In Burundi, which most Americans think of as an exotic source of high-end coffee, the announcement from its president that he would seek a third term in violation of the constitution risks undoing a hard-won peace and recovery following the bloody ethnic violence of the 1990s and 2000s.
Saturday’s announcement, by current President Pierre Nkurinziza, that he would run for a third term in office, despite a constitutionally established two-term limit, has resulted in widespread protests. These have been met with state-sponsored police violence that has already resulted in dozens of deaths.
More ominously, on April 28, video emerged of a man claiming to be an older Rwandan fighter belonging to the Interahamwe, a Hutu militia that enjoyed the backing of the Rwandan government during the 1994 genocide. In it he claimed that he is in Burundi now because he has been “invited to help solve a problem.” Doubts about the authenticity of the video were raised when people who said they were family members claimed the speaker was French and mentally ill, but the damage may already have been done. Rumors often provoke atrocities, and the truth is often too late to bring back the dead.
Neighboring Rwanda’s violent history of genocide in the mid-1990s overshadows Burundi’s, but both countries share a tribal make-up of Hutus, Tutsis, and Twa, as well as a common national language. The alleged presence of Interahamwe fighters evokes fears of a renewed ethnic violence that could spiral out of control again.
Indeed, what began as widespread multiethnic political protest has taken a dangerous detour back towards Burundi’s recent violent history, with reports of indiscriminate police shooting in the predominantly Tutsi neighborhoods of Musaga and Ngagara on Tuesday night.
Following his nomination by the acronym-heavy ruling party, CNDD-FDD, the former guerilla movement that he successfully transitioned into a legitimate political party, Nkurinziza delivered a speech in Kirundi promising the most peaceful and successful elections in Burundi’s history, before making an ominous promise to combat the “stubborn-headed” opposition:
Let me reassure you—we just came from a meeting of the Security Council—whether they lie facedown on the ground or stand tall, they will never stop these elections from being successful. Those who would like to try and see, let them do so: we will correct them. Those who dare to oppose these elections are playing with fire. So, we will be there to mightily extinguish the flames. God is our witness!
Within hours of the president’s announcement, two protestors were murdered by party-backed police. Thousands of Burundians have since marched on the capital of Bujumbura, where they were met by tear gas, beatings, and bullets. Protestors woke Sunday morning to the news of the extrajudicial killing of two protest leaders overnight, in their own homes.
Despite the risk, Burundians continue to protest, and most businesses and schools are closed. Citizens outside the capital have staged demonstrations throughout the country.
Nkurinziza, a Pentecostal former aerobics instructor and rebel leader with his own presidential soccer team—his official state resume notes that he “scores regularly”—claims that the constitutional term-limits apply only to those elected by popular vote. The president served his first five-year term, which began in 2005, after winning a special joint vote of the National Assembly and Senate, ending a 12-years civil war.
Nkurinziza’s announcement has been met with near universal disapproval from the international community. The small east central African country the size of Maryland has been a key regional ally in the United States’ increasing presence in Africa’s Great Lakes Region, with a new embassy completed in 2013 at a cost of $133 million. But in a press release, the U.S. Department of State wrote,
We specifically call on the Burundian government to respect the rights of all peaceful political parties and their candidates to campaign, hold meetings and rallies, and express their views…. We renew our calls on all candidates, their supporters, and Burundian citizens to reject all forms of violence, and on the national police, the Burundian military, and all security force personnel to provide security in an impartial manner throughout the electoral processes.
Burundi’s 2010 elections were marked by irregularities, with most of Nkurinziza’s opposition withdrawing before the vote in protest of what they claimed was unfair polling. At the time, Bujumbura endured sporadic violence and the arrest of several opposition candidates and journalists, but the widespread vocal opposition manifesting itself already seems greater than those earlier protests.
On Tuesday Nkurinziza’s government blocked access to the most popular social media services, including Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, which had been used to share photos, video, and news as well as organize protest movements. The ruling party has already demanded the country’s three news radio stations not report on the elections or protests. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski will visit Burundi next Wednesday to speak to Nkurinziza, who has publicly stated that he will not be swayed in his determination to run for a third term.
If Nkurinziza refuses to allow peaceful protest and transparent democratic processes, more violence will follow, derailing the country’s ongoing recovery from the civil unrest of the 1990s and early 2000s. Regional and international allies must carefully watch events in Burundi, and must be prepared to intervene if violence continues to escalate.