Copyright World Economic Forum/Eric Miller

Why We Should Be Paying Attention to Burundi Right Now

Update:  Since the post below was published two weeks ago, President Pierre Nkurunziza took the exact move that we warned could plunge the country into chaos.

Specifically, he was nominated as the presidential candidate for his CNDD-FDD party — meaning that he very much plans to run for an unconstitutional third term.

Almost immediately following the announcement, protesters took to the streets of the capital to express their  discontent. Over the course of the last few days, thousands of Burundians demonstrated in reaction to the announcement.

Police have been firing tear gas and water cannons at protesters, the army has been deployed, and at least six people were killed. The government has banned public protests, citing concerns about an uprising against it – but this hasn’t deterred protesters, who were still taking to the streets on Monday. While relatives of those who lost their lives claim that they were shot by security forces at close range, officials are saying they were killed by other demonstrators. Reuters reports that government ministers and security forces threatened to shut down a radio station that was critical of Nkurunziza – other radio station programs have been halted for similar reasons.

Meanwhile, thousands more people have crossed the border into Rwanda, fearing attacks and reprisals from the militarized youth wing of Nkurunziza’s party.  The UN Refugee Agency says Burundians are fleeing at a rate of 3,000 per day, up from 500 per day last week.

Against the backdrop of this rapidly escalating situation, the international community is warning Burundian authorities to respect the rule of law. The United States said in a statement that it deplores the president’s decision to seek a third term:

“The United States deeply regrets the decision by Burundi’s ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), to disregard the term-limit provisions of the Arusha Agreement by naming President Pierre Nkurunziza as its candidate for a third presidential term. With this decision, Burundi is losing an historic opportunity to strengthen its democracy by establishing a tradition of peaceful democratic transition.”

This is a fast moving situation. It is also a tragedy that could have been avoided had Nkurunziza opted not to stretch the limits of the constitution. The international community will come down hard on him.

Original post below.


Ahead of June presidential elections, times are tense in Burundi. This has never been the most stable of countries in the region–far from it. But recent political developments are threatening to plunge the country into conflict.

Burundi, which only recently escaped a cycle of violence and conflict, is today at a crossroads. Pierre Nkurunziza, a two-term president, is limited by the current constitution which does not allow heads of state to run for a third term. And while he has not yet officially declared he will run again, everything points to his intention to do so. This could lead to an outbreak of violence.

Thousands have already fled Burundi for Rwanda, for fear that the youth wing of the ruling party, the pro-government militia known as the Imbonerakure may let loose against their political opponents. This group has already been accused of extra judicial killings and politically motivated violence against civilians.

On Wednesday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein delivered remarks at a press conference in Bujumbura, the capital, sounding the following warning:

“The country is at a crossroads, and its future may well depend on which path is chosen by individual politicians and their supporters, as well as various key authorities, over the next few weeks: the path of free and fair elections which would strengthen and mature Burundi’s still fragile democracy, and enable an improvement in its dire socio-economic situation; or the path of violence and intimidation aimed at subverting democracy for the sake of gaining or maintaining political power.”

In recent times, Nkurunziza and the ruling party have been silencing the opposition, and shrunk the public space for free speech (as UN Dispatch reported last summer, for instance, even jogging groups were banned for fear that they were used as a cover for political activity). Human Rights Watch has been regularly reporting on the harassment and targeting of opposition activists and journalists, as well as, worryingly, on alleged extrajudicial killings committed by the Burundian armed forces. Furthermore, attempts at modifying the constitution to allow Nkurunziza to be on the ballot again in 2015 have worried Burundians, and the international community. The power-sharing agreement which allows for a careful balance of power at the helm of the state is being undermined by Nkurunziza and his actions, the price of which may end up being peace and stability in Burundi. 

While the government denies that the Imbonerakure has targeted civilians, it has set up a judicial commission to investigate the allegations. Meanwhile, however, thousands of Burundians have crossed the border into Rwanda. While fears can be stoked and blown out of proportion, the movement of thousands across borders suggests that the threat posed by the youth wing of the ruling party is very real indeed. Should Nkurunziza attempt to run again, there are serious concerns that any opposition or dissent will be shut down – or worse – by the militarized youth wing of his party.

Burundi is facing a serious litmus test. The country, which has made progress on the socio-economic front since the end of the war, still struggles with endemic poverty. The lack of opportunity in the small landlocked nation, and the disenchantment it creates particularly among young men, can create a dangerous situation. As Burundi is still trying to heal the lasting, deep wounds of war, in part through the establishment of a UN-backed Truth and Reconciliation Commission, holding free, fair and peacefuk elections is essential for the country’s continued progress.