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The argument pushed by Nkurunziza and his backers for a third presidential term is unconvincing. This, and the fact that many people have really not enjoyed the fruits of peace under his 10-year rule, is what has galvanized relentless opposition to the regime.

The issue that is grabbing media attention now is the conflict and mass protests in Burundi following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid to stand for a third term in forthcoming elections June 2015. The protesters in thousands have gone to the streets arguing that President Nkurunziza has already served two terms as stipulated by the Arusha Accord. The constitutional court ruled that Nkurunziza is eligible to stand since the 2005 elections were not held under universal adult suffrage. The protesters are not convinced of the constitutional court ruling and have gone on with street protests, running battles with the police.

Protesters and other observers argue that the spirit of the Arusha Accord is to safeguard two presidential terms limit as a guarantee for stability in Burundi that has been torn by ethnic conflicts and militarism. Actors and observers in this saga are caught up in a dilemma: should the June elections go ahead amidst the poisoned political landscape? Should President Nkurunziza go ahead to contest for the third term? Should the regional body - the East African Community - or the AU intervene to end the stalemate? What role should the UN play in this unfolding political drama that has already set off a looming humanitarian crisis as tens of thousands of refugees flee to neighboring states?


Burundi would not be much known had it not been for its recurrent ethnicized political conflicts since independence. It is a small country of about 27,834 square kilometres, with a high population density of about 300 people per square kilometre. Political violence seems to have set the tone for Burundi’s political landscape right from the early struggles for independence. In 1961, a year before independence, UPRONA party won legislative elections with Prince Louis Rwagasore, son of King Mwambutsya, appointed as Prime Minister. Unfortunately, Louis Rwagasora was assassinated a month later. Ethnic tensions flared. Burundi’s independence in 1962 was followed by political unrest leading to a coup attempt from 1965-1966. As a result of this failed coup the military took over the ruling party and the government effectively militarizing Burundi politics.

Large-scale violence took place in 1972 where up to 200,000 civilians were massacred. Another violent episode was in 1988 where about 30,000 people were killed. With increasing demand for democracy, Burundi jumped on the bandwagon of democratization that was sweeping across the continent. The first democratic elections were held in June 1993 and Melchoir Dandaye was elected president. He was however killed in a coup, ending his four months regime on October 1993. The violence that followed this coup ended the lives of about 50,000 people. As if to bring closer the political history of the two countries of Rwanda and Burundi, President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and President Cyprian Ntaryamira of Burundi (successor to Ndadaye) perished in a plane crash that brought Rwanda to a crisis which later metamorphosed into a genocide.

Burundi’s democratic experiment came to a halt when Pierre Buyoya who had over-thrown Jean Baptiste Bagaza in 1987, overthrew president Ntibatunganya on 25 July 1996. With every wave of violence in Burundi follows waves of refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries of Tanzania, Rwanda and DRC. Some of these refugees have been recruited into rebel groups, a development that makes the Great Lakes region one of the most militarized zones in Africa. We are dealing with a country that has a deeply troubled political history.


The conflict-prone country of Burundi caught the attention of Africa’s statesmen Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela who played a leading role in ensuring that a lasting solution was found. The peace process started way back in 1996 but the peace treaty was only signed in 2000 by the Burundian President and 13 of the warring factions. Fighting stopped by 2005 and all political parties agreed on a power-sharing formula with the principle that no political party should come to power if it is not ethnically diverse.

Other issues that the accord settled was the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process and preparations for elections. By a majority vote a constitution was approved in February 2005. To demonstrate how this peace accord had restored confidence in Burundi’s political system, over 450,000 refugees returned to the country from neighbouring countries.

A look at the preamble of the peace accord can help in interpreting the contested constitutional issue of whether president Nkurunziza is right in claiming that he should serve a third term:

‘Determined to put aside our differences in all their manifestations in order to promote the factors that are common to us and which unite us, and to work together for the realization of the higher interests of the people of Burundi,

‘Aware of the fact that peace, stability, justice, the rule of law, national reconciliation, unity and development are the major aspirations of the people of Burundi,

‘Reaffirming our unwavering determination to put an end to the root causes underlying the recurrent state of violence, bloodshed, insecurity, political instability, genocide and exclusion which is inflicting severe hardships and suffering on the people of Burundi, and seriously hampers the prospects for economic development and the attainment of equality and social justice in our country,

‘Reaffirming our commitment to shape a political order and a system of government inspired by the realities of our country and founded on the values of justice, democracy, good governance, pluralism, respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, unity, solidarity, mutual understanding, tolerance and cooperation among the different ethnic groups within our society…,[1]’

When interpreting a contentious issue in a constitution, one has to look at the spirit and philosophy behind the law. From the above preamble of the Arusha Accord, the constitution should protect the values of unity, higher interests of the people of Burundi, peace, stability and justice, the rule of law, national reconciliation, and development. The preamble also indicates a deep desire to shape a new political dispensation founded on the following values: democracy, good governance, pluralism, respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, unity, solidarity, mutual understanding, inter-ethnic tolerance and cooperation.

