President Pierre Nkurunziza confounds world to prolong Burundi’s agony

Counting has started in Burundi’s fraudulent election despite an opposition boycott, continued protests and deaths on the street, and the refusal of the UN and AU to endorse it. The country has been in turmoil since April, when President Nkurunziza defied the constitution and sought a third term, triggering rioting which climaxed with a failed military coup last month.

The street movement known as “stop the third mandate” has not abated and Nkurunziza’s opponents say his decision to stand again violates the constitution as well as a peace deal that ended a civil war in 2005.  Burundi gained independence from Belgium in 1962 and almost immediately ethnic violence erupted between Hutu and Tutsi groups. As with neighbouring Rwanda the population had been divided into separate ethnic groups by the colonial power. According to the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi there is no distinguishing physical, religious, linguistic or colour characteristics yet individuals identify with one of three ethnic groups: Hutu, Tutsi or Twa.

The civil war began in 1993 following the assassination of Hutu president Melchior Ndadaye just four months after winning power. The war dragged on through the 1990s between the majority Hutu faction and the minority Tutsis. It was exacerbated by a blockade by neighbouring countries that crippled the economy. After 200,000 died in the conflict, the warring factions were finally brought to the peace table in 2000 and resulted in the signing of Arusha Agreement. At the time, more than 700,000 people were refugees – almost 10 per cent of its population.

However not all rebel groups signed the agreement. Some groups continued the armed rebellion as a three-year transitional government was established. In 2003 the government and the leader of the main Hutu rebel movement signed a peace accord in Dar es Salaam while a smaller rebel group was given three months to open talks or face consequences. While talks dragged on, the people of Burundi exercised their right to a democratic vote in 2005 for the first time in 11 years. Pierre Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel leader and born-again Christian, won a mandate to bring peace and prosperity to the region.

Nkurunziza was reelected in 2010 though the opposition boycotted the election. His second term was characterised by post-electoral repression, rising corruption, the shrinking of political space and authoritarian governance. Last year amid increasing paranoia, he banned jogging, fearing it was being used as a cover for subversion.

In late April this year, Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD party announced he would would run for a third term in the June 26 election. The announcement sparked immediate protests and claims a third term would be a violation of the country’s constitution. Police prevented many demonstrators from reaching the city centre, but there were numerous clashes in the suburbs, with police using teargas, water cannons, and live ammunition. The clashes went on for days with the government becoming increasingly intolerant.

In May General Godefroid Niyombare declared a coup announcing the dismissal of Nkurunziza and his government while the president was in Tanzania. Crowds packed the streets of the capital Bujumbura while rebel soldiers holding the airport forced Nkurunziza to return his flight to Tanzania. Loyalists remained in control of the presidential palace and state broadcaster. That night the head of army went on radio to call on rebels to surrender. There followed fierce fighting but the coup impetus failed and Nkurunziza came home 24 hours later. He went on air the following day to say the coup had been crushed.

Despite the end of the coup, violence persisted through May and June. Nkurunziza claimed the violence was ethnically-based and a throwback to the dark days of the civil war. On May 23, grenades were thrown into a Bujumbura market killing three and wounding 21. An opposition leader was murdered the same day causing opposition parties to end negotiations with the government.

Yet the violence did not stop planning for the election. There was a last minute hitch as one of the vice presidents Gervais Rufyikiri fled the country saying Nkurunziza’s candidacy was unconstitutional. The government then alleged Rufyikiri was involved in the coup as students sought protection in the US embassy. A day later the opposition announced they would boycott the election.
Nkurunziza’s likely victory will be hollow and not just because there is no opposition. Sanctions are adding to Burundi’s already formidable economic challenges. Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world with 70% of the population below the poverty line. In 2003 the World Bank estimated per capita annual income at $110. The UN ranked Burundi 169 out of 177 countries in the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) human development index.
The 2005 report of the Secretary General on the UN operation in Burundi (pdf) estimated that 90 percent of the population relied on subsistence farming for a living in a country which suffered three successive drought years. 68 per cent of the population are living below the poverty line. Much of the country is devastated with land mines. Meanwhile the disability and death rate from malaria, HIV/AIDS and other diseases remains high.
As the Kenyan Daily Nation said Burundi is disintegrating under Nkurunziza. “The international community can sit back and wait for the inevitable tragedy to unfold or step in to stop the slide to the brink, save lives, and restore political sanity before it is too late,” it says.
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