Burundi at the edge of war? by Archie Henry

After 2 months of pre-election violence—street battles between protesters and security forces, grenade attacks, assassinations of political opponents, retaliation killings of ruling party militiamen, intimidation of independent media and civil society activists, a failed coup and a mass exodus of more than 100,000 refugees across the region—Burundi now enters a particularly uncertain phase: election period. Burundi has been on the international radar since April 26th, when President Nkurunziza’s attempt to run for a third term became official, creating waves of discontent across Bujumbura and subsequently other parts of the country.

As the situation remains volatile, Burundians went to vote on Monday in the first round of elections—parliamentary and communal. After pressure from a wide range of international actors, the Burundian government agreed to delay polls in order to create a more conducive environment for elections to take place. However, the chosen delay of 2-3 weeks was not in line with the East African Community’s call for at least 45 days and presents no guarantees for smooth and transparent elections in a context of pervasive insecurity. Because of this, the African Union decided to withdraw poll observers, imitating the EU a few weeks earlier. On Friday, the opposition declared a full boycott of the electoral process and anti-third term civil society called on the population to boycott polls as well.

Even though protests have greatly diminished in size over the last few weeks, violence persists on a daily basis, and observers argue it is in fact intensifying. In fact, new forms of violence have arisen: grenade attacks in broad daylight, attacks on election offices to sabotage/destroy electoral material, and continuous gunfire and explosions at night in the capital Bujumbura.

Nocturnal violence has become routine, with police entering in protest strongholds such as Cibitoke-Mutakura, Ngagara, Nyakabiga, Musaga, and Kanyosha. But what’s actually going on in those neighborhoods at night? Witnesses say that police fires indiscriminately at people, sometimes inside their homes, in order to terrorize and further quash the anti-Nkurunziza movement. It seems that such a strategy has been paying off for security forces—violent raids into neighborhoods have had a notable impact on the protest movement by instilling a sentiment of fear among protesters that their actions during the day may be severely punished at night.

But what can explain the length and intensity of gunfire, sometimes lasting throughout the entire night in some areas? As casualties are reported in the morning and families grieve their loved ones, the sentiment that a “massacre” has occurred is dominant. Witnesses also argue that the sounds of sustained gunfire indicate a battle between different sides. Indeed, is it possible that protesters are getting armed, that the protest movement is in fact radicalizing—a form of popular resistance against police raids?

Local observers suggest that FNL supporters are in fact already armed and fighting police in violent night battles, particularly in the neighborhoods of Kanyosha and Musaga. Formerly a Hutu rebel movement competing against Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD during the civil war (1993-2005), the FNL (National Forces of Liberation) is today one of the strongest opposition parties in Burundi. Its de facto leader, Agathon Rwasa, has tried to restore a positive image of himself in the pre-election period given his international reputation as a bloody rebel commander. But during the protests he hinted at the possibility that civilians will take up arms if police brutality did not stop. Given the FNL’s past in the bush, experience in recruitment and mobilization, and supporters’ frustration at Nkurunziza’s third-term “push,” it is certainly possible to see the organization become further involved in the weeks to come, providing arms to its supporters and attempting to derail elections.

The risk of escalation comes from a generalized sense of insecurity and frustration, mixed in with opportunism. Beyond the FNL, youth affiliated to the MSD (another opposition party) may also be battling police at night, in Cibitoke-Mutakura and Nyakabiga in particular. This would explain continuous gunfire in these pro-MSD neighborhoods not know to be particular FNL strongholds.

It is difficult to ascertain the extent to which protesters in besieged neighborhoods are armed, and are actively shooting on police in nocturnal confrontations. Nevertheless, all of the signs of escalation are there. If protesters in some neighborhoods are not actually armed the moment, and gunfire comes strictly from police, chances are that they’ll pick up weapons as soon as they can get access to them, and fight back.

Another element to take into account when judging the possibilities for upcoming war in Burundi comes from the failure of the May putsch. Indeed, after the coup attempt was put to rest by loyalist forces six weeks ago, Burundian troops deserted the army, and went into hiding or fled the country with their weapons. Two army units, the Bataillon Blindé and the 11th Bataillon Para-Commando, have disappeared, and the coup leader, Gen. Niyombare, is nowhere to be seen.

Could leaders of the failed putsch be re-organizing in order to launch an armed struggle against the government? Beyond the idea of an organic uprising from Bujumbura’s opposition neighborhoods, the formation of an armed group is not implausible, given the desertion of some 300-400 armed troops—alongside high ranking generals—and the growing discontent about Nkurunziza’s third-term bid as the crackdown on civil society intensifies.

If a rebel movement is indeed taking shape and plans to launch an offensive in the days, weeks, or months to come, it could utilize frustrations inside the country and particularly Bujumbura’s tense opposition strongholds, to recruit manpower against the government. Moreover, it could play on increased frustrations within elements of the ex-FAB (the former Burundian army, predominantly Tutsi, now reintegrated in the national army) about the handling of military affairs by President Nkurunziza and his inner circle after the failed coup.

Other questions regarding the formation of an armed struggle can be raised—such as financial means, which are essential to access weapons and build capacity—but what is certain is that the Burundi’s current path is not encouraging at all. If grievances expressed by civil society remain unaddressed—to put it bluntly, if Nkurunziza doesn’t step down and gets re-elected for a third term—the risks of violent conflict engulfing the nation again, 10 years after the end of the civil war, remain high.

Indeed, if an insurgent movement does not come to haunt Burundi during the elections, it could very well do so in the early stages of President Nkurunziza’s third mandate. The risk of armed resistance against the government will endure so long as political frustrations continue to grow and police violence against civilians remains unhindered.

The first round of elections on Monday saw no major incident aside from a grenade blast in Musaga not far from polling centers. But as the previous weeks have demonstrated, tension usually arises at night. The following days—and nights—will be crucial. Any armed confrontation in Bujumbura’s neighborhoods will certainly contribute to an escalation and add to the climate of uncertainty before presidential elections, scheduled for July 15.

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