The political climate is growing increasingly antagonistic in Burundi, where many of today’s political parties were yesterday’s rebel groups. A spate of elections designed to entrench stability through pluralism has only made matters worse, say analysts, raising fears that a 10-year-old power-sharing deal is falling apart.
“Burundians should understand that our victory belongs to everyone, to those who voted for us and to those who did not,” re-elected President Pierre Nkurunziza said on 26 August at his swearing-in ceremony.
“What matters to us is to work with everybody for the good of everybody,” he said.
But Nkurunziza ran in the 28 July presidential poll unopposed because of a boycott called in protest at alleged rigging of earlier municipal elections. Most parties have now fully withdrawn from the political institutions including parliament.
“We are worried about politicians’ games,” said a resident of Bujumbura Rural, the province around the capital that experienced some of the worst fighting during the 1993-2005 civil war, which claimed 300,000 lives.
“Now that there is only one party, how can it bring us peace?” he added, asking not to be identified.
“In Bujumbura Rural, we really know what war means. We now fear for the future,” said another resident. “Some say new rebel movements are being formed, others say there are no such rebel movements. Opposition leaders have gone into hiding, we do not know what they are up to.”
Opposition in hiding
At least three opposition leaders have fled Burundi amid a government crackdown on the opposition and internal critics. According to Amnesty International, intelligence services tortured 12 people in late June and early July.
There were more than 100 grenade explosions in those months, mostly targeting the ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). Dozens of the party’s offices across the country were torched.
At the same time, opposition politicians were frequently arrested, sometimes on charges of threatening state security, or for holding “illegal” meetings.
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"Burundi is at a dangerous crossroads and clearly ill-intentioned people on both sides of the political divide are seeking to exploit recent tensions," Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in early July.
In the last week of August, two members of the National Liberation Forces (FNL), a former rebel group, and six members of another political party, were arrested in the west of the country. They were accused of taking food into Kibira forest, where some groups are reportedly receiving military training. Two other FNL members were detained in Kayanza, in the north, and accused of belonging to an armed group.
It wasn’t supposed to come to this. On 28 August 2000, parties to Burundi’s civil war capped six years of talks by signing a Peace and Reconciliation Agreement spelling out how power was to be shared between the politically dominant but numerically small Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority. It took another five years for the last Hutu rebel group to lay down its arms, but Arusha produced the constitutional framework for ending hostilities.
“We convened on a political system liable to take into account both the political and ethnic dimensions of Burundi’s problem,” recalled Jean-Baptiste Manwangari, one of the Tutsi negotiators who worked on the pact. “It was a democratic system functioning much on the basis of a consensus and dialogue instead of a system of majority [rule], which for Burundi was likely to bring forth dictatorship.”
Now, according to one civil servant, Burundi has “gone back to square one… a [new] political accord needs to be negotiated to bring the opposition back on board.”
The pre-Arusha winner-takes-all style of politics is dangerous because it “creates a kind of survival strategy for the losers”, explained Pacifique Nininahazwe, head of the Forum pour le Renforcement de la Societé Civile, a coalition of civil society organizations outlawed in 2009.
“If the ruling party behaves in the same way as other victorious parties did in the past, the losers will adopt the same survival mechanisms,” he added.
The more than two-thirds parliamentary majority won by the CNDD-FDD “will transform the state from a multiparty system to essentially one-party dominance”, Henri Boschoff and Ralph Ellermann warned in a paper for the Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies - Elections without competition and no peace without participation: where might it go from here.
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“Ultimately [this] could have a highly detrimental effect on peace and democracy in Burundi,” they wrote, arguing that “the reluctance of Nkurunziza and the CNDD-FDD to govern the country in the spirit of its power-sharing constitution … drove the political climate towards a hostile environment where trust between the parties and in the constitution dissolved.
“Burundi is at risk of civil disobedience… The worst-case scenario would be a rebellion [against] state institutions caused by opposition parties,” the paper warned.
“If the huge numbers of the population now disenchanted with the level of democracy would be willing to follow parties on a non-democratic path, this could eventually be the difference between a few random attacks and the full-scale mobilization of a disgruntled population,” the authors said.