Tension is building in Burundi as President Pierre Nkurunziza plans to seek a third term in elections, with thousands of people fleeing the East African nation fearing violence.
Protests erupted in the capital, Bujumbura, on April 26, the day after the ruling party nominated Nkurunziza as its candidate for June elections. At least five civilians and two police officers have been killed and more than 250 others arrested during the demonstrations. Most shops and schools in the city remain closed, the United Nations said on Wednesday.
The confrontation is raising fears of a return to conflict for the landlocked country a decade after it ended a 12-year civil war that killed 300,000 people. Opposition groups say Nkurunziza’s candidacy for the June 26 election violates peace agreements that stipulated a two-term presidential limit. The country’s senate has asked the constitutional court to study the legality of the president’s bid.
“All signs are worrying in the extreme and we see a real risk that war could break out again,” Francois Conradie, a political analyst at NKC Independent Economists in South Africa, said in an e-mailed note to clients.
The UN, which has dispatched a special regional envoy to consult with political leaders, and rights groups such as Amnesty International have warned in the past year of an increase in politically motivated violence. A July report by London-based Amnesty said that members of the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, intimidated and attacked political opponents with impunity.
Almost 21,000 Burundians have sought refuge in neighboring Rwanda in the past two weeks, citing threats of political violence. At least 4,000 people fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and another 100 to Tanzania, according to the UN.
Authorities have restricted live broadcasts of the protests on at least three radio stations, while at least one has been shut down, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. Access to some social networking services has been blocked by authorities, according to the UN.
“Nkurunziza is clearly betting that he will be able to control the country using the Imbonerakure and propaganda in rural areas, and sheer force in Bujumbura,” said Conradie.
Burundi, which is bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, is East Africa’s smallest economy with a gross domestic product of about $2.5 billion. Agriculture, mainly coffee and tea production, accounts for more than a third of the economy’s output.
Nkurunziza’s bid to stay in office has divided his party and lost him support with some prominent military and intelligence officers, who previously played key roles in keeping him in power, Conradie said.
Ruling party members and governors who have opposed a third term have been dismissed over the past month. Venant Barubike, the secretary of Burundi’s Senate, said by phone that the body has called on the constitutional court to “shed light” on two articles in the constitution related to elections.
Whether the protests persist depends both on the ability of opposition activists to organize and the influence of these disaffected former supporters of Nkurunziza, said Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a political analyst based in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.
“The behavior of the security forces is critical here,” he said in an e-mailed response to questions. “There are reports that he has more support within the police than within the military. If this is true, an escalation could see the military seize power” for a transitional period, he said.
Burundi’s civil war erupted in 1993 when the country’s first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye from the Hutu ethnic group, was assassinated by members of the Tutsi-dominated army. The conflict was aggravated by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which at least 800,000 people, mainly Tutsis, were killed within 100 days.
The prospect of another civil war in Burundi “seems unlikely” as insurgents would need support from at least one neighboring country and there is no plausible candidate to offer it, said Golooba-Mutebi.
Regional leaders may regard Nkurunziza as “the devil they know,” he said. The president also appears to be popular outside the capital, meaning any opponents would lack crucial domestic support, he said.
Burundi is scheduled to hold legislative elections on May 26, a month before the presidential vote. The earlier polls are of “particular importance as they generally indicate the trends” for the election of the head of state, the UN said in a report.