Elections, Violence and Repression in Burundi

Popular Protest and Social Movements in Africa – Part 13

By David Seddon

In many African countries, the presidents and prime ministers who were originally elected for constitutionally-limited periods (usually two terms of office) are still in place; in other countries, presidents have recently been trying to extend their periods of office (and their powers) – more or less successfully. The latest attempts have been in Burkina Faso, Burundi, the DRC and Congo-Brazzaville, as previously discussed in earlier pieces in this series. The reasons for this seem all too clear – to consolidate and to extend their powers.

In 2016, the Republic of Congo and Uganda swore-in long serving leaders Denis Sassou Nguesso and Yoweri Museveni for fresh terms after polls that were contested by a section of the opposition. Equatorial Guineans also went to the polls and confirmed the mandate of Africa’s longest serving president – Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Chad’s Idris Déby Itno likewise got a mandate extension in 2016 after 25 years in charge. The following year, Paul Kagame extended his period in office successfully, against both domestic and foreign opposition. As at late 2017, three African heads of state had been in power for more than three decades: Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea, Paul Biya in Cameroon, and Museveni in Uganda. More than a dozen other heads of state had been in power for at least ten years.

This systematic trend towards ‘elected dictatorships’ is widely opposed within these countries and on the continent in general. Yet little has been done to counteract it by regional organizations. In fact, in May 2015, a plan to restrict West African presidents to two terms in office was dropped ‘for the time being’ by heads of state at an ECOWAS summit. The Gambia and Togo – both of which had presidents in their third term of office – opposed the proposal. Domestically, there has been more resistance to this erosion of democracy, both from official parliamentary opposition parties where existent, and from citizens involved in protests. In some countries, this opposition has been effective.

In Burkina Faso in 2014, it was mass protests and revolution that brought about an effective resistance to efforts by Blaise Compaoré to extend his presidency; in Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down in 2017 after 38 years in office, and in Zimbabwe that same year Robert Mugabe was forced into retirement after 37 years in power in what was, in effect, an army-supported coup. The dynamics of the struggles to resist the erosion of constitutions limiting presidential terms of office differ considerably from case to case, and the effectiveness of those opposing such anti-democratic moves has also varied considerably. In this – the 13th of our series – we re-examine one of the cases discussed in our first and second issues– that of Burundi.

Burundi: The first presidency of Pierre Nkurunziza

Presidential and parliamentary elections took place in 2005 and Pierre Nkurunziza, once a leader of a rebel group, was elected president. A 2005 report on the reasons for Burundi’s poor economic performance since the 1960s suggested ‘poor governance’ was largely responsible, although Burundi had certain inherent disadvantages being small, heavily rural, land-locked and ‘over-populated’. The report argued that:

Most of post-colonial Burundi’s history has been dominated by military dictatorships. Three military Tutsi presidents (all) from Rutovu, a commune of the Southern province of Bururi, have been at the helm of the country for 34 years out of 41 since the country’s independence in 1962. Increasingly, the leadership’s greed and poor governance have generated grievances which, in turn, have led to a cycle of civil wars. From independence, the country has recorded five episodes of civil war that have claimed more than 500,000 lives and have produced about a million refugees. The latest civil war has been raging for ten years, so it is hardly surprising that the country’s economy is currently in tatters.

As of 2006, the Burundian government started negotiating with the Hutu-led Parti pour la libération du peuple Hutu (PALIPEHUTU) and rebels from their armed wing, Forces nationales de libération, (FROLINA) to bring peace to the country. The UN shut down its peacekeeping mission and re-focused on helping with reconstruction. Rwanda, the DRC and Burundi relaunched the regional Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries. In addition, in 2007, Burundi, along with Rwanda, joined the East African Community. However, the terms of the September 2006 Ceasefire between the government and the last remaining armed opposition group, the FROLINA, were still not totally in place, and senior FROLINA members subsequently left the truce monitoring team, claiming that their security was threatened.

