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The protests occurred against a backdrop of sustained political and economic marginalisation by the Nkurunziza regime and widespread fear. Protest leaders successfully tapped into individual discontent and anxieties generated by exclusion and repression by a violent dictatorship.

Violent protests have gripped the streets of Bujumbura since the 26 April when the Burundian President, Pierre Nkurunziza, declared his intention to run for a third term. On 13 May, protestors celebrated the announcement that the President had been dismissed and a coup d’état was underway. Yet the outcome of the coup remains unclear as army factions fight for control of key government institutions in the capital.

It was always a possibility, yet few genuinely believed the army would move against the President, especially under the leadership of his former ally, Major General Godefroid Niyombare. Throughout the unrest, the army had largely remained neutral, often acting as a barrier between protestors and police. Yet it had already fired a warning shot. On 2 May, the Minister of Defence, Pontien Gaciyubwenge, issued a statement demanding that political actors respect the Constitution and the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. General Niyombare, while declaring the coup announced that the army had moved “to remedy the unconstitutional environment into which Burundi has been plunged”.

While the coup itself was not widely predicted, the protests that led to it were easily foreseeable. Nkurunziza never concealed his desire to run and those opposed to his candidacy never hid their intention to contest it.

Since narrowly failing to change the constitution last year, the President and his supporters consistently made the case for why he could stand for a third term. Nkurunziza argued that the term limits contained in the Arusha Agreement and the Constitution did not apply to him because he was not elected by popular vote in 2005 – a position that was controversially endorsed by the Constitutional Court last week.

The President also crushed opposition within his own party that emerged in the weeks leading up to his candidacy. Nkurunziza dismissed his spokesperson, Leonidas Hatungimana, and sought to oust the President of the National Assembly, Pie Ntavyohanyuma, both of whom warned him against standing again. In February, the leader of the coup, General Niyombare, was removed as the head of the intelligence services for his opposition to the third term. His wife narrowly escaped an assassination attempt later that month.

In a further show of strength and intent, the ruling Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie – Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD) organised a huge pro-regime rally on the 11 April. According to the party, over 50,000 people congregated in central Bujumbura in support of Nkurunziza’s third term, with supporters being bussed in from around the country.

Public opposition increased dramatically over recent months as civil society, political parties, the international community, and even the Catholic Church issued statements against the third term. Opposition demonstrations became larger and more frequent. In January, protests followed the arrest of Bob Rugarika, the head of the largest independent radio station, Radio Publique Africaine. Upon his release, thousands took to the street in a huge, spontaneous protest.

Although these events help to explain why the protests were widely predicted, they do not explain what drove them. To really understand why people took to the streets, it’s important to recognise that the protests occurred against a backdrop of sustained political and economic marginalisation and widespread fear. While the reasons that motivated each demonstrator to take to the streets will have differed greatly, it appears protest leaders successfully tapped into individual discontent and anxieties generated by exclusion and repression.

Democratisation has done little to support broad-based participation in political institutions and processes. At the national level few formal spaces for civil society engagement exist. Opportunities for the inclusion of ordinary citizens in decision-making at the local level are also few and far between, meaning decisions are often made behind closed doors. Civil society groups have sought to increase levels of participation through supporting initiatives that promote local accountability, such as participatory governance committees. Yet the spaces for participation they create are often informal and limited.

Feelings of political exclusion have been reinforced by restrictions placed on protest and dissent. Over the past two years the Government has introduced laws designed to increase control over independent media and public gatherings, such as the Law on Demonstrations and Public Meetings, which allows the authorities to prevent public assemblies and ban spontaneous protests. Those who openly criticise the Government have been intimidated and harassed. High profile civil society activists reported receiving phone calls in the middle of the night and seeing strange people hanging around outside their homes in recent months. Others received serious threats to themselves and their families [1].

Restrictions on speech and assembly forced Burundians to find increasingly creative ways to express discontent. Civil society actors encouraged people to wear green every Tuesday in solidarity with imprisoned activists and the causes they championed. The Mardi Vert movement, as it became known, successfully enabled ordinary Burundians to engage in protest without violating the law. In April, the civil society coalition opposing Nkurunziza’s candidacy, Halte au Troisième Mandat!, called on Bujumbura motorists to sound their horns in unison against the third term. Burundians responded en masse, creating a noise that could be heard from the hills surrounding the city.

Economic hardship has also contributed to rising tensions in Burundi. Increasing cost of living and a crippling petrol crisis have made life more and more difficult for ordinary people. In March, the civil society coalition, Le Campagne Contre La Vie Cher, brought the capital to a standstill, encouraging Burundians to stay at home in protest at the Government’s failure to respond to rising living costs. While the leaders of the protests are themselves often from relatively affluent or middle class backgrounds, they tapped into the concerns of ordinary Burundians who feel that the Government is doing little to make life better for them and their families.

But it’s not only civil society and protest leaders that have exploited the frustrations and discontent generated by political and economic marginalisation. Many Burundians I have talked to in recent months have real concerns about the manipulation of young people by political actors, including the ruling party and political opposition.

The rise of the Imbonerakure, the armed youth wing of the ruling CNDD-FDD, has reinforced these concerns. Over the past year, reports of small-scale attacks on civilians and opposition members by the youth militia have increased. Those who have crossed the border into neighbouring Rwanda in recent weeks have told how the Imbonerakure are patrolling neighbourhoods with clubs spiked with nails and painting red marks on the houses of those they intend to target[2] .

Although the current unrest appears to be political at the moment, many fear that people could become mobilised along ethnic lines, should ethnicity become salient once again. This is because Burundi has been here before. During the civil war, youth militia such as the Tutsi Front Jeunesse Patriotique and the Hutu youth paramilitary group known as the abajeunes or the Gardiens de la Paix, patrolled and terrorised communities throughout the country. Although the number of young men who actually joined militias during the war stood at less than 3%, they succeeded in creating a climate of fear and disorder that supported the spread of ethnic violence[3] .

Burundians are afraid that history is about to repeat itself. Scenes of celebration witnessed on the streets of Bujumbura upon announcement of the coup, were accompanied by those of fear and panic. Immediately following the announcement, reporters witnessed people running to safety and locking themselves indoors. Ordinary people took to the streets because they wanted a more peaceful, prosperous and democratic Burundi. Yet this outcome is by no means guaranteed by the coup attempt. The situation remains fragile and uncertain, and we have yet to see how actors such as the Imbonerakure will respond. Like many Burundians I am watching and waiting, afraid for the future of a country and people that I care about deeply.


[1] EurAc (01 December 2014) “Burundi: The European network for Central Africa (EurAc) is concerned by threats to the Forum pour la Conscience et le Développement (FOCODE) and to its President, Pacifique Nininahazwe.”
[2] UNHCR (8 May 2015) “More than 50,000 flee Burundi to escape spiralling violence”. Available online at:
[3] Uvin, Peter (2009) Life After Violence: A People’s History of Burundi (London: Zed Books)

* Rowan Popplewell is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on civil society and peacebuilding in Burundi.



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