefroid being a former CNDD-FDD rebel and the second in command, General-Major Cyrille Ndayirukiye an ex-FAB. However, if the crisis deepens the divisions in the army, there is a risk of mobilization along former party lines, and thus ethnicity, which could have catastrophic consequences for the (relative) stability of the country. In this case, elections are most likely postponed sine die, leaving space for the President to reinforce his authoritarian grip while weakening the civil society and opposition’s protests. President Nkurunziza cancelling his bid for a third term would most likely stop such an evolution, but the chances of that happening seem negligible to say the least, unless regional and international actors manage to exert an unprecedented pressure with a comfortable solution for the President which would allow him to save face.
Nina Wilén is a Visiting Researcher at Stellenbosch University and a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Policy and Management, University of Antwerp. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Security Governance. Her research interests focus on security sector reform, disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR), gender and peacebuilding. Nina is the author of Justifying Interventions in Africa: (De)Stabilizing Sovereignty in Liberia, Burundi and the Congo.