In September 2007, rival FROLINA factions clashed in the capital, killing 20 fighters and causing residents to begin fleeing. Rebel raids were reported in other parts of the country. The rebel factions disagreed with the government over disarmament and the release of political prisoners. In late 2007 and early 2008, FROLINA fighters attacked government-protected camps where former combatants were living. The homes of rural residents were also pillaged. In late March 2008, the FROLINA called on parliament to adopt a law guaranteeing them ‘provisional immunity’ from arrest. This would cover ordinary crimes, but not grave violations of international humanitarian law like war crimes or crimes against humanity. Even though the government had granted this in the past, the FROLINA was unable to obtain the provisional immunity requested and, on 17 April 2008, the FROLINA bombarded Bujumbura. The Burundian army fought back and the FROLINA suffered heavy losses.

A new ceasefire was signed on 26 May 2008. In August 2008, President Nkurunziza met with the FROLINA leader, Agathon Rwasa, with the mediation of Charles Nqakula, South Africa’s Minister for Safety and Security. They agreed to establish a commission to resolve any disputes that might arise during the peace negotiations. Gradually, over the next five years, peace returned to Burundi; refugee camps were progressively closed down and hundreds of thousands of refugees returned to their homes. But, after decades of conflict and political instability, the economy was in a parlous state, and it was not clear that all of the ethnic and related tensions had finally been reduced to a manageable level.  The return of refugees, for example, prompted numerous conflicts over property (mainly land) rights.

The state of the economy

After so much conflict and disruption, and the absence of hundreds of thousands of rural people from their villages and their farms, the economy was in a poor state and was slow to recover. When it did, it was on the basis for the most part of subsistence agriculture.

At the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, agriculture remained the mainstay of the Burundian economy, contributing some 35 per cent of GDP and 90 per cent of exports, and occupying more than 70 per cent of the Burundian labor force. The lives and livelihoods of the vast majority of the population (some 83 per cent) depended on agriculture; and 87 per cent of the population (50 per cent of which was under the age of 15) lived in the countryside. Rapid population growth was increasing population density and pressure on the land.

Little industry existed except the processing of agricultural exports. Although there was potential wealth in petroleum, nickel, copper, and other natural resources, the uncertain security situation prevented meaningful investor interest. Industrial development was hampered by Burundi’s distance from the sea and high transport costs, as well as the lack of domestic resources other than in agriculture. Burundi was one of the poorest countries in the world with an estimated per capita income of US$130. It was heavily dependent on bilateral and multilateral aid.

In a 2014 article titled The Blood Cries Out, Foreign Policy reported that the population growth rate was 2.5 percent per year, more than double the global average, and that a Burundian woman has on average 6.3 children, nearly triple the international fertility rate. Futhermore, ‘the vast majority of Burundians rely on subsistence farming, but under the weight of a booming population and in the long-standing absence of coherent policies governing land ownership, many people barely have enough earth to sustain themselves’. In 2014, the average size for a farm was about one acre. Not surprisingly, ‘the consequence is remarkable scarcity: according to the 2013 Global Hunger Index, Burundi had the severest hunger and malnourishment rates of all 120 countries ranked’. . Burundi is now a net food importer, with foodstuffs accounting for nearly 20 per cent of all imports.

Burundi in crisis

Burundi’s latest crisis began in June 2015 when President Nkurunziza announced his decision to run for a third term. His party, the Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie (CNDD), descended from the Hutu rebel group he led during the civil war, argued that under the Constitution his first term did not count. He had been appointed by Parliament, not elected.

Mass protests in April 2015 led to a confrontation between the regime and the people, unleashing a cycle of violence that became ever more vicious. The first outbreak of demonstrations continued until 13 May 2015 when a coup attempt took place while Nkurunziza was out of the country. However, forces loyal to the president rapidly crushed the attempt; and on his return, Nkurunziza purged his government and arrested the coup leaders.

