President Nkurunziza’s April 2015 decision to run for a third, unconstitutional term sparked a wave of opposition and violent repression. His subsequent re-election in July 2015 has turned unrest into a low-intensity conflict that shows little sign of resolution. In this context, the economy and public finance are under stress and living conditions for Burundians have deteriorated. Over 400,000 Burundians have fled the country, while political and ethnic polarisation are affecting the integrity of the army. Through field-based research in Burundi and neighbouring countries, and engagement with both government and foreign actors, Crisis Group aims to reduce the risk of civil war, mass atrocities and a regional proxy conflict. We advocate for a credible, internationally-mediated national dialogue and a return to inclusive constitutional rule.
In the years right after apartheid fell, South Africa was a leader in continental diplomacy, brokering peace accords and bolstering multilateral institutions. Its role subsequently diminished, but today it is well placed to make a positive difference in several trouble spots.
Security forces launched deadly raids amid wave of harassment against opposition supporters ahead of general elections due in May, and military conducted cross-border operation in DR Congo against Burundian rebel group. Security forces and Imbonerakure, youth wing of ruling party CNDD-FDD, 3-15 Feb arrested tens of opposition supporters, including at least thirteen members of National Congress for Freedom (CNL) and two UPRONA members across several provinces. Imbonerakure 16 Feb violently prevented CNL members from attending party congress in economic capital Bujumbura where delegates that day chose CNL leader Agathon Rwasa to be party’s presidential candidate in May general elections. Authorities next day arrested nine CNL members in Ngozi province for taking part in congress. Security forces said they clashed with unidentified gunmen who attacked Kirombwe, Bujumbura rural province, 19 Feb; CNL 22 Feb described incident as “staged attack”, said police and Imbonerakure had since arrested 23 CNL members and beaten one to death; authorities 24 Feb said security forces killed at least 22 “wrongdoers” in week-long operations in Bujumbura rural province. Local civil society group said majority of those killed were CNL members. In other incident, after unidentified assailants 23 Feb reportedly killed Imbonerakure in Bururi province, police 24-26 Feb arrested eighteen, mostly CNL members. Unidentified assailants 26 Feb reportedly beat CNDD-FDD official in Muyinga province prompting Imbonerakure to attack home of CNL member, leaving three injured. Several political parties early Feb criticised electoral commission’s candidacy requirements which could prevent candidates from running for president. Govt mid-Feb refused to issue travel documents to six politicians in exile in Uganda, de facto barring them from returning to country. Military early Feb reportedly launched cross-border operation against Burundian rebel group RED-TABARA in South Kivu province in DR Congo.
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.
The current political crisis has reopened the wounds of Burundi’s past. Hardliners now dominant in the government brutally stifle dissent, fuel ethnic hatred, and undermine the Arusha accord that framed Burundi’s peace for the past decade. The international community should push toward real dialogue, and prepare to intervene if violence escalates.
[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.
C’est toujours la même rhétorique que le régime utilise comme réponse quand il est mis en cause à Genève, New York ou Addis-Abeba
Le régime burundais est en grande difficulté. Et le problème des gouvernements qui arrivent à bout d’arguments, c’est que ça mène à de plus en plus de violence.
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.
The constitutional changes, if passed, could reset the clock on term limits for President Pierre Nkurunziza — potentially giving him an additional 14 years in power — and paving the way for the dismantling of ethnic balances embedded in the 2000 Arusha Agreement, which brought an end to Burundi’s protracted civil war.