Understanding the Crisis In Burundi

By Roland Rugero

Although the media’s coverage of the current crisis in Burundi has focused on the debate over a third term for President Pierre Nkurunziza, this is merely an easy-to-sell substitute for the real issues at stake. The matter of constitutional interpretation over term limits does have a role in Burundi’s political drama, but more important are questions of the president’s power within the ruling party and the direction of Burundi’s socio-economic development.

The failed coup d’état on May 13 was a turning point in the crisis, and it can help us understand the current dynamics. Nkurunziza’s weak leadership over the past 10 years and a misinterpretation of the power relationships in Burundian politics led many people to believe that they could easily do without the president. By overthrowing him, they thought they could kill two birds with one stone: reinforce the American principle of a two-term limit in Africa, and promote the emergence of a different kind of politics in Burundi, with “visionary” leaders such as the Second Vice President Gervais Rufyikiri.

But far from advancing the cause that its instigators claimed to defend, the failed coup strengthened the presidential camp and served as a pretext for renewed hope within its ranks and within the army.

While the high-ranking military officers and Burundian police involved in the coup announced Nkurunziza’s ousting on the radio and tried to rally more army commanders, an inverse movement was happening in the north of the capital, in Kamenge. All of the high-ranking military officers that had been part of National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) during its former rebel phase, whether they were for or against a third term for Nkurunziza, converged at a bar called “Iwabo w’Abantu” (literally, “The Place of Humans”), owned by General Adolphe Nshimirimana. “Adolphe” is a hero of the popular armed Hutu resistance in the days following the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye, the first democratically elected president of Burundi, in 1993. He symbolizes, almost in a mystical fashion, the armed fight within the party and beyond.

Witnesses say that they saw a large number of former underground leaders show up at the bar on May 13 looking grave. The meeting had been instinctively called by the CNDD-FDD’s military hierarchy, as in previous times of rebellion. A few hours after the announcement of the coup, an order came from Iwabo w’Abantu to remove all police from Bujumbura, letting members of the army who were faithful to Nkurunziza enter the capital. Their fight against the troops that backed General Godefroid Niyombare would leave more than 70 dead— mainly from the rebel side, which lacked logistical support. The order also allowed the central power to maintain control of strategic points such as the airport, the central bank, and the presidential palace. “We were ready to split the capital in half to keep control of the country,” said one anonymous officer who participated in the meeting.

In fact, the attempted coup pitted two ideological factions against each other within the ruling party. On one side are the “progressives” represented by Niyombare, the leader of the coup and first Hutu chief of staff in the history of the country. Backed by the West, the progressives blame the current crisis on Nkurunziza’s wanting to seek a third term at all costs, contrary to the Peace Accord of Arusha and the Burundian constitution.

On the other side, the “conservatives” rally behind Nshimirimana, for whom the current crisis goes far beyond a simple difference in the reading of the constitution. A central concern of this faction is the progressives’ close ties with Rwanda, which indirectly accuses Nkurunziza’s government of preparing a genocide similar to that of 1994, utilizing the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Imbonerakure (the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD). The conservatives, and Nkurunziza, are supported by Russia and China.

Many analysts make the mistake of thinking that the departures of CNDD-FDD personalities like the second vice president Gervais Rufyikiri or the President of the National Assembly Pie Ntavohanyuma (both supported by the “progressive” wing) affect the party. As long as the majority of the military establishment, most of whom are unknown to the media, are behind Nkurunziza, the whole party and the Burundian military will support him. In light of nascent rebellions like the one declared last week on the Burundi-Rwanda border, it is unrealistic to imagine that a swift attack could remove the power of Bujumbura and drive out Nkurunziza.

Since the CNDD-FDD has a very present military history and a process of political legitimacy based on the aggregate support of former generals (the candidate supported by the most popular generals wins the party’s election), Nkurunziza emerged from the crisis victorious.

There is a last element that reinforces the extra-constitutional dimension of the crisis. The repeated and often overblown accusations of massacres which the Imbonerakure have committed or could commit reinforce among many Hutu, regardless of their political orientation, the idea that there is a concerted effort to link the current political context in Burundi to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. This could then be used to legitimize Rwandan military intervention in the name of the “responsibility to protect.”

This situation has made Tanzania and South Africa change their reading of the crisis. After the failed coup, these two regional powers shifted from considering only the legalist dimensions of the conflict to adopting a more geopolitical interpretation of their involvement. When the municipal and legislative election results were announced on July 7, with the CNDD-FDD winning 77 percent, they were condemned by the U.S. and the EU, but endorsed by Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa.

In the spirit of analysis, it is revealing that not a single Western ambassador was present in the room during this announcement, but those from Russia and China were. In the end, the failed coup did little to resolve the question of term limits, but it did put Burundi back in the center of fights for regional influence between the West and the Russia-China axis. As this global struggle plays out, it is important to understand that the conflict is about more than a question of constitutional interpretation.



Roland Rugero is a Burundian writer and journalist. 

This piece was translated from French by Nellie Peyton.

[Photo courtesy of GovernmentZA]

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