Even if the President of Burundi can legally claim that he has a right for a third term, arguing that the first term was served based on parliamentary elections and not universal adult suffrage, the spirit behind the constitution seems to suggest that no one should try to cling to power. Clearly the emphasis is on limiting terms of presidents given the past history of Burundi. Whether elected by the parliament or by popular vote, one has served a presidential term…period. Interests of Burundi and its people clearly take priority over the needs of the individual president to rule for a third term. This is the spirit and logic of the Arusha Accord.


It is important to put the Burundian political saga in a wider political spectrum across the continent. After the Arab Spring that swept regimes in Arab North Africa, there was a question of whether similar uprisings would spill over to Sub-Saharan Africa. The first Sub-Saharan African country to fall victim to this was Burkina Faso where Blaise Compaore was shown a way out of state house by a popular uprising. Analysts were rather guarded and did not want to declare this a new paradigm in African political engineering.

As for Burundi, the masses have taken to the streets for weeks and there are no signs that they are going to give up their popular protest. The media is showing militant civilians wielding sticks, clubs, and stones, engaging the police on the streets of Burundi. One image shows a group of protesters overturning a huge shipping truck to use it as a barricade—clearly these are highly energized masses who seem to be intoxicated with a revolutionary spirit. The protesters are even giving themselves a break during weekends (truce) presumably to stock supplies. As soon as the police remove the barricades, the protesters who outnumber the police, quickly bring them back. It is like a game of cat and mouse.

The president and his supporters are labelling the protesters as insurrectionists or terrorists. This label is a hard sell. Media outlets are being shut down but the international community has called on the government to stop the clampdown. Just like the Arab Spring, the uprising in Burundi is fuelled by private radios, social media and mobile phones. It seems that ethinicized militarism has given way to militant civilians. It did not come as a surprise when the armed forces were in fact seen protecting civilians against the police. The military that was hitherto a major source of instability and violence in Burundi is now the one playing the role of peacemaker.

Other voices both foreign and local are questioning Pierre Nkurunziza’s clamour for a third term. Religious leaders, especially the Catholic Archbishop of Bujumbura, were among the first to challenge the claim for a third term. Recall that Burundi is a predominantly Catholic country, with Catholics being more than 70% of the population. But it should be noted that the protesters are not carrying a sectarian agenda since all ethnic groups and religious denominations are represented in this militant quest for democracy and rule of law. Other voices have come from the international community warning Nkurunziza against the third term bid. The US, the AU and the EU have all voiced their concerns and called on Nkurunziza to respect the constitutional order ushered in by the Arusha Accord. This goes to demonstrate that the Burundi political question is not just an internal affair--it is also a global and regional issue.

There is some eloquent silence in the Great Lakes region as neighbouring leaders watch intently as events unfold in Burundi. It should be noted that Burundi is part of the East African Community headed by Jakaya Kikwete, President of Tanzania. He has spoken out challenging the President of Burundi to respect the constitution on term limits. A meeting was set for the 13 May for the regional heads of state to resolve the Burundian crisis.

The initial silence from Rwanda and Uganda speaks volumes. But lately Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame has spoken out essentially challenging Nkurunziza to respect the Arusha Accord. Rwanda is right to be concerned since a large number of refugees from Burundi are fleeing to Rwanda and have the potential to cause instability there. Could it be that the two countries of Rwanda and Uganda are seeing something similar likely to come close to home? In politics there is what is called ‘contagion effect.’ Civilians might be learning political lessons much faster than their leaders.


Burundi is a land-locked country neighbouring DRC to the West, Rwanda to the South-East and Tanzania to the South. Uganda is not too far from Burundi. Burundi is also a member of the East African Community that includes Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda. There is no way Burundi’s crisis can be looked at in isolation. If this crisis goes on with tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the country (the figure is now about 50,000), then entire region will be destabilized. Trade will be disrupted and especially that Burundi was just beginning to recover its fragile economy.

