Burundian army

Burundian soldiers patrolling the streets of Bujumbura. Photo by the author

The car stops and the driver turns off the ignition and leans back in the seat. Before us winds a long queue of cars and minivans in the afternoon sun. People have gone out of their cars and sit in the shade along the roadside. Talking, eating, listening to the radio. The atmosphere is calm and quiet, but also restrained, subdued. Everyone is careful, observant. The scenario has become common in the capital Bujumbura in recent times. Streets and intersections blocked off to all traffic, often for several hours, waiting for the President’s convoy to pass. Usually it occurs when Nkurunziza is on his way in or out of the capital to the countryside where he prefers to stay most the time. When the convoy eventually passes, nobody is allowed nearby, no cars and no people. All street corners are emptied. Even the security personnel guarding the streets must physically turn their heads away, direct their weapons in a different direction, and may not look at the passing cars.


About one year ago, on 21 July 2015, Pierre Nkurunziza won the controversial presidential elections in Burundi and thus realized his ambition to remain in office for a third term. The public statement that Nkrunziza would run again was announced at the party congress of the ruling party CNDD-FDD (Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie-Forces de défense de la Démocratie) in April 2015 and became the start of an escalating conflict between a faithful click around the President and a multifaceted opposition, who regarded the decision to be a violation of both the constitution and the spirit of the Arusha peace agreement. In several neighborhoods around the capital, people took to the streets in heated but well-organized demonstrations.

In the months that followed, the violence increased significantly. ACLED recently reported that more than one thousand people have died in political violence in Burundi during the past year. The most violent incident to date, a coordinated attack by the armed opposition on three military bases, occurred on 11 December last year. Thousands of people have fled the country, especially to the neighboring countries in the region. The regime’s ethnically charged rhetoric caused many analysts to warn of a new civil war and the risk of genocide. But during the spring of 2016, the media noise about the situation in Burundi gradually went quiet. What is the situation in the country today? Is the country on the brink of genocide or are the political negotiations to resolve the conflict gaining ground?

In a city that about a year ago was marred by open demonstrations and almost daily shootings, there is today a deceptive calm. Many of the young people who made up the leading front in last year’s demonstrations have been forced to leave their areas, have fled to the countryside or abroad, or have joined the organized, but fragmented, armed opposition. Many well-known dissidents are in exile, others are under constant surveillance. Most private media are closed down. The mass arrests and nightly raids that dominated the media reporting towards the end of last year have been replaced with targeted killings of high-level individuals – politicians, army personnel, civil society representatives – who are suspected of sympathizing with the opposition. In some cases, both the perpetrator and the motive remains unknown and unreported, as in the case of the assassination of General Kararuza – military adviser to one of the country’s two vice presidents – who was shot dead along with his wife and a bodyguard outside his daughter’s school on the morning of 25 April. The fear and suspicion is palpable, and few go out after dark if they can avoid it.

Most major donors have cancelled their aid programmes in the country. The US, the European Union (EU) and the African Union (AU) have imposed targeted sanctions. The economy is constrained with potentially severe consequences for the population. A local businessman in the area of Bujumbura where we are staying complains of increased prices, and new government regulations stipulating that all bank accounts dealing with foreign currency has to be regulated through the Central Bank. At the end of March this year, the EU announced that it was exploring options for direct funding of Burundi’s peacekeeping troops in Somalia instead of channeling funds through the government in Bujumbura. If this were to happen, it would mean a substantial financial loss for the regime, with uncertain implications.

The past year has also seen several attempts to manage or resolve the conflict by various third parties. The regional management process is of particular interest, because it may be viewed as a test of the emerging African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). After several months of fruitless diplomatic efforts to first try to persuade Nkrunziza to postpone the elections until the security situation improved, and then persuade him to enter into negotiations with the political opposition, the AU raised its diplomatic tone towards the end of last year in an unprecedented move.

On 17 December 2015, AUs Peace and Security Council (PSC) at ambassadorial level approved the establishment of a prevention and protection force known as MAPROBU (Mission Africaine de prévention et de protection au Burundi) with reference to Article 4 (h) in the AU Charter. The article, which has never previously been evoked, allows AU to authorize a military intervention in a member state without its consent under certain aggravating circumstances, such as war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. As noted by Paul D. Williams, the PSC communiqué signaled the use of a new form of coercive diplomacy by the AU.

