At least 70 people died during protests against Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid to be re-elected president for a third term. As the poll goes ahead this Tuesday, the country is deeply divided.
The choice of Ndora, in the north of Burundi, for the final phase of the election campaign, was no accident. A week earlier, it was the site of battles between the army and a new rebel group. President Pierre Nkurunziza went to Ndora with a clear message: “Whoever wants peace will vote for us.” But the president’s candidacy has plunged the country into its deepest crisis since the civil war. Nkurunziza stood on a truck to address the crowd, surrounded by heavily armed police and soldiers.
The event was staged with precision. “Be courageous,” Nkurunziza told his followers with his fist in the air. “We are courageous,” supporters responded. Music and drums charged the atmosphere. The visitors raised balloons painted with the national colors. Others carried placards showing Nkurunziza holding a dove symbolizing peace. A leader of the youth party Imbonerakure confidently declared that they would “also win the elections in 2020, 2025 and 2030.”
Burundi has repeatedly experienced violence since its independence in the sixties. The first prime minister Prince Louis Rwagasore fell victim to an assassination. In the decades that followed, the country experienced a dozen coups. They were often accompanied by violence and massacres between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. In 1993 the country plunged into a civil war lasting twelve years. It is estimated that some 200,000 people died. It was only in 2005 that the reconciliation process brought both groups closer together and ushered in a democratic process. This process is now at risk.
Fear in opposition strongholds
At nighttime, gun shots are heard in the capital, Bujumbura. They come from neighborhoods whose residents back the opposition and who report revenge attacks by the government. Since May, when a group of senior generals tried to remove Nkurunziza from office through a coup, the government has tightened its control. Independent radio stations that voiced criticism were closed. In the meantime, the protests have died down. Fear has replaced anger in the opposition districts.
In Musaga, where the protests were particularly strong, streets are still charred as a result of burnt tires. Using stones and sandbags, residents have built roadblocks to keep out vehicles used to carry out raids at night. “We are afraid of the police,” said a resident, “but we are even more afraid that the Imbonerakure will come here.”
The Imbonerakure is the ruling party’s youth league. The opposition considers them to be thugs. For months, there have been warnings that they were being armed as a militia group. Recently, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni indirectly confirmed the allegations.
Shortly before the elections he undertook a moderately successful attempt to bring together the two sides. He said that the government had promised to disarm the Imbonerakure. The government has always denied that the Imbonerakure have weapons.
Given these circumstances, the main opposition candidates decided to boycott the elections. “We are heading for disaster,” warned Agathon Rwasa, leader of the main opposition party Forces Nationales de Liberation (FNL). The government’s actions could make the country ungovernable, says Rwasa, himself a former Hutu rebel leader.
His FNL had been a a rival to Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD but was just as radical. Rwasa only consented to peace talks fairly late. But Nkurunziza’s clinging to power has brought about some unexpected alliances among his opponents. For example between Rwasa and Charles Nditije, the head of the former ruling party UPRONA, who stood for the domination of the Tutsi minority for many years.
None of this interests the close circle of power around Nkurunziza. Since the attempted coup, which came from within his own ranks, the circle has become smaller, but no less determined. International donors, mediators and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have on several occasions unsuccessfully tried to persuade the government to drop its plans. “I freed my country,” said a senior military officer. “Ban Ki-Moon has no right to tell me what I should or should not do in this country.”