On 18 May, however, protesters took to the streets again despite a ban on demonstrations. These protests were swiftly quelled; but the situation remained tense and uncertain. By the third week of May, some 120,000 people had fled abroad. On 2 June, the killing of the leader of a small opposition party led to fresh protests, again the regime responded with force. On 11 June, a security chief claimed: ‘there are no more demonstrations in Bujumbura or inside the country’. In response, one civil society leader queried: ‘If there are no more demonstrations, why is it the police shoot every morning and night in Bujumbura’s neighborhoods? Why do we bury people every day killed by the police?’ (for further information on the 2015-16 crisis in Burundi, please see part two of this series here).

The situation continued to escalate, on 30 December 2015 Nkurunziza stated that African Union peacekeepers were not welcome and that the army would fight back if they tried to deploy in Burundi. Furthermore, there are now fears of a severe social and economic crisis, as major cuts in the health, education and agriculture sectors, envisaged in the 29 December 2015 austerity budget could further heighten the vulnerability of many Burundians and limit their access to basic services. A shortage of essential drugs is already reported in the country; and besides health, major concerns remain in the protection, foods security and nutrition sectors.

In early January 2016, Nkurunziza repeated his threat to counter any deployment of external peacekeepers after the African Union announced plans to send in 5,000 troops to protect civilians from escalating violence between government and rebel forces. On 9 January, the government refused to join peace talks with the opposition. On 14 January the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that over 230,000 Burundians had now fled the country, while at least 15,000 others were internally displaced in two provinces. At least 400 people, mostly civilians, had been killed since 26 April 2015, with the numbers rising in the last few months and the largest number killed in one month (162) being in December 2015. Not all of the killings, however, were recorded.

Government forces had responded by raiding areas considered to be centres of opposition to the regime. It seems that, during searches undertaken in the Musaga, Nyakabiga, Ngagara, Cibitoke and Mutanga neighbourhoods of Bujumbura on 11 and 12 December 2015, police, army and Imbonerakure militia forces arrested many young men who were later tortured, killed or taken to unknown destinations. Residents reported summary killings and the discovery of dozens of bodies. The UN rights office had documented more than 3,000 arrests and noted that while many had been released, an unknown number had ‘disappeared’. Investigators were planning to deploy on January 25th but were still waiting for a government response. On 22 January 2016, it was reported that a total of 728 people had died in demonstrations (41), armed clashes (333) and as a result of state violence against civilians (354).

Also, said the UN Human Rights Commissioner, at least 13 cases of sexual violence, in which security forces allegedly entered the houses of victims, separated the women and then raped or gang raped them, had been documented. One of the sexually abused women testified that her abuser told her she was paying the price for being a Tutsi. Another witness said Tutsis were being systematically killed, while Hutus were being spared. Tension between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis led to a civil war in Burundi in which 300,000 people died. It ended in 2005. The UN human rights chief warned of renewed violence between the two ethnic groups. ‘All the alarm signals, including the increasing ethnic dimension of the crisis, are flashing red’, he said. The future for Burundi in 2016, as we remarked in 2015 (in the second part of this series), looked bleak.

And indeed, in 2016, Burundi was again torn apart by conflict. Opposition supporters or those suspected of being supporters were arrested or went missing; and normal life was disrupted across the country as political unrest had its impact on lives and livelihoods. Almost half a million people were thought to have fled abroad in 2016. Figures provided by aid agencies working in the region suggested that on average, more than a hundred people a day had staggered across the Tanzanian border over the course of the year. They joined the 250,000 or so who were still spread across Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC in camps that were desperately overcrowded and short of food.

Most refugees had travelled at night, through scrub and forest, to avoid militias hunting down would-be defectors, who they brand traitors. Some of those intercepted were sent back with a warning, but many were assaulted and murdered. A report in The Guardian on 10 April 2016, suggested that

The government apparently hopes that, if it can stem the refugee crisis, an already distracted international community will find it easier to ignore problems within Burundi’s tight borders. The controls are so tight that tens of thousands of vulnerable people have gone into hiding inside the country, sheltering in forests or the homes of friends, rather than risk a crossing.

