Burundi’s political crisis goes into overtime

BUJUMBURA | Since April protests against President Nkurunziza’s possible third term have been growing. In May an attempted coup to overthrow the president was thwarted and a continual stream of Burundians have fled for neighbouring Rwanda and Tanzania. Now the government plans to go ahead with the July 21 presidential election despite growing local and international pressure.

In the Nyakabiga quarter of Burundi’s capital Bujumbura, a wedding procession with streamers adorning the doors of the vehicles heads towards a local church. As they drive through this neighbourhood though, roads scarred with burned out tyres and opposition slogans scrawled into the tarmac pass quietly underneath.

The Nyakabiga quarter has witnessed some of the fiercest protests from the country’s recent political turmoil. It was one of the places where clashes between protestors and local police left dozens of people dead. Many homes in Nyakabiga now stand empty as many Bujumbura residents have chosen to leave the capital for their home towns or have even fled the country for neighbouring Rwanda and Tanzania.

Elsewhere in the capital tensions continue to grow ahead of tomorrow’s elections as speeding pickups with government troops patrol the streets, and makeshift checkpoints choke once bustling intersections with local police patting down car drivers and their occupants.

“It was a beautiful city before the crisis,” said a Bujumbura resident “Now the whole city is almost empty.”

The first domino in a row of elections

The current political crisis in Burundi has left the capital in a form on paralysis as the ruling CNDD-FDD political party struggles with its transition from rebel group to democratic government. Opposition groups claim that the country’s constitution restricts incumbent president Nkurunziza from running for a third term, a court decision in his favour to run and the constitutional requirement to hold elections by a certain date are fuelling his arguments to stand once again for president.

Last minute crisis talks between the government and opposition groups have broken down and left the political process at an impasse. And in another blow to the political process three presidential candidates this weekend withdrew their candidacies claiming that the current security and political climate could not guarantee free and fair elections.

Other powers in the Great Lakes region are also watching closely and are involved in the country’s political process. Burundi’s election is the first in a region that will see voting in Rwanda and Uganda over the next two years. Both of these countries have long term incumbents occupying the presidential palace.

On Monday, a day before Burundians head to the polls, Rwanda launched a consultative process to determine whether to change its own constitution and allow its leader Paul Kagame to hold onto power there for a third term.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni it seems could also be using the Burundi crisis to firm up his own leadership and power base in the region. President Museveni, who took power in Uganda in 1986 has stepped in to mediate the term limit crisis, and some analysts say it is in part motivated by reaffirming his own power and influence in the region before Uganda’s elections next year.

Fears that run deep

Burundi has had its own share of political crises since the independence era of the 60s, and is not a stranger to ethnic and political violence. Between 1993 and 2005 the country saw long and violent civil war as different groups laid claim to power over the country’s valuable resources. Members of these groups fuelled ethnic tensions and Burundi experienced terrible ethnic violence between Tutsi and Hutu during the war. Over 300,00 people died in a conflict that was largely overshadowed on the international stage by atrocities committed in Rwanda at the same time.

It’s this history that has played at least some part in the national psyche during the current crisis.

“The country is still traumatized from the events of the civil war,” said clinical psychologist Pierre-Celestin Ndikumana from the local NGO, Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Services. “Yes there is general trauma, but there is also trauma from years of civil war, political and ethnic conflict that has been in this country,” he said.

While ethnic divisions have been pushed to the sidelines, some of those involved in political and military action during the civil war continue to play a role. Major parties in government and in opposition have shed their ethnic rivalries for mixed coalitions of Tutsi and Hutu politicians vying for control over power in the country.

Mr Ndikumana also said that the events of the past have played a significant role in the response of every day Burundians to the current political crisis. The country’s turbulent post independent history has a major yet unseen effect on current events and explains in part the mass exodus of over 140,000 refugees from the capital and along border areas with Rwanda and Tanzania.

Barricades and revenge attacks in the capital

On the Boulevard De La Liberte in Bujumbura government soldiers lay in the shade of the trees in the Place De La Revolution, watching the trickle of traffic flow pass. Boys on bicycles and civil servants jog in singular fashion through the streets as the ruling party has since banned jogging in groups, which was once a popular pastime among many Bujumbura residents.

The constant procession of military and police vehicles reveals the tension of a country in political flux. Following a failed coup attempt in June, government troops have been on high alert. In the lead up to this election, the rumour mill has gone into overdrive. Much of this tension stems from news of clashes between government troops and a rebel group along the Rwandan border as well as from a steady stream of grenade attacks in the capital.

In one neighbourhood witnesses are reporting an increased presence of soldiers from the rebel group Forces nationales de libération (FNL). The FNL was active during the Burundian civil war years and only formally entered Burundian politics with its own opposition party in 2009. Local witnesses say this group has been mobilizing and training young men in certain areas of the capital since the protests ended in June.

Elsewhere in the Musaga quarter of Bujumbura residents claim that police are conducting revenge attacks on known leaders of the protests that occurred a month ago. Each evening young men from the neighbourhood assemble barricades of ropes, logs and rocks across the quarter’s side streets. They form into groups of four or five men and watch the barricades in shifts throughout the night, keeping out strangers who might want to cause trouble in the community.

One protest leader who did not want to be named fears for his safety has not left his local suburb in three months. He claims that the police have been using Imbonerakure Youth, the political wing of the ruling CNND-FDD party to conduct revenge attacks for the recent protests. The police meanwhile, claim that their own officers abducted.

Going into overtime

On the last day of campaigning on Saturday, President Nkurunziza attended a football match in his home town of Ngozi. The ‘President’s Cup’ trophy was contested by reigning champions Vital’o FC and rivals Atletico. Tied 2 -2 at full time, tired players continued on into overtime as the sun set over Ngozi. By the end of overtime neither team could emerged victorious. The match ended with a penalty shoot out with incumbents Vital’o finally winning 4 – 3.

As with the President’s Trophy match on Saturday, in Burundi’s current political climate it is hard to say whether a true winner will emerge on Tuesday. With opposition parties boycotting the poll and growing local and international pressure, it is now more likely that the process will go into overtime with crisis talks and back room deals to decide who will emerge as Burundi’s president in 2015.

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