Burundi needs democracy and respect for the rule of law
While there have been jubilations in the streets in Bujumbura because of the ‘attempted’ military coup on 13 May after just under three weeks of protest, and 19 deaths, following the announcement of the candidacy of President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for an unconstitutional third term, Burundians should be cautious about accepting another military regime – one which is more equipped and better trained than in the past due to their access to armed resources as part of their international peace-keeping role.
President Nkurunziza brought this on himself and should step aside. The coup struck as he was being called to account by the leaders of the East African Community in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Opposition, within and outside of his party and from the popular forces, to his plans to stand to change the 2005 Constitution to allow for his bid for a third term has been growing since 2011. The leaders of East Africa must consider the popular call that Nkurunziza should not stand for a third term. The African Union should immediately denounce the coup, and the AU Peace and Security should take hold of the situation. Countries, such as Nigeria and Ghana, should take the lead in working with the Burundian people to enforce the AU’s position that the parliamentary elections, planned for later this month, and the June presidential elections are postponed and new elections held. A peace-keeping force should be introduced, without contingents from Uganda and Rwanda – both these countries are compromised in that their leaders are seeking to prolong their terms in office.
In my book ‘Gender and Genocide in Burundi’, I demonstrate how Burundi’s history of military regimes has promoted violent masculinist forms of power, such that the people have been subjected to episodes of genocide in 1972 and 1993, as well as almost persistent low intensity violence with genocidal characteristics. Democratic elections in 2005, after which Nkurunziza was appointed as President of the largest party, and a further round of elections in 2010 when he was re-elected, did not end the intimidation, extrajudicial killings, arrest and detention of critics of the regime and members of the opposition. Mr Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader, ran the state according to the only model he knew, which was of an authoritarian, predatory and aid-dependent regime.
Furthermore, by forming and arming a militia, Nkurunziza’s party was manipulating the economic desperation of the youth for its political ends. These practices have been known and documented for some time, however, they resulted in only minor criticisms from the international community, presumably because of Burundi’s role in the AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) – providing 5,542 troops to the peace-keeping force. It is partly with this peace-keeping context in mind that Uganda, the European Union, and the USA are compromised. Since 2005, the deaths of Burundians, however small the number, have been tolerated because of some grander project. Now the people are saying: No. The significance of the women’s protest on 11 May, in terms of weakening the credibility of the Nkurunziza regime, should not be underestimated.
The African Union needs to re-think what peace and security should mean in Africa. People in Nigerian and Burkina Faso have spoken in the last year demanding representation and social inclusion beyond the electocracy that is now being experienced in many parts of the continent. It certainly cannot just be freedom to carry out business without acknowledgment of the ways in which the economic policies associated with liberal peace-building have failed to transform the lives of people already impoverished by years of warfare. Instead, Burundi’s military and police contingents, as part of regional and international peace-keeping forces, have meant that the country has a better trained and equipped army, having gained training funded through the USA’s Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) programme, and spending a higher percentage (2.39%) of its Gross Domestic Product on the military than any other country in the East African Community.
Burundians have been on the streets seeking genuine representation. Many observers saw the ethnic quotas in government as a way of nullifying the significance of ethnicity in Burundi’s society. Unfortunately, the ethnic sharing of the national cake at the level of the elite has done little to alleviate the conditions of life for the poor Hutus, Tutsis and Twas. Cross-ethnic alliances are stronger on the ground – among the poor urban and rural communities and it would be tragic if the region and the international community were to stand by and see this difference used instrumentally by unscrupulous politicians.
The Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement of 2000 may not have been signed by the rebel groups and may not have had the full commitment of some of the political elites in Burundi, but it formed an initial blueprint towards the peaceful society Burundians yearned for. Nkurunziza’s attempt to change the Constitution was, for some, the last straw, in that it signalled a drift towards the levels of authoritarianism that Burundians thought were over after the signing of the peace agreement and the adoption of a new constitution via a referendum.
While the people may cheer the departure of Nkurunziza, the generals do not bode well for the country in the long-run. The coup leader Major-General Godefroid Niyombare is a Hutu and a former member of Nkurunziza’s rebel group and later ruling party (National Council for the Defence of Democracy/Forced for the Defence of Democracy – CNDD/FDD). He was expelled by Nkurunziza from the party for criticizing his bid to run for a third term. Most of Nkurunziza’s two presidential periods were incapacitated by in-fighting within the ruling party and the expulsion and imprisonment of some. Others left to form new parties or fled the country.
Niyombare is not unusual, except for having held the positions of head of intelligence and army chief of staff he obviously had the allegiance of the military necessary to mount a coup. While Niyombare, as most coup leaders do, referred to the unconstitutional act of the deposed president and gave economic reasons as motivations for the coup, it is possible this coup was in the making for some time, and used, opportunistically, the protests by the popular forces for democracy as a cover to strike.
The African Union should say no to coups; act to stop outright warfare breaking out between pro- and anti-Nkurunziza forces; and allow political parties to contest elections, in order for the people to exercise their democratic rights unhindered.
Nkurunziza was forced aside; the generals must now step aside.
* Patricia Daley, PhD, is Associate Professor in Human Geography, University of Oxford, and Chair of Fahamu Trust Ltd.