There are also regional security concerns, largely stemming from the increasing number of refugees and displaced persons. UNHCR has recorded the following figures so far: Rwanda (25,004); Tanzania (17,696); DRC South Kivu (8,000). The Great Lakes region especially DRC is host to numerous rebel groups fighting Uganda and Rwanda governments. They usually recruit from refugees. These rebel groups can either take advantage of the confusion created by Burundi’s crisis to attack neighbouring countries or even conscript these Burundian refugees in their ranks.

This new surge in refugees from Burundi is quite unfortunate because after the civil war ended in 2005, some rather successful strategies had been put in place to address the plight of displaced people. These strategies included: voluntary return of close to 500, 000 Burundian refugees; granting citizenship to about 200,000 Burundian refugees by Tanzania; and resettling some refugees in foreign countries including the US (8,000). This success story the UNHCR has been celebrating is being reversed all because of a presidential bid for a third term that has clearly turned out a ‘sad term.’

At the global level, Burundi is also an issue of concern. Mention has already been made of the scheme to resettle Burundian refugees to overseas countries such as the USA. This new wave of violence will no doubt send some of the refugees, especially those with means, to distant foreign countries. This is at a time when the West is already dealing with illegal immigrants crossing seas from Africa.

At the global level there is also the issue of the international criminal justice system or the ICC. The Chief prosecutor of the ICC in The Hague, Fatou Bensouda has already announced that she is ‘closely following’ the unfolding events in Burundi. The ICC cannot stand by and watch as crimes against humanity are committed. Her warning is loud and clear: ‘Any person who incites or engages in acts of mass violence…is liable to prosecution before the court.’

There is also a disturbing development in the Burundi crisis where the ruling party CNDD-FDD’s youth wing known as Imbonerakure is involved in acts of violence against civilians. There are reports that this youth wing is using grenades and guns presumably supplied by the government. This is the type of strategy that can be defined as an act of genocide especially if it is targeting certain groups with the aim of eliminating them in part or in whole, on the basis of their identity. If the president was right and legitimately claiming the third term, why would the ruling party unleash a youth militia on citizens who are exercising their democratic right to protest what they consider a contravention of a constitution or rule of law?


When all is said and done, the fundamental question remains: what is the way forward for Burundi? There is a lot that can happen at the diplomatic front. Silence is not an option given the gravity of the issue. At the regional level, the EAC heads of state need to act swift. Foreign Ministers have already held some meeting and an emergency meeting for heads of state was due on 13 May. What should this EAC initiative emphasize? Peace and security is key. Other heads of state should join Paul Kagame and Kikwete to clearly remind Nkurunziza of the Arusha Accord and its spirit so that the third term bid is dropped for the greater good of the country and the region.

The AU Commission Chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has already clearly stated that the current situation in Burundi cannot allow free and fair elections: ‘Other than the Burundi court, all interpretation that we get about the constitution is that…really there shouldn’t be a third term.’ This a sober voice of reason and time-tested political wisdom from the highest office on the continent. President Nkuruzinza will do well to heed such a call, for his own good and for the good of Burundi.

The call by Nkurunziza to end protests so as to allow elections to go ahead peacefully, and his vow that this will be his last term, do not seem persuasive. The best way to ensure peace is for him to drop the third term bid. This call for putting off the fire without removing what caused the fire in the first place is not sustainable. If Nkurunziza cannot honour the Arusha Accord that provides for two terms, how does he expect the people his appealing to to trust him that this third term will be his last? The constitution can be changed to remove the term limits using the same constitutional court that granted him this contested third term.

What of a political solution? There is still some time to organize elections this year but only if Nkurunziza drops the third term quest. But even then this can only be later in the year to let the scars of violence heal. In a highly volatile climate, it would be suicidal to arrange elections. The energy that has been put into street protests can very easily be turned into electoral violence as the third term issue will be brought up against the ruling party of Nkurunziza. If there is a transitional formula in the Arusha Accord in case things turn ugly, as they have done, let this be tried as preparations for elections resume. And Nkurunziza would do well to steer away from the election campaigns lest he revives the popular anger that is still simmering.

The current crisis in Burundi can be solved but the right steps will have to be taken. The international community will have to continue with its diplomatic moves including threats of sanctions, but also support the regional initiatives as sell as internal processes. But above all, the greatest onus is on President Pierre Nkurunziza, and his ruling party to do the needful and respect the spirit of the Arusha Accord and forget the third term bid. If Nkurunziza leaves office honourably after his two terms he will join other African luminaries like Good-Luck Jonathan of Nigeria, Mwai Kibaki of Kenya, and thus contribute the growing process of consolidating democracy in Africa. The Great Lakes region needs some break from the vicious cycles of violence caused by the desire to cling to power by unconstitutional means.

* Odomaro Mubangizi, PhD, teaches Philosophy and Theology at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.



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