Ending the crisis in Burundi: What to remember and keep in mind

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The failure of some policymakers to consider Burundi’s history has led to a number of policy false starts

Following peaceful protests against a contested third term of the president, violence has once again escalated in Burundi. Efforts to end the crisis will continue to fail if they ignore the country’s history and its political landscape.

In January 2016, the African Union (AU) held its 26th Summit in Addis Ababa with the Burundi high on the agenda; specifically whether the AU would authorize the deployment of an African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU) despite the vehement opposition of the government. After hours of discussions amongst the heads of states MAPROBU was categorically rejected without Burundi’s consent. Instead, the AU sent a high-level delegation to engage in consultations with the Burundi government and other actors, and to encourage the government to welcome the MAPROBU deployment.

The initial push to deploy a peacekeeping mission in Burundi followed the worst episodes of violence in the ongoing political crisis triggered in April 2015 when the National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy’s (CNDD-FDD) announced that President Nkurunziza’s would again be the party nominee despite the Constitution and the Arusha Agreements both limiting presidential terms to two.[1] The ruling party argued that because President Nkurunziza was first elected by indirect vote, he was eligible for another mandate by universal suffrage.

Following several peaceful protests, violence in Burundi has escalated. On 11 December 2015 rebels attacked four military camps around Bujumbura. The next day, residents found dozens of corpses scattered in the streets. Witnesses claimed that security and defense forces summarily executed young people in opposition neighborhoods and arrested hundreds. The African Union Peace and Security Council (AU PSC) responded to this violence by giving the Burundian government 96 hours to accept the deployment of an AU peacekeeping force. The government refused, with President Nkurunziza stating that any AU deployment without the government’s consent would be considered a hostile invading force and would be treated as such.

While the PSC’s push for the peacekeeping mission appeared to demonstrate the AU’s resolve, it faced major obstacles. First, deployment without Burundi’s acquiescence would required a two third majority of the heads of states, a tall order considering the principle of non-interference: this would have been the first time in AU history that the organization deployed military force without the host country’s consent. Secondly, even if the AU had secured two third of the vote, owing to the supremacy of the UN charter over regional instruments, it would still need approval from the United Nations Security Council.

Policy False Starts

The failure of some policymakers to seriously consider Burundi’s history and its political landscape has led to a number of policy false starts. International stakeholders have focused on the ethnic dimension of post-transition Burundian politics and not the intra-ethnic power struggle between Hutu actors that characterised the early post-transitional years. Indeed, from the dismissal of 22 CNDD-FDD deputies following the arrest of once party chairman and strongman Hussein Radjabu to the relentless dismantling of Agathon Rwasa’s National Forces for Liberation (FNL) to weaken its political base, much of the initial political competition took place between the Hutu political elite and inside the ruling party.

Lack of democratic consolidation within the ruling party created divisions that challenged President Nkurunziza and his circle of power early in his second term. The March 2015 revolt by the frondeurs of the CNDD-FDD opposed to Nkurunziza’s third mandate was a manifestation of long brewing frustrations at the heart of the party. Discontent in the CNDD-FDD has led to the defection of key political and military actors now part of both the political and armed oppositions.

Still, the current crisis has increased Tutsi participation in the extra-parliamentary opposition, with dire consequences for the Tutsi community.

There is no denying the increasing violent government rhetoric against the Tutsi and the rising number of Tutsi victims of political violence. Moreover, cross-ethnic nature of the opposition, while still real, is waning as the participation of Rwasa in government institutions has led some of his remaining supporters to shift away from active opposition.

The Crisis is Burundian

However, recalling Burundi’s history of political violence, stakeholders should not conflate the ethnic dimension of the Burundian civil war and a repeat the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. This crisis is entirely Burundian. Thus as in previous violent periods such as in 1972 and 1993, state security agents engaged in the bulk of violence in Burundi assisted by youth militias. Equally, the trajectory of the Republican Forces of Burundi FOREBU), one of the rebel groups, has interesting similarities to the evolution of the CNDD rebellion prior to the civil war. Yet the absence of Rwanda-style genocide should not be an excuse for complacency. Should the dynamics change to give way to massive ethnic conflict, with no political or peacekeeping presence on the ground, the UN would not be equipped to respond appropriately and in a timely manner.