The government of Burundi, however, immediately opposed the proposal and Nkrunziza publically stated that a peacekeeping force would be met with violence. This put AU in a real dilemma. Would the organisation be willing to take action against the explicit will of a member state, a move that would also expose its troops to extreme safety risks? The majority of member states were most likely also acutely aware of the inconsistency in demanding that Nkrunziza should live up to democratic norms that many other member states do not follow. What would be the possible future consequences of such a decision? Well aware of these internal tensions, Burundi used the opportunity to launch an intensive diplomatic offensive to persuade its fellow African states to vote against the proposal at the AU summit planned for late January 2016. Nkrunzizas move was bold, but skillfully played. At the summit, no member state defended the proposal or voted in its favour, and most Heads of State had already discreetly left the room when the proposal was addressed as the very last item on the agenda.

The event highlights a possible divide between one the one hand a more proactive AU Commission and a strong independent chairperson, personified by Madame Zuma’s active and public stance on the Burundi conflict, not least in social media, and AU’s member states, who appear to prefer the organization to play a more conservative role, safeguarding national sovereignty. Another possible interpretation suggested by a friend at the AU Commission, it that some African leaders see the situation in Burundi as a typical conflict between a privileged – and by the colonial powers favored – elite and a majority population that has finally come to power in democratic elections. This may also explain a certain tendency to look the other way when it comes Nkrunziza’s democratic shortcomings, and quietly speculate – much like the regime in Bujumbura – about which Western powers who are pulling the strings behind the political developments in Burundi.

However, as noted by Williams, the January summit also constituted something of a turning point in the conflict, which intensified other options for resolving the conflict. In the end of February 2016, South African President Jacob Zuma led a high-level delegation to Burundi in order to revive the stagnant inter-Burundian dialogue under the leadership of President Museveni of Uganda as chief mediator to the conflict.

It had taken almost six months from his appointment by the East African Community (EAC) in July 2015, until the first multiparty talks were held in Entebbe in the end of December 2015. According to a representative of the political opposition, the meeting lacked all preconditions for a constructive dialogue. Museveni dominated the gathering with lengthy speeches and the parties’ contributions were limited to the reading of prepared statements. The diverse opposition was treated as one homogenous group and had to join behind a single statement. The meeting failed to arrive at both an agenda for talks and a way forward. Critics have pointed to the unfortunate, perhaps even ironic, choice of Museveni – a man who has spent over 30 years in power – as the mediator in a dispute over presidential term limits. In addition, the timing was bad, given the hotly contested elections in Uganda in February 2016, which came to absorb the time and attention of the Ugandan mediation team.

The next round of negotiations did not take place until late May this year. During the spring, Benjamin Mkapa, former President of Tanzania, was appointed new regional facilitator to bring new life into the dormant process. In light of the historically close relationship between Burundi and Tanzania and Mkapa’s personal involvement in the Arusha peace process, the expectations were high that the renewed process would bear fruit. However, Burundi’s government initially refused to participate, first claiming that they had not received an official invitation, and later that they had not been consulted about the process. By the time the talks could finally take place, the opposition complained that dialogue had been reduced to a monologue. The regime’s precondition for participating was that CNARED (Conseil National pour le respect de l’accord d’Arusha pour la paix et la réconciliation au Burundi et de l’Etat de droit), the organized political opposition in exile, was excluded from the talks. Eventually, individual CNARED members were allowed at the table along with the registered opposition and civil society groups. Much like in Entebbe, however, the talks did not bring any results. The mediation team met with the parties individually, and no joint discussions were held.

What are the prospects for a negotiated solution? What do the parties to the conflict want? A key factor for understanding the government’s position is the internal power shift that has taken place within the CNDD-FDD in recent years. Much like many other armed organizations who transform into political parties as part of a civil war peace process, the political party CNDD-FDD consisted in 2005 of a merger of different factions; the military wing, the group’s political front, and those who joined the party after the end of the war. A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) argues that the 2015 election was the decisive tipping point in an internal power struggle in the party between loyal former militaries and radicals around Nkrunziza and the more moderate political wing made up of many of those individuals who were among the first to oppose Nkrunziza’s plans for a third term.

