An idiot’s guide to the Burundi crisis

Thursday May 7 2015

A police officer walks past a burning barricade

A police officer walks past a burning barricade in the Cibitoke neighbourhood of Bujumbura on May 5, 2015. Protesters in Burundi dismissed a constitutional court ruling that cleared President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a controversial third term. AFP PHOTO | PHIL MOORE 

By DANIEL K. KALINAKI
More by this Author

Elections are about ballots, not bullets, so why are there riots in Burundi?

President Pierre Nkurunziza wants to stand in elections scheduled for June 26. Those protesting say he has already served two terms as required by the constitution and the Arusha Agreement and should go home.

Arusha? Isn’t that a town in Tanzania?

Yes. It is here that the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi was signed in 2000 to end a civil war in the country that led to the death of an estimated 130,000 people.

So if the law says two terms and he has served two terms why is this even being debated?

Well, the law is clear about the two terms. It also says that the president shall be elected by universal adult suffrage.

Mr Nkurunziza and his ruling CNDD-FDD party, however, say legislators, not the public, elected him for his first term, from 2005, and that it therefore doesn’t count.

Well, legal matters can be confusing so why don’t they ask the courts to interpret the law?

They have, indeed. The constitutional court ruled on Tuesday that Mr Nkurunziza’s first term was an exception to the two-term limit, and that he is eligible to run again for one more term.

That should settle matters, right?

Technically yes but in reality, no. One of the seven judges on the court and its vice-president, Sylvere Nimpagaritse, fled into exile in Rwanda a day before the ruling was delivered, citing threats against his life.

He said he and other judges had come under pressure from unidentified people in high offices to rule that the president is free to run again.

In any case, the opposition and civil society had already noted that the judges, who were all appointed by Mr Nkurunziza, were unlikely to be impartial and had rejected the ruling before it was delivered.

So why don’t they go on with the elections and defeat him?

The opposition is rather weak and divided, while President Nkurunziza has the advantages of incumbency and genuine support in the countryside behind him.

Their best bet is to run against a newcomer from the ruling party, not the incumbent. Some of the opposition parties are so weak, they would come second in a one-party race.

It sounds a bit risky for the ruling party to front a candidate whose eligibility is in question, isn’t it?

It is, but for the CNDD-FDD Nkurunziza was always the answer, regardless of the question.

That is a hard answer. Isn’t this supposed to be a simple guide?

Pardon, as they say in French, one of the main languages in Burundi. What I mean is that CNDD-FDD tried to have the constitution amended last year to remove the term limits.

The effort failed by one vote in parliament. So Mr Nkurunziza has harboured ambitions to stay in office for a long time now.

Aren’t there other politicians in CNDD-FDD interested in taking power?

There are many, or should I say were many, because many of them have been or fired for opposing a third term for President Nkurunziza.

The former head of the party, Hussein Radjabu, escaped from prison earlier this year after serving eight years of a 13-year jail term that he and his supporters claim arose from politically motivated charges.

I don’t remember reading about that. What else do I need to know that is important about this story?

The government of Rwanda has expressed concern over the insecurity in Burundi spilling over into its territory or giving the FLDR rebels, accused of involvement in the 1994 Genocide, a launch pad for renewed aggression on Kigali.

Almost 30,000 refugees have already fled into Rwanda and there are fears that the violence could turn into a wider geo-political matter.

Isn’t this an ethnic contest?

Not necessarily. The population of Burundi is about 85 per cent Hutu, 14 per cent Tutsi and about 1 per cent Twa. While Rwanda has done away with the ethnic labels promoted by the Belgian colonialists, Burundi uses them to determine its power-sharing formula.

The main political parties are alliances of Hutu and Tutsi factions and the contest is mostly between elite factions across ethnicities, not between rival ethnic groups. This could change if rivals fall back on ethnic biases to rally support.

So what is likely to happen next?

East African leaders will meet in Dar es Salaam on May 13 to hammer out a compromise. They are likely to propose the postponement of elections to allow for some calm to return to the country.

There are four possibilities: Mr Nkurunziza stepping down for another CNDD-FDD candidate; wearing down demonstrators and going ahead with the discredited election; or serving out a transitional period of 18 or so months to allow fresh elections and a new candidate to emerge.

You said four but those are only three…

Thought you were dozing off! Anyway, the army could always come in and take over power in a coup d’état to manage the transition back to civilian rule. It wouldn’t be the most popular choice but if the fighting continues it might emerge as the least-bad option.