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.
Govt continued diplomatic offensive as part of effort to alleviate country’s isolation; clampdown on opposition and civil society persisted. Authorities 2 April lifted June 2019 ban on independent NGO PARCEM in apparent move to respond to EU’s demands for improvements in human rights and media freedom. Govt and EU 9 April held second round of negotiations on normalising relations, including lifting EU sanctions and resuming direct financial support; EU invited Burundian FM Albert Shingiro for European tour, which started 26 April. Amid rapprochement with Rwanda, govt 2 April welcomed Kigali’s late March decision to suspend three Burundian radio stations, which had been operating from Kigali since 2015 political crisis in Burundi, said move showed “dialogue [with country] was not in vain”. AU Peace and Security Council 27 April met to discuss possible shutdown of Human Rights Observers and Military Experts Mission in Burundi; decision expected early May. Meanwhile, authorities continued to harass opposition and civil society. In Rumonge province, authorities 11 April arrested opposition party Union for National Progress youth leader over accusations of hosting unauthorised gathering and 14 April arrested civilian for allegedly cooperating with rebel group. Authorities 13 April decried as biased U.S. State Dept’s annual report on human rights, published late March, which recorded at least 205 extrajudicial killings in Burundi in 2020 and highlighted “widespread impunity for govt and ruling party officials and for their supporters and proxies”. Main opposition party National Congress for Freedom (CNL) next day called on govt to release 15 CNL members who have been imprisoned for almost a year on accusations of threatening security around May 2020 general elections. Former Defence Minister Maj. Gen. Cyrille Ndayirukiye 24 April died in Gitega prison, where he was serving life sentence for allegedly playing central role in 2015 coup attempt. Authorities 26 April released first 3,000 of over 5,000 detainees who were granted presidential amnesty in March in bid to alleviate prison overcrowding.
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.