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AU Heads of State Summit needs to whip Nkurunziza back into line
AU Heads of State Summit needs to whip Nkurunziza back into line
People walk in a street in Bujumbura, Burundi, 14 May 2015. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Commentary / Africa

Burundi’s Crisis Not over Yet

Crisis Group Central Africa Project Director Thierry Vircoulon updates the unfolding developments in Burundi.

A 13 May 2015 coup attempt in Burundi led by Major-General Godefroid Niyombare collapsed after 48 hours. But the fact that key military units remained loyal to President Pierre Nkurunziza has not solved the crisis over his push to win a third five-year term in power. 

Crisis Group: What happened during the 13 May coup attempt? What do you understand about the situation on the ground? 

Thierry Vircoulon: The coup leaders took advantage of the fact that President Nkurunziza had travelled on 13 May to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for a summit of the East African Community (EAC). Ironically, the special meeting had been convened by regional heads of state to discuss the crisis in Burundi after three weeks of street protests in the capital city against Nkurunziza’s candidacy for the next election.

During the coup, there were at first signs of joy in the centre of Bujumbura, with people dancing and fraternising with military forces on the street. But the demonstrators did not take over the city centre, and the coup plotters were unable to rally enough military units behind them. When clashes between army rebels and loyalists started – and the only fighting seems to have been between different parts of the army – people melted away back home. General Niyombare’s rebellion also failed to win over public support from Burundi’s political opposition, even though they share the aim to prevent an unconstitutional third term for President Nkurunziza.

President Nkurunziza was able to return to the country. The coup is over. The coup-makers lost, and some of them have surrendered.

Who was behind the Burundi coup?

The coup was staged by Major General Godefroid Niyombare, a former army chief of staff, a former ambassador to Kenya and a former intelligence service head. General Niyombare is from the ruling party’s security elite who has become dissatisfied with President Nkurunziza’s rule. He is not the only disgruntled general, but is the most visible of them. Niyombare was dismissed by the president in February 2015 after he sent a personal note advising him not to run for a third presidential term. The coup plotters were basically a faction in the security services, mostly very much from within the ruling party’s inner circle.

In his statement justifying the coup, General Godefroid Niyombare claimed to be acting to save the Arusha agreement. Had it really broken down? Why is it important to preserve?

The Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, signed in 2000, eventually ended a long, ethnically charged civil war in 2005. Nkurunziza and the ruling elite have blocked the implementation of key provisions of the agreement – for instance, a transitional justice process – and have badly managed much needed land reform. They have also created a superficial opposition de façade in order to preserve the appearance of institutionalised power sharing. In fact, they have made no secret of their dislike for the Arusha peace agreement, nor of their intention to amend one of its principal achievements, the constitution. The constitution refers to the Arusha agreement, provides for a two-term limit for the president and makes a two-thirds parliamentary majority compulsory to pass a law. Nkurunziza’s attempt to change the constitution in 2014 failed by only one vote.

The Arusha agreement is widely considered to be the foundation for peace in Burundi. It created the present power-sharing system, which is seen by most Burundians as the best available, able to accommodate the country’s various political interests and making peaceful coexistence possible after a very long civil war that cost 300,000 lives.

What grievances motivate the protestors over the past month?

The demonstrators’ principal grievance – like that of the coup plotters – has been that President Nkurunziza was defying the constitution to run for a third term in the 26 June elections. On Wednesday morning, just before the attempted coup, even the Catholic Church had issued a statement appealing for him to drop this divisive ambition.

The problem is not just political. More than 100,000 Burundians have fled the country, fearing violence if Nkurunziza insists on this course of action. They are worried by increasing authoritarianism that marked the president’s second mandate, by the lack of social services and economic development, as well as by rising corruption.

How do the events of the week fit into the pattern of Burundi’s politics and civilian-military relations?

Burundi’s history has been marked by several bloodless military coups. In 1976, President Jean-Baptiste Bagaza took power in a bloodless coup but was himself the victim of another coup while he was in Canada in 1987. President Pierre Buyoya organised two coups, and after each stayed in power for several years (1987-1993 and 1996-2003).

