from Africa in Transition

Burundi’s Political Divide

November 13, 2015

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This is a guest post by Claire Wilmot, a former intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Program. She is a master of global affairs candidate at the University of Toronto. You can follow her on twitter at @claireLwilmot.

Violence in Burundi has escalated significantly over the past month. Opposition leaders and activists have been tortured and killed, independent media is being stifled, and human rights monitors report the daily discovery of bodies across the capital. It is estimated that at least 240 have been killed and thousands have fled since April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to flout a constitutional two-term limit and run for a third term in office.

It is unsurprising that Nkurunziza’s refusal to relinquish power triggered a wave of violence, given the history of civil conflict in Burundi. The Arusha Accords, which ended Burundi’s 1993-2005 civil war recognized that the country’s vulnerability to violence stemmed from “a struggle by the political class to accede to and/or remain in power.” Arusha implemented a number of provisions that sought to lower the stakes of political competition in Burundi—a pivotal mechanism was limiting Burundi’s president to two terms in office.

Limiting terms for leaders helps avoid the kind of zero-sum politics that can lead to violence in highly divided societies. Burundi’s colonial history gave rise to a state-capture complex—access to the state is a lucrative privilege for the political class in power, often at the expense of the majority. In poor or divided societies, maintaining power becomes a high-stakes game, and can lead political competitors to resort to violence.

Term limits can play a stabilizing role by leveling the political playing field. Newcomers have a greater chance of ascending the presidency if the incumbent must step down after two terms, and opponents are more likely to challenge the government electorally. Nkurunziza’s victory in the July elections, which were not free or fair, proved to the opposition that contesting power peacefully is futile.

Despite growing fear that the ruling party’s rhetoric is reminiscent of the genocide in neighboring Rwanda, it is unlikely that the conflict in Burundi will play out along ethnic lines. Burundi has been successful in ethnically integrating the government and key institutions. Political identities are not determined by ethnicity alone—both Hutu and Tutsi make up the opposition, and both have suffered government repression. Fears over possible military fragmentation are founded; however, the crowding out of certain officers appears to be based on party affiliation rather than ethnicity. The heart of the conflict is between Nkurunziza’s faction of the ruling CNDD-FDD, and those unwilling to accept democratic backpedaling.

The AU was quick to condemn violence in Burundi, but failed to pressure Nkurunziza to respect his country’s constitution and step aside, which might have prevented violence. However, presidential term limits are a touchy subject at the AU—many heads of state in the region have successfully pursued strategies similar to Nkurunziza.

The AU’s Peace and Security Council issued a statement in October urging Nkurunziza to commit to inclusive negotiations with the opposition. So far, he has failed to include key opposition groups in the inter-Burundian dialogue, denouncing them as “enemies of the nation.” Extending the dialogue to these groups would recognize the legitimacy of Nkurunziza’s political opponents, something he is yet unwilling to do. The AU also proposed an Africa-led peace implementation mission should a political solution fail.

Ethnic rifts may be less salient, but political divisions have become explosive. Burundi’s conflict is unlikely to culminate in genocide; however, the re-emergence of civil war could be just as devastating. A political solution may still be possible for Burundi, and international actors should continue to pressure Nkurunziza to pursue inclusive dialogue with the opposition. The key to preventing future political violence, however, lies in defending constitutional provisions that encourage peaceful contestations of power.

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