Pierre Nkurunziza’s 2015 re-election for a third, unconstitutional term sparked a political and economic crisis marked by violent repression and deteriorated living conditions, pushing over 400,000 Burundians to flee the country. Evariste Ndayishimiye’s May 2020 election as Burundi’s new president has so far not lead to major political and economic changes, but he has reached out to regional and international actors, partly ending the country’s insularity, and thousands of those who fled following the 2015 crisis have returned. Through field-based research and engagement with government and foreign actors, Crisis Group aims to alert policymakers to the risk of ethnic polarisation. We advocate for respect of the 2000 Arusha agreement and renewed engagement with the Burundian authorities, conditional on respect for human rights, a functioning opposition and civil society, and independent media.
On 20 May, Burundians will elect a new president, future members of parliament and municipal councillors, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In this Q&A, Crisis Group looks at the various scenarios for the polls and the challenges that will face whoever prevails.
Ruling party continued to stifle opposition and armed forces launched offensives on Hutu rebels at border with Rwanda. In Karusi province’s Buhiga and Gitaramuka communes, ruling party CNDD-FDD youth wing Imbonerakure 14 March assaulted four members of opposition party National Congress for Freedom. In effort to reduce prison overcrowding, President Ndayishimiye 5 March issued presidential decree granting amnesty t0 over 5,000 prisoners, but left out many political prisoners detained over accusations of “participating in armed gangs” or “endangering security of the state”. NGO Human Rights Watch 8 March called on govt to drop charges and release eight former Burundian refugees – whom Tanzania forcibly returned in July 2020 – on trial for allegedly “attacking the integrity of the national territory and participating in armed gangs”; two additional refugees reported missing 6-7 March. In address to UN Human Rights Council, UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi 11 March acknowledged some steps taken by authorities to improve human rights record but concluded that current situation “too complex and uncertain to be referred to as genuine improvement”; Burundian representative decried briefing as “politically motivated”. Meanwhile, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up as part of 2000 Arusha peace accords and tasked with investigating past violence, 19 March presented results of its findings in Bururi province to parliament; results sparked mixed reactions as some accused Commission of focusing on killings of Hutu ethnic group members only. Amid recent diplomatic rapprochement with Rwanda, Burundian armed forces late Feb-1 March launched offensive against Rwandan Hutu rebel group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, remnant of Rwandan Hutu militia that killed much of the Tutsi minority and many moderate Hutu during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide; clashes in Mabayi commune, Cibitoke province left at least two rebels dead and 15 soldiers injured. Also in Mabayi commune, Burundian authorities 18 March arrested two civilians suspected of complicity with Kinyarwanda-speaking armed group.
As May elections approach, Burundi’s ruling party says it has stopped demanding payments from citizens to finance the polls. But the confiscatory practice persists. Bujumbura should move decisively to halt it as a prelude to wider-ranging improvement of governance in the country.
Three Great Lakes states – Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda – are trading charges of subversion, each accusing another of sponsoring rebels based in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Outside powers should help the Congolese president resolve these tensions, lest a lethal multi-sided melee ensue.
Talks about ending Burundi’s crisis – sparked by the president’s decision to seek a third term – have fizzled out. With elections nearing in 2020, tensions could flare. Strong regional pressure is needed to begin opening up the country’s political space before the balloting.
Au Burundi, le déclin de l’économie exacerbe le risque de violence. L’Union européenne et ses Etats membres, qui ont suspendu leur aide directe au gouvernement, doivent redoubler d’efforts pour que leur soutien bénéficie à la population.
Two years on, the Burundi crisis shows little sign of resolution. Political and ethnic polarisation are now tearing apart the integrity of the army, long seen as the primary achievement of the Arusha peace agreement in 2000 which brought an end to protracted civil conflict.
To reverse Burundi’s slide toward a devastating social and humanitarian emergency – as ethnically-charged rhetoric worsens and refugees flee to neighbouring countries – the African Union needs to overcome its internal divisions, fix a so far incoherent response and facilitate a negotiated settlement between the government and the opposition.
We should not expect spectacular reversals. Ndayishimiye is himself a product of the CNDD-FDD system and… must ensure the loyalty of the executives who were not necessarily in favour of his designation.
This could be a first sign that [Ndayishimiye] will be able to take decisions that will not blindly follow in his predecessor's steps.
[In Burundi] the government is pushing back on international pressure, trying to convince international actors that everything is alright. Meanwhile, its population is suffering in silence.
Mobile phones and social media maintain a link between many of Burundi’s constituent parts that appear steadily more remote and disconnected: the diaspora and the refugee camps, capital city and rural areas, Burundi and the rest of the world.
The only thing that's important now, the only card to play at the moment, is to try and convince the neighbouring countries to put pressure on Burundi [to end the escalating violence].
Le discours de Bujumbura est un piège qui se referme sur lui.
President Tshisekedi’s plans for joint operations with DR Congo’s belligerent eastern neighbours against its rebels risks regional proxy warfare. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to encourage diplomatic efforts in the region and Tshisekedi to shelve his plan for the joint operations.
African heads of state should press Burundi to open the political space, in particular letting opposition politicians campaign freely and safely and allowing in international observers, in order to prevent a reprise of past violence or worse.
Originally published in The East African
In 2019, the African Union faces many challenges, with conflicts old and new simmering across the continent. To help resolve these crises – our annual survey lists seven particularly pressing ones – the regional organisation should also push ahead with institutional reforms.