A Ticking Time Bomb in Burundi

Burundi is facing its worst, most volatile political crisis since the end of the 12 year civil war in 2005.  By all accounts, Burundi has been making steady social, political and economic progress since the end of the conflict, which killed an estimated 300,000 people. But today, what’s happening in Burundi is not just a threat to peace, security and democracy in that country; it is a potential time-bomb that could have a very negative impact on the entire East African region.

Ever since the current head of state, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced his intention to run for an third term–which many viewed as unconstitutional– protesters have been taking to the streets almost every day, in an effort to have the president stand down from his reelection bid. The government has been portraying the protests and the ongoing unrest as an “insurrection,” in an attempt to legitimize ongoing police crackdowns on protesters and media critical of the ruling party. Mostly, though, they have been peaceful.

All lights are blinking in Burundi. All alarms are going. So where’s the fire brigade,” Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council and the former top humanitarian official for the United Nations, said at a news conference in Geneva.

Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court, which was asked by ruling party parliamentarians to review Nkurunziza’s bid, declared that his candidacy was legitimate, putting the opposition in a very delicate position. Should opposition candidates run in the election, thereby condoning Nkurunziza’s campaign, or risk having no voice at all by staying out of the process? The deadline for candidates to file their intention to run was this past weekend, and there are now eight contenders to the presidency in Burundi. As the election itself fast approaches, the candidates’ campaigns will rev up rapidly.

Will these candidates, including popular opposition figures such as Agathon Rwasa, and former heads of state  Domitien Ndayizeye (2003-2005) and Sylvestre Ntibantunganya (1994 – 1996), be able to defeat the incumbent?

Nkurunziza, for his part, seems quite confident that the election will go smoothly, noting that “99% of the country is peaceful“, and continuing to deploy armed forces to quell the unrest in the streets of Bujumbura. The international community, however, does not see the situation in the same light. President Kagame of Rwanda urged Nkurunziza to take responsibility, ahead of a regional summit later this week to address the situation in Burundi. With Rwanda hosting over 20,000 Burundian refugees already, with hundreds crossing the border each day, the neighboring country’s own stability could be in jeopardy. Regionally, the consequences of an aggravated Burundian conflict, with the humanitarian impact it carries, could be a catastrophe. The African Union has dispatched a high-level team to Bujumbura, while Belgium has suspended its aid to Burundi.

The severity of the situation in Burundi should not be underestimated. Refugee flows are staggeringly high, having almost doubled in the last 10 days to 40,000, amid reports from the United Nations that the militarized youth wing of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure, are painting red marks on the homes of people to be targeted. At least 19 have been killed since people began taking to the streets a couple of weeks ago, hundreds have been arrested and detained in conjunction with the  protests. Chronic post-independence instability has made the path to sustainable peace challenging for Burundi, even though Burundians have worked hard to get their country on track, particularly following the deadly, devastating war. The current crisis, as much as President Nkurunziza is trying to downplay it, poses a severe threat to the continued progress and advancement of Burundian society.

The international community is on high alert, and while the global media lights aren’t shining bright in Burundi yet, if they do, it may be because we will be bearing witness to another deadly, generalized conflict in Burundi.