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.
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.
Amid ongoing harassment of opposition supporters, violent clashes between security forces and ruling party CNDD-FDD’s youth wing, and main opposition party National Congress for Freedom (CNL), raised risk of escalation around general elections still planned for 20 May despite COVID-19 pandemic. Civil society mid-April condemned wave of arbitrary arrests of CNL members in several provinces since early April. CNL supporters and Imbonerakure, youth wing of CNDD-FDD, 8 April clashed in northern Kayanza province, one Imbonerakure killed; police next day arrested up to 30 CNL supporters there. Unidentified assailants 11 April killed local CNDD-FDD secretary in Kiremba commune, northern Ngozi province; authorities next day arrested ten party members on suspicion of involvement in attack. Clashes between CNDD-FDD and CNL supporters 19 April left six injured including CNDD-FDD regional secretary in Kirundo province in north. Police 28 April arrested CNL parliamentary election candidate for southern Makamba province over suspected involvement in previous day attack on Imbonerakure in Ngozi province. After first VP Gaston Sindimwo 7 April confirmed general elections planned for 20 May would go ahead despite COVID-19 pandemic, govt 15 April cancelled participation of diaspora in elections, citing insufficient capacity of electoral commission to organise voting abroad amid crisis. Campaign started 27 April. During raid in Bururi province in south, police 15 April reportedly killed three people, including former army officer Pascal Ninganza (alias Kaburimbo), suspected of having provided military training to demonstrators during 2015 anti-govt protests; civil society condemned extra-judicial killings. Military and Imbonerakure crossed into neighbouring DR Congo’s South Kivu province late March-early April to allegedly combat Burundian rebel groups in Mulenge locality. Congolese military 3 April detained three Burundian nationals suspected of stealing weapons in South Kivu province. Govt forces 26-27 April reportedly clashed with Burundian rebel group RED-TABARA in South Kivu’s Uvira territory; rebels claimed five govt soldiers killed.
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.
[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.