How Should the International Community Respond?
The background to Burundi’s current turmoil, sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term, is complicated, to say the least. Burundi, as all Africa watchers know, has a history of intercommunal violence, often revolving around elections, which began in 1972 and has accounted for as many as 450,000 deaths over those four decades, as well as massive numbers of refugees and displaced persons.This violent past seemed to have come to an end after the signing of an internationally brokered peace agreement in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2001, a subsequent ceasefire in 2004, and peaceful elections in 2005 that brought Nkurunziza to power.
Nkurunziza, who had been a university professor, led an armed group, the CNDD-FDD, in rebellion against the sitting government for over a decade. The CNDD-FDD didn’t sign the Arusha Peace Accords, but did agree to the ceasefire in 2004 and transformed itself into a political party.
Despite the current unrest, Nkurunziza had proved to be a popular president in the past. He was a master at old time populism, spending inordinate amounts of time in the countryside interacting with people, attending church, playing soccer – his favorite pastime – and joining in planting cassava and other crops with subsistence farmers.
A Gallup Poll in 2011 that gauged the popularity of African heads of state listed Nkurunziza as the most popular on the continent, coming in with an 89% approval rating. This, despite the fact that his government had been ineffective, done little to create jobs or enhance revenue flows, and was massively corrupt.
Even with irregularities at the polling places, violence, and opposition boycotts, he won re-election in 2010 with 91.62% of the votes cast. Few observers thought he would lose a free and fair election in 2015.
The question that prompted the protests and subsequent violence, however, was not on his popularity but whether or not Nkurunziza had the right to run under the Arusha Accords and subsequent constitutional term limits provisions.
Even before he had announced his intention to run there was an international and domestic outcry that he should not. Even a group of “elders” from within the ruling party privately counseled Nkurunziza not to run.
In fact, this issue is a rather fine legal point. The Arusha Accords and the constitution, established after Arusha, both prohibit more than two terms for a president. The logic used by Nkurunziza and his supporters was that in 2005 he was not popularly elected – instead, he was appointed, and had, therefore, the right to run again for two terms via popular direct election.
With both sides having some rationale behind their views, this seems a legal question that should be left for the Constitutional Court to decide on its constitutionality. So it was and the court ruled in favor of Nkurunziza having a third term.
That might have been the end of the matter, at least legally, but the court’s ruling was discredited when the vice president of the court fled the country and issued a statement that he and fellow justices had been threatened and coerced into the ruling by the government. A number of the “elders” who had advised against a third term, including the second vice president and the speaker of the assembly, have also fled, fearing for their safety.
The international media too often casts the conflict in Burundi in historical terms as an inter-ethnic, inter-communal, majority Hutu versus minority Tutsi struggle. While there are historical roots to the current crisis, the one thing it is not, at present, is ethnically driven.
While stability has eluded Burundi in recent years, the one positive outcome of the last 15 years, since the signing of the Arusha Accords, has been a society that has largely overcome the ethnic divisions which had provided the fault line along which political rivalries of the past were played out.
The nexus of conflict itself is basically Hutu versus Hutu, with the most prominent challenger to Nkurunziza being Agathon Rwasa, leader of the FNL (National Liberation Forces), which is a Hutu group that had fought the former Tutsi-dominated government and army. In the countryside, particularly in southern provinces like Makamba, where intimidation and threats are a constant fact of life, Tutsi and Hutu alike live in fear.
By Steve McDonald