Can Peace and Democracy Prevail in Burundi?

Nearly one week after the Burundian president announced his intention to run in the upcoming presidential election – despite the constitutional prohibition on cumulating more than two terms  – tensions in Burundi remain worryingly high. Protests have rocked the capital, Bujumbura, every day this week, and the confrontation between the government and civilians who are saying “no” to a third term for President Nkurunziza is not showing signs of simmering down.

Over the course of the past week, the government has been responding to street protests forcefully. To date, at least seven people have been killed – including two police officers – and many more have been wounded. Witnesses have described the use of live bullets – in addition to tear gas – to disperse protests, an allegation which hasn’t been refuted by the government. The University of Burundi has been shut down, three radio stations have been forced to stop transmitting, and telecom operators have shut down access to social media networks (though some reports suggest that social media sites can be accessed via WIFI connections.) The government is attempting to justify these actions by depicting the current protests as an “uprising” against the government, thereby trying to legitimize the heavy-handed response. Earlier this week, a group of Burundian senators asked the Constitutional Court to issue an opinion on whether Nkurunziza’s new bid for the presidency is constitutional or not. But because these senators all represent the ruling party, there are concerns that this is yet another political move meant to further silence and entrench the opposition.

Many Burundians are not waiting for this tense situation to further escalate to flee the country. Around 20,000 Burundians have fled to Rwanda, and an additional 4,000 to the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is little to no infrastructure to receive this large influx of refugees, and it’s unclear when or how they will be able to return home. The United Nations, meanwhile, has re-established a Humanitarian Country Team in Burundi, and made an urgent request for US$11.6 million “for priority preparedness and response to the needs of up to 50,000 people most likely to be affected within the first eight weeks after elections.” In its recent update, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also raises the possibility of a worst case scenario, saying says that “350,000 people could be in need of humanitarian assistance within six months.”

Given the current situation, there are serious concerns that Burundi is on the edge of  losing the ground it gained since the end of the war.  With so much at stake for Burundi, and for the region, which cannot afford more instability, the United States dispatched Tom Malinowski, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, to Burundi earlier this week. His message to Nkurunziza was unequivocal: “We have urged the government not to let the situation get past a point of no return, because if that happens the gains of the last decade really will be at risk,” he told the Burundian leadership, adding there would be “consequences” if violence continued. With only one week left for aspiring presidential candidates to officially declare their intention to run with the national election commission, the next few days and weeks will be critical.