For those who did make it across the border, there was only the most basic protection in the ‘host’ countries. The shortage of funds and flood of new arrivals meant that refugee camps were packed, that food rations rarely stretched to more than one meal a day, and that women and children were subject to high levels of physical and sexual assault. Aid agencies reported that they expected to be supporting Burundian refugees for many years to come, even if the violence is halted within months.

Most of the refugees were wary of a military escalation inside the country and believed that foreign peacekeepers might be the country’s best hope of avoiding war. But among the camps of refugees and scattered exiles, a growing number of angry grieving survivors expressed a wish to return with a gun in their hands.

The perpetrators of many atrocities were said to be masked, anonymous men. But a group repeatedly named in stories of detention and harassment was the feared youth wing of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure. Their name means ‘those who see far’ in Kirundi, and they grew out of the same disbanded militia as the ruling party. Critics say they have never fully shaken off the mentality of war, although the government insists they are just a political group. They also appeared to be involved in reported efforts to turn the conflict into an ethnic one. With the government preaching hatred, there is a risk that Burundi could fracture further along ethnic lines, and an army at war with itself could drag the country back into full-blown civil war.

Meanwhile, President Nkurunziza declared that he intended to remain in office and, in December 2017, threatened people not to campaign against the changes to the constitution that his government was proposing to implement after a referendum in May 2018.

Towards a Referendum

Prior to the referendum, the BBC and Voice of America were banned from the country for six months; and Radio France Internationale (RFI) received a ‘warning’ about its coverage. Despite a presidential decree that threatened three years’ imprisonment for anyone convicted of encouraging people not to vote, the  Burundian opposition coalition, the Conseil National pour le Respect de l’Accord d’Arusha pour la paix et la Réconciliation au Burundi et la Restauration de l’Etat de Droit (CNARED) called on the people to boycott the referendum, which it accused of being the ‘death warrant’ of the Arusha Accords of 2000 which ended the Burundian Civil War.

Violence broke out ahead of the referendum planned for 17 May 2018.  It took various different forms. On 8 May 2018, residents of Kinama, a neighbourhood in northeast Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, found the body of a man floating in a field of rice. His head was missing and he heart had been torn out. Stuck to his chest was a message written in Kirundi, the language spoken by most Burundians, saying: ‘traitors are punished’. Three days later, on 11 May, 26 people were killed in Cibitoke Province the north-west of the country in an attack by rebels who crossed into Burundi from neighbouring DRC. Three days after that, and only two days before the referendum, an opposition activist who had been campaigning against the proposed change to the constitution was murdered in the street by a pro-government group of young militiamen.

These incidents are reflections of the political instability and climate of fear that characterizes Burundi today. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly documented widespread abuses by security forces and government-sponsored organizations. The EU and the US denounced intimidation, repression and harassment of opposition supporters in the run up to the referendum. Burundi’s government suggested that these charges were based on malicious propaganda spread by exiles. The independent media, both domestic and foreign, was, however, severely constrained. The BBC and Voice of America transmitters were shut down, Radio France was warned and most foreign publications were denied accreditation.

Inside Burundi, the church is one of the few institutions that have spoken out against the proposed constitutional change: ‘most citizens today live in fear, even if they do not say so aloud’, said Monseigneur Joachim Ntahondereye, president of the Burundian Council of Churches. But Aimé Magera, a spokesman for the National Liberation Forces (FNL), an opposition party, has also said, of the situation during the two-week electoral campaign: ‘we have been beaten, threatened, harassed and attacked. So many have been arrested it is impossible to count’. Many Burundians expected the proposed constitutional amendment to pass comfortably, no matter how they actually voted. Already, before the vote, the president had named himself the ‘Supreme Eternal Guide’ with the clear intention of staying on as president for the foreseeable future.