Seen from this perspective, the developments of this past year do not come as a surprise. The CNDD-FDD was late to join the civil war peace process, and never a strong the advocate of the Arusha peace agreement to begin with. But during the last few years in particular, the implementation of the agreement under the party’s leadership has been marked by setbacks. Behind a formal facade of ethnic power sharing, the real balance of power in the country has been slowly eroded. As noted in the ICG report, while the population as a whole has moved towards greater openness and reconciliation, the governing party has gone in the opposite direction. The protests and demonstrations last year illustrated exactly this; a clash between a mostly young and urban population who had largely put the war dynamics behind them and were not prepared to accept a reversal of the democratic gains made, and a regime who tried to revoke war memories, play on fear, and dress the conflict in ethnic terms in order to mobilize the majority population for political purposes.

During an interview with a government representative – a former fighter and Nkrunziza loyalist – the impression strengthens that the ruling elite is set on abolishing the power sharing principles that the Arusha agreement rests on and establish a political order based the majority rule. In the eyes of the regime, they are under attack by a Tutsi elite disguised as civil society who, in collaboration with Rwanda and the former colonial powers in Europe primarily Belgium, is trying to regain power. The radicalized ethnic perspective is palpable: “They were in power for 50 years, now it’s our turn. We have only been in power for 10 years. Another 40 years is only reasonable”.

Another good indicator of the regime’s political ambitions is provided by the national dialogue process initiated in October 2015 under the leadership of the state organization CNDI (Commission Nationale du Dialogue Interburundais). Several people testify to an orchestrated process in which participating citizens in various locations around the country with almost mechanical consistency express their desire to dismantle the Arusha agreement and revise the current constitutional restrictions regarding Presidential term limits. Opponents of the regime have since long abandoned their participation in these meetings, suggesting that they only serve to legitimate the power ambition of the regime.

During this past year, many analysts have warned of the risk of a genocide in Burundi similar to that in Rwanda in 1994. The problem with this comparison is, paradoxically, that it may fail to grasp the seriousness of the ongoing situation in Burundi. In Rwanda, about 800,000 people were killed over the course of 100 days. As for now, there is little to suggest that we should expect a similar development in Burundi in the near future. But the deceptive calm and de-escalating violence in recent months also should not be misinterpreted. Another scenario, which is often evoked by the political opposition in Burundi, is that of a gradual genocide where the regime is slowly eliminating all political opponents “one by one”. Whether this is the case or not, the situation in Burundi is currently more appropriately compare to that of many authoritarian states, characterized by repressive state violence, urban guerrilla warfare, disappearances, media restrictions, and limitations on democratic rights and freedoms.

What are the objectives of Nkrunziza’s political opponents? The lack of unity within the opposition camp is another obstacle to the prospects for finding a peaceful solution to the conflict. The opposition alliance CNARED was established in July last year on the initiative of prominent personalities from the opposition campaigns who were forced into exile. Léonard Nyangoma, the founder of the political movement CNDD and its military wing FDD during the war, initially led the movement. It includes the most significant opposition voices, including former CNDD-FDD members, representatives of several political parties and civil society. The movement is united behind its position that Nkrunziza must resign, a transitional government should be appointed, and new elections announced. Above all, the movement has insisted that a dialogue on Burundi’s future must begin with Nkrunziza’s departure. This is also one of the major obstacles to the negotiations, as this is a requirement that the government adamantly rejects. In its view, it has been democratically elected. The longer Nkrunziza remains in power with the international community’s quiet approval, the greater the risk that this demands appear unrealistic and unpragmatic. There are also question marks regarding the unity of the movement. Rajabu Hussein, former president of the CNDD-FDD who was later imprisoned by the regime, was recently reported to have left the alliance, which can be interpreted as a sign of its fragility.

In addition to CNARED, there are a number of recognised opposition parties inside the country, who participated in the 2015 elections and are now part of the existing government of national unity together with the CNDD-FDD. This includes a coalition of nine political parties known as COPA (Coalition pour l’Opposition Pacifique), a faction of the former Tutsi-based ruling party UPRONA (Union pour le Progrès National) and a faction of the former rebel group FNL (Forces nationales de libération) who signed the Arusha agreement and converted to a political party. FNL’s original leader, Agathon Rwasa, who first decided not to run in the elections, joined the government as Deputy Speaker of the Parliament on 30 July 2015. It is possible that some in this group are open to re-negotiations regarding the Arusha agreement’s ethnic quota rules for minority protection (which grants the minority Tutsi population disproportionate political influence in relation to the population statistics). Many are also less likely to put Nkrunziza’s resignation as the top priority for the negotiations.

