If ever evidence was needed to show that the transition from conflict to sustainable peace is a long, hard road, recent events in Burundi have demonstrated it.
The announcement on 23 April 2015 by President Nkurunziza that he would run for a third term sparked fierce opposition. Although Burundi’s constitution contains a two term limit, Nkurunziza argues, and the Constitutional Court agreed (albeit reportedly under pressure) that his first term does not count because he was appointed by parliament rather than in a general election. Serious protests then rocked the capital Bujumbura, with increasing reports of violence between government forces and protesters. Such reports would have been worrying in any country, but were particularly concerning in Burundi, a country with a long history of mass violence that has been negotiating a protracted and painful transition to peace since the signing of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement in August 2000.
The situation then evolved fast. On Thursday 14 May, an attempted coup d’état took place when the president was in neighbouring Tanzania for an emergency meeting with members of the East African Community. The coup has now been quelled, the President has returned to Burundi, and many of those responsible have been arrested. However, the media black-out that has been forcibly imposed on the country through the burning down of the main media and radio houses remains in place, and the situation remains highly charged.
Yet again, it feels like Burundi has reached a crucial junction. In many respects, the government’s actions and words over the next days and weeks are likely to determine whether or not the country’s trajectory will take it closer to civil war or allow it to continue the painful progression towards greater stability. For the situation to diffuse rather than escalate, a number of things need to happen.
First, President Nkurunziza needs to ensure the fair treatment of those arrested – and already there are concerning reports that this is not the case. While the forcible seizure of power is clearly a breach of national and international law and needs to be treated as such, their actions have to be considered within the broader political context in which they took place. Therefore, the president needs to ensure that any action taken not only respects national and international human rights protections, but also is sensitive to the genuine grievances of protesters and others. Ultimately, the president should accept that he is, in part, responsible.
Second, and related, the issue of President Nkurunziza’s third term in office needs to be addressed. The old adage says that that which does not kill you makes you stronger, and there is a danger that, having weathered this threat, President Nkurunziza will emerge emboldened. However, it would be a huge mistake to overlook the strength of feeling that has been, and still is being, demonstrated, quite literally, on the streets of Bujumbura. Renouncing his intention to stand for a third term would avoid conflict and allow Nkurunziza to ensure a proper democratic transition of power.
Third, while much of the attention over the past days has been on events in the capital, Bujumbura, there is a growing refugee crisis in neighbouring countries. Since 2005, the return and reintegration of those who fled previous violence was a crucial component to the broader reconstruction of the country. Now, once again, the return of those who have fled will be a crucial marker of the government’s legitimacy: indeed, the government can prove its commitment to peace by ensuring that those who have fled into exile are able to return voluntarily and with dignity.
Fourth, and facilitating return, it is vital that the government bring its armed elements under control. Allegedly one of the main causes of flight has been threats from, and human rights abuses committed by, the government’s notorious armed youth wing, the imbonerakure (meaning “those who can see from far”). Its continuing presence is likely not only to increase the refugee crisis, but also to prevent those who have fled from returning.
Fifth, press freedom is crucial. The fact that so little information is available within Burundi is extremely dangerous: the vacuum it leaves is inevitably filled with rumour. And rumours generate instability as people are living in fear and uncertainty. Therefore it is vital that a free press be allowed to function as crucial evidence for – and the function of – democratic space.
Finally, it is clearer than ever that the elections slated for June need to be postponed until there is a environment in which they can viably take place in a free and fair manner. Forging ahead with the mechanisms but not the substance of democracy never works. Although the president might appear to have contained the current crisis (although that remains to be seen), an unfree and unfair election will, at best, simply be a holding exercise. At worst, it could fuel considerably more violence as tensions simmering under the surface re-emerge.
Ultimately, the need for equitable governance to become strongly entrenched within Burundi is vital to its political health moving forward. It is important to remember that although President Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term was clearly the trigger for recent events, tensions have been simmering in Burundi for some time with the ruling regime being accused of becoming increasingly dictatorial. Local and international human rights organisations have been sounding the alarm for years. This misuse of political power is antithetical to dealing with legacies of violence. It leaves the country in a permanent state of suspended animation, always waiting to see if a trigger will lead to the kind of violence and unrest that has been witnessed over the past days. The people of Burundi deserve far more. And it is the responsibility of their government to deliver.