Category Archives: Politics

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.

Burundi 2015: Army Between a Rock and a Hard Place, What’s Next? by Archie Henry

Burundi has been rocked by unrest, mostly concentrated in its capital Bujumbura, ever since President Nkurunziza’s controversial third-term bid in the upcoming June elections became official. Protests began on April 26th and have been steady in intensity, mostly concentrated in a few neighborhoods—Cibitoke, Nyakabiga, Musaga, Ngagara, and Kanyosha—with frequent fighting between police forces and protesters. Police has been firing tear gas, live bullets, and water cannons while protesters have been using stones, sticks, and erecting barricades. So far, at least 19 civilians, two police officers, and one soldier of the national army have died. The last few days have been particularly bloody, with a rapidly increasing death toll, protesters shot in the head, killed by grenade blasts or lynched by militiamen. Revenge attacks by protesters against civilians—in particular against suspected loyalist militiamen—have also arisen in a worrying downwards spiral of violence. From now on, what can we expect in an increasingly volatile Burundi, and what to make of the Burundian army (FDN), which has been heavily deployed in the streets, playing a neutral role, but now faced with orders to remove barricades and crack down on protesters?

Throughout the crisis, Burundi’s army has confirmed its political neutrality by acting as a buffer in street confrontations between police and protesters. Soldiers walked alongside protesters to deter shooting and tear-gas attacks from police, helped police dismantle barricades, and disarmed and captured violent individuals. On Saturday May 2, during a weekend truce called by the protests’ coordinators, Burundi’s Minister of Defense Pontien Gaciyubwenge issued a statement calling on all political actors to respect the Arusha Agreement and the Constitution. He insisted the army would continue to play its republican role and protect civilians. This statement came as a surprise to many, and gave hope to protesters that the army would do its utmost to safeguard the presidential two-term limit. Some observers even suggested he was hinting at the possibility of a military coup, were Arusha and the Constitution to be violated. Though it remains unclear what he really meant, the Minister of Defense sent a strong message: the army would continue to remain vigilant and extremely relevant amid the escalating unrest. In contrast to other officials, he did not say the protests were “illegal” and did not call protesters “insurgents.”

The protests have also been the stage of visible tension between the police and the army. Civil society accuses the police of being an instrument of the ruling party’s crackdown on protesters while the army remains a relatively independent and respected institution—often cheered and applauded by protesters—thanks in part to its integrated character stemming from the Arusha Peace Agreement. In the first week of protests, during heightened tension between police and protesters in Bujumbura’s Musaga neighborhood, a soldier of the FDN—present on the ground to help deter violence—was shot dead by policemen and intelligence agents in mysterious circumstances. During demonstrations, Burundian troops have disarmed policemen that were making use of excessive force against civilians. One policeman was even incarcerated in Cibitoke following his arrest by FDN troops.

This Saturday, May 9, the Minister of Defense was mandated by President Nkurunziza, via the National Security Council, to remove all barricades from the streets within 48 hours and start cracking down on protesters. How will the army, which has played an instrumental role minimizing acts of violence between protesters and police, react? Today the army began to dismantle barricades alongside the police in Musaga and Nyakabiga, but will this trend continue? And particularly, will the army begin to crack down on protesters like the police has? This is certainly a critical time for the army and a Minister of Defense who is now caught between a rock and a hard place. If he fully obeys these orders, this could place Burundi under greater international pressure and send the country into further chaos, with the risk that opposition groups such as Rwasa’s FNL would take up arms against the government, or the possibility that the army would split (into political or ethnic fracture lines). If the Minister remains indifferent to this demand, could rising tension between pro and anti-Nkurunziza officers provoke infighting within the army?

Indeed, despite the fact that the President is the commander-in-chief of the army, the Minister of Defense retains significant sway over the army. On April 28th, the President had requested the Minister to pull out troops from the streets—this was the only day of protests in which the army was mostly absent. However, troops were redeployed at night to protest-prone areas in order to protect protesters and their families from potential retribution violence by police or the loyalist Imbonerakure militia. Did the Minister ask them to return, despite the President’s request that day? Or did some units of the army, upon their own initiative, decide to move? The chain of commandment within the army remains a very blurry aspect of the ongoing tension in Burundi.

A military coup remains possible, given the lingering protests, domestic and international pressure on the government, and the Minister of Defense’s commitment that the army will protect the Arusha Agreement and the Constitution—which, according to the opposition and civil society, has already been violated. In the run up to elections, the longer the protests last, and the more intense and violent they become, the higher the risk of a military coup, of an army split, or of a civil war following a failed coup. It is also possible to see unrest slowly die down if police, together with the army, effectively contain the protest movement.

But the situation is definitely not encouraging, with potential for further escalation, considering civil society’s unflinching position to see Nkurunziza step aside. The President and his party hope to cruise through to elections as soon as possible in order to gain back legitimacy. However, the African Union, via its chairperson Dr. Dlamini Zuma, recently declared it could not send observers for the elections due to the deteriorating situation, and even asked for elections to be postponed. If Burundi is engulfed into further chaos, with a civil war and/or mass killings, it is possible to see regional actors and particularly Rwanda intervene. The Eastern Africa Standby Force (EASF), consisting of troops from 10 contributing countries and the first African regional force to be operational, may also see its very first intervention scenario. As things stand, could internationally-mediated negotiations between the government and civil society be the last chance for peace?


Tense Burundi: What does the Army’s Recent Warning Really Mean? by Archie Henry

The increasingly tense situation in Burundi is now meeting an interesting turn: the Minister of Defense’s warning that the army could finally be deployed to resist “the detractors of peace.”

