Why We Ought to Start Paying Attention to Burundi

Rarely does the small Central African country of Burundi get much international attention. However recent developments aimed at restricting political freedom ahead of scheduled national elections next year highlight not only the need for international attention, but greater international engagement if Burundi is to escape the cycle of civil wars and ethnic politics that has defined much of its history since independence.

Much like its northern neighbor Rwanda, Burundian politics have been shaped by ethnic divisions and the legacy of bad colonial policies since independence. However, while in Rwanda the majority Hutu maintained power and control over the minority Tutsi, in Burundi the opposite took place with the minority Tutsi holding onto power through the military and oppressing the majority Hutu. Mass killing became common following independence in 1962 as Hutus and Tutsis alike attacked each other to gain a stronger foothold in national politics. By the time Burundi adopted a new constitution in 1992 that established a multiparty democratic system, an estimated 250,000 people had died. But rather than bring peace and stability to the country, the new constitution led to even more mass killings and a civil war that killed another 300,000 people before its drawn out end.

A series of peace talks led by African nations finally led to a set of agreements aimed at bringing Burundi out of civil war, disarming the various rebel groups and establishing a viable democratic government. The UN supported this effort with a peacekeeping operation until multiparty elections were held according to the new 2005 constitution. Pierre Nkurunziza, leader of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) – the largest Hutu rebel group during the civil war and the ruling political party at the time of the 2005 constitutional referendum –  became president after being elected unopposed by parliament acting as an electoral college in an extraordinary election.

In becoming president, Nkurunziza inherited one of the poorest countries in the world with a war-weary population in need of desperate revival. While Burundi has made impressive strides in maintaining peace and has yet to return to civil war, Nkurunziza’s reign has still been marked with controversy that suggests all may not be well in the small country. In particular, the government has increasingly shown disdain for human rights and hostility towards civil society and the media. Several journalists and civil society leaders have been imprisoned in recent years for criticizing the government and raising objections to growing corruption while the government has also passed laws restricting freedom of the press and freedom on assembly.

In one of the more bizarre developments, last month the government banned jogging with other people in the capital of Bujumbura claiming that such jogging groups could be used to foment uprisings through unlicensed protest demonstrations. The city’s decision came after a court sentenced 21 opposition supporters to life imprisonment after police attempted to raid a jogging group they believed was being used as a front for political activity. Clashes ensued, more than 70 were arrested, and now all sporting activity in the capital is constricted by the government to 9 city parks that are closely monitored by authorities. This seemingly absurd development in a country with much larger problems than jogging groups is just one more sign of a shrinking public space and an increasingly paranoid executive.

But even as Nkurunziza’s paranoia about potential enemies increases, so does his quest for greater power. The 2005 constitution allows for two five-year terms as president; Nkurunziza’s second term will end next year in 2015. That has not stopped him from trying to force an interpretation of the constitution that would allow for a third term as his first election was by extraordinary vote in parliament and not by universal suffrage.  His attempts at this interpretation are concerning, but more distressing are the constitutional amendments he is trying to put in place in the meantime. Among the proposed changes are the abolishment of the two positions of vice president – which is held by one Hutu and one Tutsi for ethnic balance – in favor of a ceremonial vice president and a powerful prime minister. For parliament, Nkurunziza is proposing changing the mechanism for passing laws in parliament to require a simple majority instead of the current two-thirds supermajority and restricting parliamentary representation to only parties that gain at least 5% of the overall vote. All of these proposed changes threaten the delicate ethnic balance achieved in the 2005 constitution as it would almost inevitably push many Tutsis out of power and leave them unrepresented on the national level. Another proposed change would limit only those with university degrees from being able to run for president, coincidentally excluding some key opposition figures who are expected to run for election next year.

So far attempts to pass these amendments have failed; last month parliament failed to pass the revised constitution by just one vote shy of the four-fifths majority needed after the opposition boycotted the vote. But Nkurunziza and CNDD-FDD’s insistence on these changes, now through a proposed popular referendum, is already alarming many groups inside and outside the country. Several civil society groups within Burundi are warning of what could come if political tempers do not calm down while the UN and the USA have cautioned Burundi against taking actions that could stoke political violence. So far such warnings have fallen on deaf ears; last week the government expelled a UN official after the UN Office in Burundi released a report alleging the CNDD-FDD was arming its youth wing, known as the Imbonerakure, ahead of the elections. Despite denying the allegations, numerous civil society groups have noted an increase in political violence by the Imbonerakure, particularly against opposition supporters.

All of this portends difficult days ahead for Burundi. Constantly overshadowed by Rwanda, Burundi nonetheless has the ability affect stability in a region where few crises stay within national borders. Yet it comes at a time when the international community is trying to disengage from the country. At the end of this year, the UN Office in Burundi is slated to be shut down, ending more than a decade of support for the country as it transitioned out of civil war. Recent events show that Burundi may not be ready for that and unless the international community takes a greater role in advancing reconciliation and political stability, a new civil war may not be that far off.