Towards an elected dictatorship

A referendum on the constitution was held in Burundi on 17 May 2018. The proposed amendments to the constitution, enabling Nkurunziza to extend his period of office, were approved by over 70 per cent of the voters after a high (96 per cent) turnout. Reports from polling stations said that some people were forced to vote to avoid being beaten or arrested. Suspected opponents were ‘killed, raped, abducted, beaten, and intimidated’, according to Human Rights Watch, which documented at least 15 killings, six rapes and eight abductions during voting day.

The changes approved by the electorate will reintroduce the post of Prime Minister and reduce the number of Vice-Presidents from two to one. They also involve increasing the presidential term from five to seven years, albeit restricting a president to two consecutive terms. However, the amendments would also allow the incumbent, President Pierre Nkurunziza, now in office since 2005, to stand for re-election, and could prolong his regime until 2034, despite his having already served three terms, on the questionable basis that he was not elected the first time, but appointed. The amendments also reduce the parliamentary majority required to pass legislation. It may be argued that this gives the executive greater flexibility to meet the challenges to come; but it surely represents a further erosion of democracy in Burundi.      

Also, a matter of concern is the gradual ethnic polarization of the army. It had been re-built under the Arusha accords with quotas for Tutsis and Hutus at all level of the officer corps, to win the trust of both groups. Yet many of the senior officers before 2005, most of whom were Tutsi, have been forced to retire or post abroad on peacekeeping missions in Somalia and the Central Africa Republic, some have been murdered. Meanwhile, rebels who served in Nkurunziza’s force – mostly Hutus – have risen up the ranks. The constitutional amendment opens up the possibility of doing away with ethnic quotas, allowing President Nkurunziza to make the army and police largely Hutu institutions. The implications of this are frightening.   

The rise of elected dictators across Africa

On 24 May, the main opposition coalition, which rejected the results of the referendum, called on the Constitutional Court to invalidate the outcome of the referendum, and the next day filed a petition to this effect. It seems highly unlikely that the referendum will be invalidated. A possible response from the opposition parties is the mobilization of their cadres and the population at large to protest against the consolidation of Nkurunziza’s regime. In which case, there is always a possibility of another outbreak of conflict.

There is also little chance of intervention from outside to mitigate what appears like a deepening political and economic crisis in Burundi, with the potential to turn into another ethnic conflict – and even genocide. On the same day that the opposition filed a petition to the Constitutional Court to reverse the outcome of the referendum or to declare it null and void, the UN Special Envoy for Burundi urged the government to re-start discussions with the opposition. But the influence of the international community is limited.   

Pressure at the regional level is also likely to be limited. The Tanzanian government played midwife to the Arusha accords yet, today, Tanzania itself is sliding into authoritarianism. Its president, John Magufuli, an ally of President Nkurunziza, has tried to force Burundian refugees back to their country of origin. Elsewhere, elected dictators, like Kabila in the DRC, Kagame in Rwanda and Museveni in Uganda, have all managed to ‘persuade’ their electorates to extend their terms of office – and Museveni has even abolished the presidential age limit of 75, which will allow him to run for a sixth presidential term in 2021.

Pre-existing constitutional two-term limits on the presidency have now been modified or eliminated in Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Chad, the DRC, Gabon, Rwanda, Togo and Uganda. In Eritrea, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Morocco, Somalia, South Sudan and Swaziland there is no constitutional two-term limit. Only in a few African states – Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Zambia – has the two-term limit been retained despite attempts to modify or eliminate them. In much of the West African Sahel and Central Africa, and in the Horn of Africa, elected dictators have managed to sweep aside the constitutional constraints on the duration of their regime, and many of these look set to retain power. It looks as though Nkurunziza, confirmed yet again as president of Burundi, will be another of these – unless there is a new wave of internal dissent and unrest.

David Seddon (criticalfaculty1@hotmail.co.uk) is a researcher and political activist who has written extensively on social movements, class struggles and political transitions across the developing world.

Featured Photograph: The aftermath of a grenade attack outside a bank in downtown Bujumbura, Burundi on 29 May 2015.


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