Burundi, a small, landlocked country in central Africa, is currently experiencing the most intense political and social turmoil since its 12-year-long civil war ended in 2005.  The turmoil was sparked by the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy(CNDD-FDD) party’s announcement that President Pierre Nkurunziza will seek a controversial third term in elections slated for the end of June, prohibited by the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement that ended the civil war. Nkurunziza’s supporters argue that the Constitution allows him to serve another term because he was first elected by Parliament, not by direct suffrage, but the opposition maintains that a third term would be unconstitutional. This has led to widespread protests in the capital Bujumbura, leaving more than 20 dead and hundreds injured as protesters have been met with live ammunition from police and military forces. 

Burundi, a small, landlocked country in central Africa, is currently experiencing the most intense political and social turmoil since its 12-year-long civil war ended in 2005.  The turmoil was sparked by the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) party’s announcement that President Pierre Nkurunziza will seek a controversial third term in elections slated for the end of June, prohibited by the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement that ended the civil war. Nkurunziza’s supporters argue that the Constitution allows him to serve another term because he was first elected by Parliament, not by direct suffrage, but the opposition maintains that a third term would be unconstitutional. This has led to widespread protests in the capital Bujumbura, leaving more than 20 dead and hundreds injured as protesters have been met with live ammunition from police and military forces. 

 Burundi faces a particularly complex situation, as President Nkurunziza remains popular outside of the capital largely due to his role as a leader of the CNDD-FDD militia during the civil war, and he would probably win the election if it is held in June.  The CNDD-FDD was the most prominent Hutu-led (the country’s ethnic makeup is over 85% Hutu) militia and is viewed by many outside of Bujumbura (where less than 10% of the population lives) as the group responsible for saving them from decades of repression under a series of Tutsi-dominated military dictatorships. Though the current crisis is not primarily about ethnicity, analysts and scholars in Burundi warn that the crisis could bring old conflicts back to light, particularly if politicians bring up ethnic differences in order to foment support for their political ambitions.   

The complexity of Burundi’s recent history is compounded by the country’s extreme poverty.  Burundi is the fifth poorest country in the world and average per capita income is $900 a year.  It also has one of the fastest growing populations in the world and is reliant on agriculture for employment and exports, even though the country has extremely limited arable land and a high population density. 

The large youth population has created a glut of educated, but unemployed, young people, who are thought to form the core of the protests in Burundi.  In this Equal Times article the young people interviewed from different political parties explained that they were in the streets to protest lack of opportunities and cronyism and corruption in the government- and some perceived Nkurunziza’s seeking of a third term as emblematic of the government’s corruption. 

Nkurunziza’s seeking a third term is also perceived negatively in the international arena.  Foreign aid is the largest contributor to Burundi’s national income, and aid organization’s and foreign governments are pulling out due to the political unrest.  Belgium, the country’s former colonial ruler, is the largest donor and has warned the President that if he runs in the June election they will stop donating altogether. 

Burundians’ poverty, caused by the aforementioned macroeconomic issues and slow recovery from twelve years of civil war, is being exacerbated on the micro level by the protests which have shut down large parts of Bujumbura.  People in certain neighborhoods are unable to go to work or buy food because of threats by protesters and ongoing shooting.  Those who are able to leave their homes face danger and tardiness as both the protesters and the government have set up roadblocks.  As a friend of Blue Star’s working in Bujumbura noted, “after a month of this, economic collapse does seem imminent.” 

Prior to the current protests the country could not afford to pay for elections and was relying on foreign aid and NGO’s.  Because the international community views Nkurunziza’s attempt at a third term as undemocratic it has removed funding for the election.  To pay for the elections the government has cut funding for health, education, and from seven other ministries.   On Tuesday the 26th, the government put out a statement asking “patriotic citizens” to donate to a special election account- demonstrating just how difficult it would be for the country to hold elections without foreign aid.

In addition to the basic issue of whether or not Nkurunziza can seek a third term according to the Constitution, the CNDD-FDD has certainly limited democracy during its ten-year rule.  For example, it has prevented other parties from campaigning outside of the capital which has enabled it to successfully maintain its rural power base.  The opposition is calling for the elections to be pushed back to the fall, and for Nkurunziza to withdraw his candidacy so that they have time to organize and campaign outside of Bujumbura.    

The opposition is fragmented, composed of a few prominent parties and several smaller groups, with influence concentrated in Bujumbura.  The largest opposition party is the FNL another former Hutu rebel group that rivaled the CNDD-FDD during the civil war, led by Agathon Rwasa, and the Tutsi-led Uprona party, formerly the only legal party under the previous dictatorships, now led by Charles Nditije. Former journalist and leader of the MSD party, Alexis Sinduhije, is now exiled in Europe. Zedi Feruzi, the leader of a smaller but key opposition party formed by former CNDD-FDD members, UPD, was killed May 24th on his way home in Bujumbura.  His killing led to talks breaking down between the government and the opposition.   Rwasa is the most viable opposition candidate but comes with baggage- the FNL didn’t demobilize until 2009 and is perceived as responsible for some of the most intense anti-Tutsi violence during the civil war.  The FNL is now rebranding itself as the party which is willing to break down ethnic barriers, and has formed an unlikely coalition with the Uprona to oppose the President. 

Whether or not the presidential elections are held in June, Burundi is clearly on the brink of economic and political crisis.  One can only hope that cooler heads prevail and that violence does not spread throughout the country.   Though the international community has already begun calling on Nkurunziza to stand down, and begun cutting off aid, it should do more to further talks between the government and the opposition.  This weekend the East African Community is holding a summit to discuss the crisis in Burundi in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and other non-regional powers should send representatives and show support for the talks to try to stem the violence (and slow the economic collapse) before the situation worsens.