by Zara Riaz
Sub-Saharan Africa faces a busy electoral calendar in 2015. Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mauritius, Niger, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, and Zambia are all scheduled to hold presidential or legislative elections in the months to come, with many of these elections predicted to play turning points in the deepening and institutionalizing of democracy. For Burundi, the upcoming elections in May and June are likely to play a pivotal role in determining whether the country relapses into conflict. After a 12-year civil war formally ending with the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement in 2003, the small landlocked country has rested on a fragile peace brokered by a complex power sharing agreement. Though the violence that may ensue from the upcoming elections is unlikely to escalate to the high levels of ethnic violence seen during the civil war, increasing political violence in the country suggests that the fragile peace may quickly unravel, with consequences for both Burundi as well as its neighbors in the African Great Lakes Region.
After the civil war, the Arusha Accords ushered in an era of consociational politics in Burundi. The new constitution contained provisions to overtly recognize the ethnic tensions that had plagued the country, as opposed to an edict against recognizing divisions between Hutus and Tutsis adopted in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. In order to ensure both ethnic and gender pluralism, the constitution requires that the government and the National Assembly must be 40% Tutsi, 60% Hutu, and must include 30% women. Within the executive branch consisting of a President, a First Vice President in charge of political and administrative affairs and a Second Vice President in charge of social and economic affairs, the two vice presidents must be of different ethnic groups and political parties, seen as a crucial security guarantee for the Tutsi minority.
While this agreement, often considered one of the most complex power sharing arrangements in Africa, ensures a certain degree of inclusivity in governance, the results of the upcoming elections may threaten its survival. The current ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy and the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) is actively working to undermine the stability the power sharing agreement has brought by revising the constitution. It intends to replace the current vice presidency positions with one weaker president. Without the stronger first vice-president, required to be of a different ethnic group than the President, one ethnic group is likely to maintain strong control of the executive.
However, most worrisome is the fact that despite unsuccessful attempts to revise the constitution, to eliminate restrictions on the number of terms for the president, current president Pierre Nkurunziza is still bidding for a third term in the upcoming elections. Opposition groups warn Nkurunziza that he could face a similar fate as President Joseph Kabila from neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (CRD), where deadly protests broke out in January because the opposition feared that he was trying to extend his stay in power. While the opposition protests in the DRC killed more than 40 people, Burundi’s ruling party has stated that anyone seeking to spark such protests will face the law. The opposition also accuses the government of manipulating the voter registration process, yet the complaints have been met with a refusal to repeat the registration.
The tightening political space is affecting both opposition members as well as journalists. The opposition has only two weeks to campaign before each of the two elections, while the ruling party can hold gatherings on a daily basis. Furthermore, the activities of journalists and human rights activists are increasingly being restricted, evidenced by a new law that now puts journalists at risk for prosecution for reporting about the economy or national security. The Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s increasingly militant youth wing, is carrying out much of these attacks on the opposition and journalists. Absorbing most of the 50,000 former Hutu fighters demobilized after the country’s civil war, the Imbonerakure is becoming particularly powerful in rural areas, where it has taken over public safety and it is openly murdering and beating government critics.
While the increasing levels of political violence spurred by the Imbonerakure and the CNDD-FDD raise worrisome alarms regarding the overall stability in Burundi, it is unlikely that this violence will take on the same ethnic character as seen during the civil war. One indicator might actually be the country’s dire economic situation. Burundi recently escaped bankruptcy last year after foreign donors bailed it out. Socio-economic development has also been appalling, with the country ranking 180th out of 187 countries in the 2014 Human Development Index. However, as disappointing as the economic situation is, the pervasive impoverishment in Burundi might actually be mitigating some of the ethnic biases in Burundian politics. Countering the long-running perception of the “exploitative Tutsi”, the poor economic performance is signaling that Hutu can exploit Hutu as well.
Although the United Nations Office in Burundi (BNUB) ended its mandate last December, the international community cannot look away at a time of such political volatility. Even if political violence in Burundi doesn’t erupt to the same level as witnessed before, the country still faces a real risk of relapsing into conflict.
Image Source: UN News Center