How is Africa reacting?

Most African countries have waited to see how the situation plays out before offering a formal reaction. However, East African leaders condemned the coup after their 13 May summit. The attempted coup is principally an internal matter, the latest example on the continent of how any attempt by leaders to extend their mandates can trigger large and prolonged popular demonstrations and crises.

What is the danger now?

The Burundi crisis is not over with the failure of the coup. Many Burundians are scared and continue to leave the country as fast as they can.

As for those who supported the coup, the president has said that the soldiers who surrender will be forgiven and this should happen. However, past experience in Burundi raises serious concerns regarding an escalation of repression and the fate of those of who have surrendered.

Theoretically, legislative and municipal elections are scheduled for 26 May and the presidential election for 26 June. The president wishes to organise the elections as soon as possible but attempting to do so will only contribute to worsening the situation. The holding of acceptably free and fair elections is now impossible. The spokesperson of the opposition has called for the resumption of street protests this morning and street barricades have reappeared in the Musaga district of Bujumbura.

What should President Nkurunziza and the international community be saying and doing?

The first priority is to ensure that the aftermath of the coup attempt passes with as little new bloodshed as possible. If international mediators can do so, they should supervise the surrender of the coup-plotters and ensure that they are not executed.

President Nkurunziza should acknowledge that the country is in trouble and unity needs to be restored. He should not press for the elections to happen as long as political conditions for peaceful polls are not in place and the Burundian population does not feel safe. Burundi is not the success story it has been widely depicted as being, and must come to grips with its underlying problems. After this crisis and given the fast flow of refugees, this cannot be business as usual.

To put in place the right political conditions for peaceful elections, a roundtable of the Burundian political actors should be quickly convened. As soon as possible, the UN, the East African Community (EAC), the European Union and the African Union should send their representatives to facilitate the resumption of dialogue between the opposition and the government.

International actors should also demand the release of the many people arrested for taking part in the mounting demonstrations of the past weeks.

Op-Ed / Africa

AU Heads of State Summit needs to whip Nkurunziza back into line

Originally published in The East African

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.

Presidential elections in Burundi are less than a year away and a repeat of the violence that marred the last poll seems likely.

In April 2015, President Pierre Nkurunziza sparked months of mass protests and brutal repression when he sought – and later won – a contested third term.

Since then, Nkurunziza and the ruling party pushed through a referendum to change the Constitution, potentially enabling the president to stay in power until 2034. Nkurunziza says he will not stand, but with the vote looming, tensions remain dangerously high.

Today, with many expecting government interference in the ballot and the risk of confrontations rising, the AU should act.

Four years ago, the African Union denounced Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term and refused to observe the subsequent polls, calling for their delay because the conditions were not conducive to free and fair elections.

Today, with many expecting government interference in the ballot and the risk of confrontations rising, the AU should act.

African heads of state should press the government 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.

Already, there are worrying signs ahead of next year’s vote. Competition for power among ruling party cadres, although under the surface for now, remains acute.

Over 400,000 people fled to neighbouring countries following the 2015 violence and nearly 350,000 remain abroad. A small number of them have joined armed groups, which, although unable to have a strong impact, remain active in the region.

Opposition

In the country, the security services and the Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth militia, continue to crack down on the opposition, many of whose members have been attacked, arbitrarily arrested or killed, or have disappeared.

The National Congress for Liberty, long-time opposition leader Agathon Rwasa’s new party, has suffered a particularly ferocious assault.

Even the Catholic Church, the country’s primary moral authority, has come under verbal attack during government orchestrated protests. In February, the government forced the UN Human Rights Office to close its Burundian operations.

Meanwhile, uncertainty over Nkurunziza’s intentions adds a volatile element to the mix. Although he has said he will step down, many Burundians and international actors do not believe him.

Since 2015 and even before, senior officials, including in the army, have strongly objected to his presiding in perpetuity.

