Burundi: crashing into chaos once again

By Ignatius Ssuuna - 22 September 2015 at 1:08 pm
Police drive by the scene of a grenade attack on a parked car downtown Bujumbura, Burundi, Monday July 20, 2015, on the eve of presidential elections. No injuries were reported. Burundi has been rocked by violence that has left more than 100 people dead. Over 144,000 people have fled the country since the ruling party announced President Pierre Nkurunziza's candidacy in April. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

AP Photo/Jerome Delay

Burundi — What does a despot do when he knows his last term to rule his people has ended and that he isn’t really going to be the right leader sitting on the throne anymore? Especially if he is fearful of what “enemies” he has made in the process of clinging to power will do to him once he steps down?

Where power is seen to come from manipulation, not from masses, and rule of law is ignored, good governance doesn’t feature. The ruler will begin to suspect everybody to challenge his power and call upon his henchmen to slay them.

The Pierre Nkurunziza regime in Burundi bears many of these features today, with determination to stay in power- even if this means turning the country again into slaughter field after a 13-year brutal war that cost some 300,000 lives that ended in 2005. Will sanity return in Burundi, with good rulers and rule of law restored?

Burundi’s rights activist, Vital Nshimiyimana warns Burundians to be prepared for the worst. “What is happening today is that the army is divided,” Nshimiyimana told Africa Times. “It’s hard to tell who will serve the situation.”

What is clear, Nshimiyimana says, is that whatever happens, Nkurunziza’s resolve to hang on power poses a huge barrier to peace in this east African country.

According to Nshimiyimana, the army is divided into camps-one group supporting Nkurunziza while the other opposed to his third term bid. When protests started in April, most of those targeted were ordinary people on the street, who were calling on Nkurunziza to go.

But today, a worrying development has emerged. People close to the heart of the regime are accused of changing sides. On July 1, as the people of Burundi celebrated the country’s 53rd Independence Day in the capital Bujumbura, President Nkurunziza took to the podium and hailed senior army officers, who had helped defeat the coup, led by his former spy chief, Gen. Godefroid Niyombare, on May 13.

But on the list of these “brave army officers”, the name of General Prime Niyongabo, Burundi’s army chief of staff was missing. This surprised many.

Originally scheduled to give a speech on behalf of the army, Gen. Niyongabo, had been abruptly left out of the program without explanation.

The mistrust between President and his army chief of staff is said to have developed after members of the ruling party stumbled on what they said was sensitive information the general was sharing with coup plotters.

And a day before he was attacked on September 12, Gen. Niyongabo had met a group of disgruntled soldiers in the capital Bujumbura- mainly drawn from the army of former President Pierre Buyoya now integrated in the National Defense Forces.

The soldiers complained of harassment from Nkurunziza’s secret operatives. They said most of their relatives had been killed or kidnapped by Imbonerakure, Burundis’s armed youth wing who have been fighting tooth and nail to keep “their” president in power.

In respponse, Gen. Niyongabo is said to have promised to discuss the matter with the people considered “high up”. But as it goes, the following day, there was an assassination attempt on his life.

From Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura to remote villages, Burundians, speaking in hushed tones, believe those who wanted Gen Niyongabo dead were elements within the system who say by meeting soldiers believed to be in anti- Nkurunziza, the general was building a power base for himself.

Burundi has never had a peaceful transfer of power. First, it’s vicious cycle. Countries with a history of killings, coups, ethnic revenge, and armed rebellion, it seems likely to have another rebellion in future. It’s history repeating itself in Burundi now.

Following her independence in 1962, Burundi was ruled by a succession of powerful Tutsi military leaders and when Hutus tried to stage an uprising in 1972 but failed, thousands of Hutu members were killed.

And when Burundi’s first democratically elected president in 1993, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, was assassinated by a group of Tutsi soldiers, the country again descended into a wave of ethnically motivated killings, sending this time round, a majority of Hutus into the forest to wage a protracted guerilla war against the Tutsi dominated army.

Politics is about give and take. The belligerents signed what became the Arusha Peace Agreement, the main source on which the constitution is drawn from as well as the presidential term limits.

Under the Arusha Accords, the composition of the government and the National Assembly was to be determined through a quota system under which ethnic-Tutsis were over-represented, accorded them 40 percent of government posts and National Assembly seats, and 50 percent of Senate seats and positions within the National Defence Forces (FDN).

While Nkurunziza’s reign has demonstrated good signs of reconciliation and largely ended ethic divisions, good communal relations continue to be undermined by Hutu memories of the 1972 massacre and Tutsi oppression of the Hutu majority under a succession of military governments between the mid-1960s and the late 1980s.

Tutsis today remain concerned about the potential implications of rule by the Hutu ethnic majority and while some Tutsi elites, especially those in the army, are considered to be hostile to Nkurunziza’s new job.

Yet, the key issue for much of the Hutu community today is whether the lack of balance engendered by the long-standing ethnic divide can be addressed on a durable basis. For much of the Tutsi community, the key issue is how far will thier (minority) rights be safeguarded under a more democratic, majoritarian system.

The Arusha Accords tried to address these concerns and the country enjoyed some semblance of peace over a decade till April this year when Nkurunziza announced he would stand for a third term, a match that ignited the flames in a country of 10 million.

Though Nkurunziza was a president for two terms, his first term, his supporters argue, was appointed as part of a peace agreement and he was not officially elected. Thus he is fully eligible to stand for another, in their view a second and not a third, time.

“The Arusha agreement was the glue that has held Burundi together,” Dr. Yolande Bouka, researcher from South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies (ISS) said.

In Musaga, a district in Bujumbura and epicenter for most of violence, in the nights, is rattled with bursts of gunfire and the blasts of grenades. Because independent media outlets have been shut down and journalists fled in exile, most deaths are not talked about.

A day an assassination attempt on general Niyongabo was carried out, residents in Cibitoke district, in Bujumbura walked in the street, passed five bodies rotting on the roadside, barely noticing them since killings has become a common sight here.

Beata Imananinziza, a young university student was among the dead for her role in the protests. Beata together with other students had been fervent about change in their country. Her colleagues say every time Beata visited Kirundo, her home town in the south of the country, the poverty in the village was too much to bear.

This is why, she had joined other protests and called on Nkurunziza to go when she spotted local policemen. She was arrested and two days later, her body was found with bullet wounds, her colleague, Inshimbi Iribagiza told Africa Times.

Family attempts to be heard about these murders of their loved ones are met with silence and threats.  “The candidacy of the president was very divisive, including in the security forces,” Thierry Vircoulon, Director of Central Africa International Crisis Group said.

He says the integration of the army after the war was regarded as the best achievement of the Arusha Agreement.

Willy Nyamitwe, Presidential adviser on media has a different view. “There is peace in Burundi,” he told Africa Times in Bujumbura. But in a country where government says there is peace, more than 1000 have been killed in four months and at least 250000 fled to exile.

Mysterious killings, gunshots in the nights and children not attending schools are all signs that the madness in Burundi is about to happen again.


Ignatius Ssuuna

Ignatius Ssuuna

Ignatius Ssuuna is an investigative journalist based in Rwanda.

He writes on human rights, conflicts and humanitarian crisis in the East African region. He writes on a freelance basis for DPA, IRIN, Zam Magazine and the Daily Monitor in Uganda. He was previously investigations editor at The NewTimes, Rwanda's English daily newspaper. He is a freelance researcher with Global Integrity, an independent nonprofit organization tracking governance and corruption trends around the world.

Twitter: @ignatiuskateera

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