12 March 2014

Burundi On the Brink - Is Nkurunziza Tightening His Grip Ahead of 2015 Elections?

Photo: RFI / Esdras Ndikumana
Police arrested many member of the opposition during the 8 March manifestations

In recent months, opposition ministers have been sacked, violence by the ruling party's youth wing have increased, and controversial constitutional reforms have been proposed.

Bujumbura - With general elections just a year away, opposition groups in Burundi are becoming increasingly worried by what they see as attempts by the ruling party to further unlevel the playing field. In recent months, various opposition figures within the government have been sacked, the ruling party's youth wing has been accused of violently disrupting opposition parties' meetings, and - most alarmingly - controversial amendments to the constitution have been proposed.

Since the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement was signed in 2000, Burundi has been relatively stable compared to the years of brutal civil war - largely between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups - that came before. The peace deal attempted to bring about a cessation in hostilities while also addressing the root causes of the conflict. A key element of the deal was an agreement that state power would be shared between Hutus and Tutsis and that decision-making would be based on consensus-making and pluralism.

According to opposition figures, President Pierre Nkurunziza is now threatening these values with his proposed amendments to the constitution. To begin with, the suggested changes would significantly reduce the powers of the vice-presidency, replacing the current system of there being two vice-presidents - the first of which is required to be from a different ethnic group to the president - with a single weaker figure. The proposed amendments would also reduce the number of votes needed in parliament to pass a law from the current two-thirds majority down to a 50%+1 majority. Finally, some claim the suggested revisions would eliminate term limits for the presidency, thus allowing Nkurunziza, who is coming to the end of his second term in office, to run again in 2015.

In fact, some opposition parties, civil society groups and religious organisations believe the main reason for the constitutional changes would be to allow Nkurunziza to seek a third term, though the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) strongly deny this. Government spokesperson Philipe Nzobonariba has insisted that presidential term limits are nowhere to be found among the issues for revision.

However, at the same time, some of the president's supporters also claim Nkurunziza has technically only held one term in office so far anyway. They point to the fact that Nkurunziza was elected by a parliamentary committee rather than by popular vote in 2005, suggesting his first term therefore doesn't count. In response, opponents to the president insist that a presidential mandate should not be confused with going through an election process.

Oppressing the opposition?

These alleged attempts by President Nkurunziza to change the constitution so he can consolidate his grip on power will have come as little surprise to some of Burundi's opposition. They claim that during and since the 2010 elections - which were marred by intimidation, violence and accusations of rigging - they have been subject to persecution.

In the 2010 presidential ballot, Nkurunziza emerged with 92% of the vote after his opponents withdrew their names from the election, citing intimidation and claiming the government was planning to rig it. Around the election period, dozens of opposition party members and affiliates were arrested and even killed, and after the vote, Agathon Rwasa - arguably Nkurunziza's strongest opponent - escaped into hiding, though he returned in 2013.

Since the election, opposition parties have continued to be intimidated, a new media law has been passed further restricting press freedoms, and the ruling party has allegedly used violence to confine political freedoms and room for dissenting voices. This strategy has reportedly intensified in recent months. Since the start of this year, there have been at least 19 violent attacks involving the CNDD-FDD's youth wing, known as the Imbonerakure, including the reported killing of an opposition youth leader in February.

This rise in violence led the UN's human rights chief, Navi Pillay, to speak out recently, calling on the government "to publicly condemn these violent acts to ensure that those responsible for acts of violence are held accountable." The US government also publicly expressed its concern at "heavy-handed" tactics in Burundi, this time criticising the police for breaking up an opposition meetings last weekend, where they arrested several figures present and left over a dozen people injured.

The CNDD-FDD has arguably stepped up its strategy of political manipulation within the government in recent months too as tension around the proposed constitutional amendments come to a head. In January, Isidore Rufyikiri, President of the Bar Association of Bujumbura, was dismissed after he spoke out against the draft reforms. Then in February, two government members from Union for National Progress (Uprona), one of the few opposition parties to take part in the 2010 legislative elections, were sacked. The two officials - Vice-President Bernard Busokoza and Térence Sinunguruza - had also voiced concerns over the constitutional amendments and went into hiding after they were removed from office.

The expulsion of these Uprona figures prompted three fellow party members to resign from the coalition government too, arguing that the constitutional changes are a deliberate attempt to shun the Tutsi-led opposition party. Although Nkurunziza did appoint a new vice-president and three more ministers from Uprona, as required by the constitution, the party claims the replacements are some of the less popular members of the party and do not represent Uprona's core.

2015 approaches

The 2000 Arusha agreement established foundations for power-sharing and political pluralism that have had some success up to now in helping maintain relative peace and stability. But should Nkurunziza continue to pursue constitutional amendments in the run up to next year's elections - an event the UN Security Council see as a "litmus test" for long-term stability - he risks undermining the fragile progress the country has made so far.

The CNDD-FDD's proposed constitutional changes are, however, just the tip of the iceberg in Burundi's already deeply polarised political waters. The country's opposition parties are internally fragmented, under resourced and suffer from indiscipline within their ranks, but their ability to voice dissent and challenge the ruling party's dominance has been seriously curtailed by intimidation, violence and political manipulation.

As the 2015 election approaches, Nkurunziza is acutely aware that his dominance and power are at stake, but so are Burundi's fragile stability, security and peace. Whether the country can maintain both remains to be seen.

Correction 12/3/14: The article originally stated that Charles Nditije, rather than Térence Sinunguruza, was sacked in 2010. This has now been corrected.

Georges Nikiza is a Burundian journalist. He studied at the Burundi and Makerere Universities. Rebecca Meeson-Frizelle is a freelance journalist, with a focus on Southern Africa. She has written for a number of South African publications. She holds a degree from the The University of Nottingham in French, History and Politics, but African affairs is her real passion.

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