Indeed, this was a major cause of violence in 2015. If he does seek another term, he will face opposition from within the party and perhaps again on the streets.

This would increase the sense that the country is drifting ever further from the inclusivity enshrined in the 2000 Arusha peace agreement that brought an end to Burundi’s civil war.

Conversely, if he does not run, a likely scenario is a fierce struggle to succeed him within the ruling party. Intra-party competition in 2015 resulted in an attempted coup and subsequent violent crackdown.

Poll observers

After its initial firm reaction to Burundi’s violence and decision not to deploy observers for the 2015 vote, the AU became less involved.

That same year, it ceded responsibility for finding a solution to the crisis to the East African Community under the subsidiarity principle, whereby peace and security issues are dealt with at the most local level.

The EAC-led Inter-Burundi Dialogue, with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni as chief mediator and former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa as facilitator, tried – and failed – to mediate between the government and the opposition, both those in exile and those who remained in-country.

From the start of talks in May 2016, the Burundian government took an inflexible stance and remained intransigent throughout. The opposition eventually demonstrated greater willingness to compromise but to no avail.

For its part, the EAC, which was established to promote regional economic integration, was ill equipped and underfunded for a complex political mediation process.

Regional leaders, who were divided among themselves and did not see Burundi as a priority, gave Mkapa little support as he sought to bring the parties together.

The government did not even participate in the fifth and final round of talks, during which Mkapa drew up a roadmap to the 2020 elections that he presented as the basis for consideration by all parties.

If elections are to be more credible and peaceful, the government will have to compromise. At the very least, it should allow opponents – both those in the country and those currently in exile – to campaign freely in Burundi without intimidation, arrest or violence. It should also let external monitors observe preparations for the polls, voting and counting.

Smail Chergui, the AU’s Commissioner for Peace and Security, suggested during the UN Security Council meeting on Burundi on June 14 that the dialogue under EAC auspices resume as soon as possible.

Certainly face-to-face talks between the government and opposition could help build confidence. But in themselves they are unlikely to generate different results than previous attempts.

If such talks are to yield anything, the AU must press regional leaders to use all their influence to push Nkurunziza’s government toward a compromise.

This means that the AU itself engages at the highest level in both Bujumbura and neighbouring capitals. It should put additional pressure on Nkurunziza while encouraging regional leaders to do the same.

One important step would be to constitute an AU High-Level Delegation, similar to the one that visited Bujumbura in February 2016.

That delegation, comprising the presidents of Gabon, Mauritania, Senegal and South Africa, as well as Ethiopia’s prime minister, and authorised by the Assembly of AU Heads of State, visited Burundi only once.

Delegation’s mandate

The AU and others cannot remain unresponsive: they must do all they can to keep the Burundi crisis high on the international agenda.

Leaders should also extend the delegation’s mandate, either with the same members or a different composition, to focus on improving conditions for the 2020 elections and shoring up regional action on Burundi.

The AU should also ramp up its monitoring of Burundian politics. Since August 2015, it has deployed a small contingent of human rights observers and military experts in the country. It should negotiate with the Burundian authorities to dispatch more.

The AU team on the ground should monitor opposition politicians’ safety and evaluate electoral preparations, which may require the AU Heads of State to adjust the terms of reference.

The AU Peace and Security Council and the High-Level Delegation can use its reports to inform diplomatic efforts and help decide whether the AU should deploy election observers ahead of the 2020 polls.

Completely free and fair elections in 2020 are likely impossible. But with higher-level and more consistent and concerted African Union and regional engagement in the coming year, there is at least a chance to convince the government to allow the opposition to campaign free from harassment and for greater scrutiny of the vote. This would likely help avert a repeat of 2015’s tumult.

It would also preserve a degree of political pluralism, even if small, that might help prevent a worse slide into conflict. Most important, the AU and others cannot remain unresponsive: they must do all they can to keep the Burundi crisis high on the international agenda.

Contributors

Director of Africa Regional Advocacy
ElissaJobson
Deputy Project Director, Central Africa
PMvandeWalle