The Nkurunziza regime has had years to learn how to avoid serious political repercussions for its bad behavior. Arguably, there is little new to the ruling party’s behavior that has likely been facilitated by years of international complacency. The CNDD has closed the political space and neutralize enemies as it did in 2010, when it used harassment, intimidation and arrests of opposition members to weaken political rivals, the press, and civil society organizations. Then as now, the international community, while taking note of the pre-elections repression declared the elections to be free and fair.

Similarly, between 2010 and 2011, the government retaliated violently to insurgency threats from parts of the opposition and violently dismantled FNL networks, with international organizations reporting acts of torture, disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and other massacres. And yet, in 2012, the government was able to secure a step increase in donor assistance, surpassing initial government targets. “In return the Burundian government promised to respect democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

Lack of Commitment

Similarly, the government failed to implement key provisions of the roadmap it agreed to in 2013. In March of that year, the United Nations brokered a tentative rapprochement between the opposition and the ruling party at a workshop between the opposition and the ruling party where all participants agreed on a 42-point roadmap to prepare for elections in 2015. Yet, with no implementation mechanisms, the ruling party violated several of its commitments, notably on the promotion of conditions for inclusive, free and fair elections and refraining from attempts to unilaterally change the constitution.

Thus unsurprisingly, in the past year the regime has made a number of commitments for genuine and inclusive dialogue with the opposition, only to renege, or abiding to the letter but not the spirit of its engagements. When the condemned for its handling of a disarmament program in November 2015, the regime softened its approach under mounting scrutiny. But a month later, following the rebel attacks on military positions the government allegedly engaged in disproportionate retaliation and numerous extrajudicial killings. Only after AU threats of MAPROBU deployment did they demonstrate willingness to resume mediations in Uganda on 28 December, which have since stalled.

The Burundi government has been equally unresponsive to regional and international efforts towards peace and reconciliation, and competing foreign policy imperatives have divided regional heads of states. Consequently, it is very possible that the government believes that continued intransigence will pay again.

Ways out of the Crisis

Still, there has been some positive movement. The government appears to have relaxed its stance against independent media by allowing two important independent stations destroyed following the coup attempt of May 2015 to broadcast again, if under strict government conditions. The government has also removed 15 prominent opposition members, civil society leaders, and journalists from an international arrest warrant. Moreover, following a recent visiting by the AU’s high-level delegation headed by South African President Jacob Zuma, the government accepted the deployment of 100 human rights and 100 military observers, in keeping with the AU PSC communiqué of October 2015.

Still, these may also be attempts to temporarily appease the international community. Indeed, for its recent intransigence, Burundi in March lost direct government funding from its main development partner the EU, which is also considering sanctions as a result of unsatisfactory consultations based on Article 96 of the Cotounou Agreement, further threatening the already deteriorating economy.

The pressing question is whether the government will fully implement its promises and move towards genuine, inclusive dialogue with other actors. Notably, the government adamantly refuses to engage with the political opposition in exile. Moreover, despite series of agreements made during the AU high-level delegation visit, Burundi’s foreign minister rejection AU’s final communiqué on the said mission casts doubt on the government’s resolve.

There are other forces that could negatively impact peace and security in Burundi. The armed opposition, with its nebulous ties to some members of the political opposition, also contributes to domestic and regional instability. Confrontations in the streets of Bujumbura have resulted in numerous innocent victims. Serious allegations that Rwanda may be involved in recruiting and training rebels raise questions around the dynamics between governments and non-state armed groups in the Great Lakes, possibly contributing to an escalation of violence in Burundi, given the legacy of such relationships in the region.

Similarly, while the main political actors have not changed much since the war, the onus is on the opposition in exile to ensure it engages in mediation for the good of all people and not solely for individual political aspirations, especially including stakeholders such as youth and women.

As it stands, Bujumbura continues to dictate the pace and trajectory of mediation to the detriment of all involved. Thus, the longer stakeholders delay decisive engagement with Burundian actors, the more likely we are to see permanent losses to the post-Arusha gains.


[1] Midwifed by two of Africa’s most renowned leaders – Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela – ideationally at least, the Arusha Agreement of 2000 has near-constitutional status in post-conflict Burundi. In Article 3 it provides “any belligerent parties… continuing their belligerent activities against the people of Burundi, or any section of them, the violent acts of such parties will be deemed to constitute an attack on all the Parties comprising this national platform for the Burundian people, as well as on this endeavour to establish an inclusive democratic Burundian state”. As such, for Burundians, the Arusha Agreement represents more than political détente. It is the spirit and will of the people, exhausted by generational conflict, carving out their hopeful path for the future.