Last week, Burundians went to the streets to express their disapproval of expected plans by President Pierre Nkurunziza of running for a third term. Third-term opponents highlight that such a move would be unconstitutional, given the two-term limit provided by the Arusha Peace Agreement of 2000, while Nkurunziza’s supporters argue that his first term doesn’t count, as he was elected by members of parliament and not through universal suffrage. The trend in Burundi, however, is that of opposition to a third term-bid. In a Afrobarometer poll in January, 62% of those surveyed said they opposed a third term.

More than 1,000 Burundians protested in the capital Bujumbura last week. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them; more than 100 were arrested, and 65 were charged with “taking part in an insurrectional movement.” As a symptom of the volatile internal political situation compounded by the presence of the Imbonerakurethe ruling party’s youth militia accused of terrorizing those opposing the third termBurundians have been fleeing the country en masse. The number of Burundian refugees in Rwanda has now reached the 10,000 threshold, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Rwandan government. This is by all means huge. Burundians have also been fleeing eastward and southward to Tanzania, and westward the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)’s South Kivu province. The total number of Burundian who have fled the country is estimated to be around 12,000.

On Monday, during a press conference, the Minister of Defense Pontien Gaciyubwenge said the army was ready to be deployed in order “to accompany the other security actors in resisting the detractors of peace,” upon the request of the commander-in-chief, who is none other than President Nkurunziza. He also added that such a move would be “in compliance with national and international regulations, given the legal implications of not respecting those rules.”

What to make of this announcement? Is this another sign that the ruling CNDD-FDD party is planning to expand its crackdown on popular opposition to Nkurunziza’s likely third-term run? It may indeed appear so. However, considering the neutrality exhibited by the Burundian army thus farand the split loyalties within ithis statement gives way to a sentiment of surprise and confusion. Is it intended as a message that the army has finally taken a side regarding the third term? Or is it just a call to both protestors and police to exercise restraint during demonstrations? Moreover, is it really feasible to send the Burundian army to the streets, in a pre-election context, without reviving tension among Burundi’s military apparatus, and exacerbating violence?

Indeed, one must not forget that Burundi’s army, also known as the National Defense Forces (FDN), is a relatively integrated national army. It incorporates members of the previous national army, the Armed Forces of Burundi (FAB), a mostly Tutsi force, which battled Hutu rebel groups during the civil war (1993-2005). The current ruling party, CNDD-FDD, was one of those rebel groups. Today’s FDN consists of officers from different backgrounds and loyalties, mostly split between ex-FAB and ex-CNDD-FDD. However, these two major components of the army exhibit divisions. Just as in the political sphere, there is also a splinter CNDD-FDD movement in the army, one that is opposed to a third term for Nkurunziza. Thus the current Burundian army is far from being the “armed branch” of the CNDD-FDD.

The Burundian army has been consistently silent on the third term question and nearly invisible throughout the recent months of mounting tension. An official neutrality and balance best explained by the independent character of Burundi’s army, but also by the fact that military leaders disagree on the issue. The Minister of Defense is reported to be against a third term, while the head of the army (Chef d’EtatMajor) is reportedly pro-third term. The majority of ex-FAB oppose it, while the CNDD-FDD splinter movement is also potent in the army. So Monday’s announcement is as ambiguous as it is significant: given the army’s neutral posture and internal dynamics, it is unclear if it will actually be deployed against protestors. Yet, the decision is up to President Nkurunziza, whose expected third-term run is the very point of contention in Burundi.

Tomorrow, Saturday April 25th, the CNDD-FDD party council decides on its candidate for the presidential election in June. Pierre Nkurunziza’s nomination should come as no surprise. It would be hard to imagine that he and his party misled the public for so long, only to declare, at the last minute, that he will not run. As Burundi’s leading human rights activist Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa has stated, Burundians will take to the streets again if Nkurunziza was chosen as the CNDD-FDD candidate.

In the case that the Burundian army was indeed deployed to the streets upon Nkurunziza’s request, how will it behave? It is difficult to predict what would happen, but here are some possibilities:

  • Crackdown on protestors? Perhaps. The hitch here is that throughout the past 10 years, the Burundian army has mostly refrained from intervening in civilian life or taking part in abuses during episodes of tension. It is certainly possible to see the army involved in suffocating protests, but it would be a major development, considering its neutrality in past years.
  •  Guaranteeing low-violence protests on all sides (demonstrators AND police) and minimizing tension through its presence as a respected, independent institution? An evidently much more desirable outcome. The Minister’s assertion that the army would act “in compliance with national and international regulations” seems in line with this possibility.
  • A third possibility is that of a coup d’état, led by the ex-FAB and fringe CNDD-FDD officers—as an attempt to restore the constitutional order. Thus, the army seems like the only institution that could really stop Nkurunziza from a third-term run. Even the most prominent Nkurunziza opponents—Agathon Rwasa or Hussein Radjabu (also CNDD-FDD)—would have little to no chances of defeating him were he to be chosen as the CNDD-FDD candidate. In the past, in a similarly tense situation, a coup d’état would be very plausible in Burundi. Today, this scenario is much less likely but not to be excluded.

What remains certain, however, is that a confirmation of Nkurunziza’s third-term bid will bring people to the streets. When that happens, and if the army is dragged in, things could turn ugly. Either for protestors, or for Nkurunziza and his loyalists—the core of the CNDD-FDD.

Given the diverse composition of the army and the rift between pro and anti-third term voices, deploying Burundian troops to the streets could indeed be explosive, with the possibility of different sides of the army turning against each other, or of a coup d’état, which should not be ruled out. And what would be the reaction of the international community, and of the region—with the Eastern African Standby Force—to such a scenario?