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Nkurunziza’s slippery slope

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How the current crisis in Burundi is likely to ignite a regional conflagration

Pierre Nkurunziza wants to remain president of Burundi. His opponents don’t want him to. Nkurinziza says the constitution allows him another term in office. His opponents say the Arusha Accords, which formed the basis of the constitution, do not. The Constitutional Court of Burundi ruled in favour of Nkurunziza.  His opponents reacted by organising mass demonstrations on the streets of the capital, Bujumbura, and beyond. This seemed to take the country to the precipice. Seeing vulnerability, some army officers staged a coup, which Nkurunziza’s spokesperson called a “joke.” He was right! The coup makers lacked sufficient support in the military and police. That sealed their fate.

Why does Nkurunziza want to remain president when his people “don’t want him”? Well he said that “his people” (he said 90%), want him to stay. He claims his opponents are a small but noisy minority who do not respect the constitution or the courts. We do not have a scientific way to determine who has the numbers. But if the opposition is strong, the cause is not lost. They should seek to defeat Nkurunziza at the polls. It is difficult for an unpopular incumbent to rig and win. If he does; he can stimulate mass demonstrations leading to collapse. Only effective control of the military and police can save a weak incumbent from defeat. Even then such success is rare.

What do we make of Burundi’s crisis? To his national confederates, Nkurunziza has won two rounds now: the constitutional court case and the coup. This places him in a comfortable position to face his opponents in the elections with a psychological advantage. Unless they mobilise new mass demonstrations and paralyse his government, Nkurunziza is likely to clobber them in next month’s election. In fact the defeat of the coup has now furnished Nkurunziza an opportunity to eliminate his opponents in the military. It has also provided him an excuse to use the military and police to crack down on his opponents – both violent and pacific.


But there is an ugly twist in Nkurunziza’s politics. If you visit Burundi, you see little signs of progress. How is he going to retain support during the coming political battles when he has little or no record of success? This dilemma forms the fount and matrix of his politics. It is highly likely that for Nkurunziza to mobilise political momentum on his side, he needs to play the ethnic card. By appealing to Hutu sentiments, he can resurrect the ethnic tensions that have previously wrought havoc on his country. And this has been his trade when he was a rebel commander and has become his new approach since his political fortunes began heading southwards.

Although the main coup leader, Gen. Godefroid Niyombare, is Hutu, many of his confederates were Tutsi. Of course the vast majority of his opponents are Hutu politicians. How does Nkurunziza wriggle out of this political fix? It is highly likely he will retreat to ethnic politics (which were his founding philosophy anyway) to mobilise a political coalition that will deliver him victory. Nothing can give him unqualified emotional support than identity.

Indeed, Nkurunziza had long begun stocking the fires of ethnicity during the recent political controversies. His 50,000-strong armed militia, called Imbonerakure, consists of loosely-affiliated groups of poor, illiterate young men who engage in night patrols and harass and intimidate anyone who does not support Nkurunziza. According to reports, they are allied to the Interahamwe, a Rwandan Hutu supremacist militia responsible for the 1994 genocide. Since January, Interahamwe and its organizstion, FDLR, have been infiltrating Burundi offering leadership and organisation to the Imbonerakure.

As Burundi heads to elections with an embattled president, we are likely to see increasing efforts to whip up anti-Tutsi sentiments. The current trickle of refugees into Rwanda is going to turn into a flood. And as Nkurunziza descends on his opponents with his militia backed by Interahamwe, we are going to see increased violence and death. The Rwanda government has expressed concerns to Nkurunziza over these developments.

In such circumstances, it will be extremely difficult for Kigali to sit by and watch genocide unfold as it sits on its hands. The RPF has spoken loudest about the indifference of the international community during its 1994 genocide. There is thus no way Kigali can afford to be a passive spectator of genocide in Burundi. Kigali will inevitably be drawn into the Burundi conflict especially because of the alliance between Nkurunziza’s Imbonerakure and its own Interahamwe.

The challenge is: will other countries in the region, especially Tanzania and DR Congo, sit by and watch Rwanda sort out Nkurunziza? President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania is not just a close ally of Nkurunziza. He has also been accused of being closely associated with the FDLR – even by US intelligence. President Joseph Kabila of DRC is not a friend of Kigali and may have reason to stop Rwanda’s influence there. Kabila is also close to South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, another president who has an axe to grind with Kigali. Will these people ignore Rwanda’s genuine security concerns in Burundi and the unfolding humanitarian situation and not intervene to stop Kigali? It is hard to tell.

The other regional power with an eye on Burundi is Uganda. President Yoweri Museveni was a central player in the Arusha peace agreement that ended conflict in that troubled country. In many ways therefore, Kampala is a guarantor of the current political status quo in Bujumbura. The problem is that Museveni has not expressed himself on the consistent efforts and actions by Nkurunziza to undermine both the letter and spirit of the Arusha accords. One by one, including his desire to remain president, Nkurunziza has thrown provisions of the Arusha accords to the wind without any action from Kampala.

If Rwanda enters Burundi to stop mass slaughter, what will be the reaction of Uganda? France is likely to oppose Rwanda’s action but what is likely to be the response of the British and the Americans? Will they prevail on Dar Es Salam, Pretoria and Kinshasa not to intervene? Will they order Rwanda out? If they do, what will be Kigali’s response? What is clear from the foregoing is that the current political developments in Burundi are not just domestic politics. They also have powerful regional and international implications.

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