Burundi’s presidential polls, which were originally scheduled for today, were put back to mid-July in the aftermath of a coup attempt in May against President Pierre Nkurunziza. The president has steadfastly refused to postpone them further. He now seems determined to follow through with his bid to win a third term, despite continued domestic protests and a chorus of international disapproval, and has chosen to withdraw his CNDD-FDD party from UN-mediated dialogue. But though he may succeed, ultimately he is fighting a precarious battle to retain power, one that could have severe consequences for Burundi’s fragile politics.
Nkurunziza is increasingly isolated. Despite the prevarications of the East African Community and African Union, which have so far refrained from directly calling for his departure and instead emphasized the need for inclusive dialogue, Nkurunziza is running out of friends abroad – particularly the donors which have in recent years funded much of Burundi’s budget. And though his grip on the police and security services has so far proved sufficient to manage internal opposition, and defeat May’s attempted coup, he has few left at home – with one important exception. He is betting his political future – and that of his country – on his continued appeal to the overwhelmingly rural majority that drove Nkurunziza’s party, to power in 2005 elections that ended Burundi’s post-war transition.
In contrast with his regional counterparts, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Nkurunziza did not come to power after unambiguously winning a war. Instead, the Burundian conflict (1993-2003) ended in a long, slow stalemate, with neither the army nor rebels able to achieve victory. The Arusha Accords that put in place the foundations of Burundi’s post-war settlement reflected this balance, with ethnic power-sharing written into the constitution and former enemies integrated into a mixed military.
Further, Nkurunziza was not a charismatic leader in the Kagame or Museveni mould. He did not found his party, nor lead it through most of the war. Rather, he emerged as a central figure late in the conflict, taking control of a faction of the CNDD-FDD in 2001 – controlling the largest number of rebel troops, certainly, but just one subset of one of the combatant groups. And, importantly, he was a military leader, not a politician, and played no part in the negotiations which led to the signing of the Arusha Accords, to which he was not a signatory.
Thus, despite winning a large majority in the 2005 elections, Nkurunziza was forced to accept a pre-existing compromise not of his own making. Rather than being able to impose a singular vision for the political future of Burundi In the way that Uganda’s NRM or Rwanda’s RPF were able to, the Arusha template of power-sharing saw Nkurunziza’s influence tempered. Space remained within Burundi’s post-war settlement for opposition voices, civil society and a vibrant independent media. It is these actors who have led the protests against Nkurunziza’s candidacy, in the face of increasingly brutal repression.
However, while brave and vocal, this opposition is rooted in Burundi’s urban middle class – numerically tiny in comparison to the rural majority that provided the foundation of the CNDD-FDD during the war, and the votes that propelled Nkurunziza to victory in 2005. Nkurunziza has protected this advantage, frequently campaigning in the countryside and ruthlessly supressing rival political networks. It is this powerbase that has empowered Nkurunziza to face down disapproval for his third term bid.
In fundamental terms, the current crisis risks replacing the power-sharing enshrined in Arusha with a brute reflection of Burundi’s demographics. It is important to note that this is not predominantly an ethnic question. The CNDD-FDD was founded on restoring democratic politics in Burundi, drawing support from both Hutu and Tutsi. The political and social cleavages that generated the conflict were between a corrupt, militarized elite - largely Tutsi from one southern province - and the deeply disenfranchised and impoverished majority, of both ethnicities. Though the logic of violence and mobilisation lead to appalling inter-community violence, power and politics were at the heart of the problem, not ethnicity.
In the short term, Nkurunziza seems set on bulling through external criticism and internal resistance, and may well win an election, however discredited. Though protests continue, political opposition is fractured and weak. Disgruntled former regime insiders and elements of the military tried and failed to unseat Nkurunziza in May - for now, their teeth seem to have been pulled. Though scant information is available from rural areas, they seem to have remained relatively calm, despite some reports of demonstrations.
But the spectre of past violence looms large, embodied in the Imbonerakure youth militia that the CNDD-FDD has used to intimidate opponents. Significant sections of the CNDD-FDD understand the risks of abandoning inclusive politics and do not wish to see the country slide back into personalized rule, still less the return of ethnic politics. Much of the military, too, has become a proud symbol of Burundi’s post-war ethnic cohabitation. Religious leaders, notably the Catholic Church, have made their opposition clear. And, most importantly, Nkurunziza’s appeal to rural voters will wane, particularly if they begin to see him not as the guarantor of their security, but rather as a threat to it – and the refugees flooding into Burundi’s neighbours suggests that anxiety is high and growing.
So Nkurunziza seems set on forcing his way to a victory that can only prove to be pyrrhic. It seems unlikely he would subsequently be able to rebuild support among his own party, or repair a fractured military, let alone mollify internal and external critics. Sanctions and aid cuts may follow, further weakening Burundi’s economy and ability to cope with massive over-population, land pressure and poverty. The question is how much of Burundi’s hard won peace and social harmony must be sacrificed before Nkurunziza realises that, ultimately, his bet is a losing one.
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