Another obstacle to the dialogue has been the government’s refusal to negotiate with individuals or groups associated with the coup attempt in May last year, or the armed opposition. Since the armed group RED Tabara (Résistance pour un Etat de Droit au Burundi), generally regarded as the military wing of the political party MSD (Mouvement pour la Solidarité et le Développment), is included in CNARED, the government has used this as an argument for excluding the opposition alliance from the peace negotiations. The other major rebel organization is Forebu (Forces Républicaine du Burundi), led by former General Godefroid Niyambare who was one of the leading figures in the failed coup. Niyambara was previously head of the intelligence service, but was fired in February 2015 when a letter was leaked in which he urged Nkrunziza not to proceed with his plans for a third term.

The deteriorating security situation between Burundi and Rwanda has been another cause of concern during the year. Many speculate about Kigali’s possible relationship with – or harboring of – the growing armed opposition in Burundi. A report from the organization Refugees International last year gave details about recruitment attempts of Burundian refugees in Rwanda. A confidential UN report leaked yearly this year has been widely interpreted as evidence of Rwanda’s involvement in the mobilization of the armed opposition. In Burundi, the Nkrunziza regime has organised mandatory mass demonstrations against Rwanda on Saturday mornings prior to community work. Several Rwandan citizens have been arrested and accused of spying. A seasoned diplomat in the corridors of the AU headquarters in Addis, however, only shrugs and suggests that President Kagame will not let himself be provoked that easily. Others are suggesting that Rwanda is only waiting for a more credible political alternative with military leverage to emerge, which it could throw its support behind.

In addition to the obstacles for constructive peace talks associated with the primary parties, there are also a number of external factors that have hampered the negotiation process. One is linked to its funding. Despite the fact that the key responsibility for the mediation process – in line with AU’s principle of subsidiarity – has been delegated to the sub-regional level, none of the member states in the sub-region has contributed to its funding. The AU commission also claims that it lacks the necessary funds, and so far the process has relied exclusively on ad hoc funding from influential external donors. This unpredictability is an obstacle to the long-term planning of the negotiation process and prevents flexible diplomatic solutions. Most likely, it has also contributed to the lack of bilateral negotiations and necessary shuttle diplomacy between public talks. The strong dependency on external donors also results in unnecessary criticism from skeptics, including the Burundian government, who suspiciously claim that foreign interests are controlling the process.

Frustration with the lack of progress in the dialogue prompted the UN Security Council at the beginning of April 2016 to ask the UN Secretary General, in consultation with the government of Burundi and the AU, to develop proposals for a UN-led police operation. Once the proposal was presented in mid-April, however, it quickly became clear that the regime in Burundi opposed all the substantive alternatives presented, and only agreed to an almost symbolic presence of 20 unarmed police advisers. Once again did Nkrunziza skillfully maneuver the international community into accepting a solution that allows him to bide his time and gradually consolidate his power base.

The only other international presence that that Nkrunziza has agreed to so far, are 100 human rights observers and 100 (unarmed) military observers under AU-flag. These are yet to be fully deployed, and much like any other AU initiative they are suffering from financial challenges, but so far they appear to be doing a much needed and widely underestimated job in proving accurate information on developments on the ground and perhaps contributing to confidence-building measures. In a conflict clouded by rumors, misinformation, widespread suspicion and fear, this is perhaps one of the most important tasks at the moment.

One year after the elections, and one year into the third term, the outcome is still uncertain. One thing, however, is clear. The deceptive calm in the streets in Bujumbura should not be interpreted as a sign that the situation in the country has radically improved. The conflict has only moved into a new phase, and the determination of the ruling party in changing the rules of the political game is as strong as ever.

Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs is Head of Research at the Folke Bernadotte Academy (FBA), a Swedish governmental agency working in the field of peace and security. Her research on Burundi is supported by a research grants awarded from the Swedish Research Council and hosted at the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI). The analysis builds on both secondary sources and primary sources acquired through short-term field visits to Bujumbura in April 2015 and April 2016 respectively, and to Addis Abeba in April 2016.