July’s presidential elections in Burundi have played a pivotal role in the country’s deteriorating political climate. With President Pierre Nkurunziza achieving his questionable third mandate, the country is caught in the throes of a downward spiral of ever-escalating violence. While the security situation has arguably deteriorated in key areas of Burundi, a United Nations (UN) human rights official argued that it has not yet reached the point of all-out civil war. Nevertheless, events are certainly heading in that direction.
Over the past two weeks at least five assassination attempts have been made on prominent opposition leaders. What started with a crackdown on opposition supporters by the police forces and Imbonerakure (the militia youth-wing group), has escalated to the targeting of high profile opposition members. The most prominent of these attempts was the ambush on activist leader Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa. The attack on Mbonimpa was condemned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), with observers noting that the current situation in Burundi is reminiscent of the days before the civil war broke out in 1993. Other civilians who remained in the country in 1993 are voting with their feet and leaving the country now, hot on the heels of the 180,000 people who have fled Burundi since April.
Speculation abounds about the onset of these events. However, the most credible theory seems linked to the killing of General Adolphe Nshimirimana, the de facto head of internal security and right hand man of Nkurunziza. On August 2, 2015, Nshimirimana was assassinated in his car by unknown men in military uniforms. With events moving quickly, the assassination attempts point to a government-sponsored purge brought about in reaction to the general’s death as Nkurunziza seeks to cement his hold on power. In the first ten days, police forces have caught several people allegedly linked to the assassination, but as yet no clear narrative has emerged to explain events surrounding Nshimirimana’s death.
Burundi is a country where the memory of the 1993 genocide is still vividly felt. Even as leading opposition figure Agathon Rwasa takes on the deputy speaker role within the country’s parliament, this superficial reconciliation is nothing but a cosmetic solution to the deeper wounds the country must mend. President Nkurunziza has neutered any possible move against him by the African Union (AU). So far, Burundi has sent about a quarter of the more than 20,000-strong mission to maintain peace in Somalia. The heavy dependence of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) on Burundian soldier deployment is preventing the AU from taking any decisive measures against Nkurunziza. Consequently, the international community can only move slowly in dealing with Burundi, or run the risk of the Somali situation spiral out of control.
While the government is trying to establish a modicum of normality during daylight, this veneer quickly breaks down at night. Crackdowns in the evenings by the police have made the streets of Burundi fraught with uncertainty for civilians, who can become collateral damage in the power struggle between opposing factions. Nkurunziza seems all too aware of the impact his rule has on the citizens of Burundi, yet his will to neglect the dire situation of his country for the sake of power is undiminished.
One of the wider implications of the Burundi crisis may be that it sets a dangerous example for other African rulers seeking to extend their stays beyond a two-term limit. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is closely watching the events unfolding in Burundi as his party is using all the political mechanisms at its disposal to change the country’s constitution ahead of the 2017 presidential election. Further afield, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo-Brazzaville are both in the process of removing their own term limits. If Nkurunziza succeeds it will embolden those African leaders that, like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (in power since 1986), dismiss term limits as Western concepts and “non-issues”.
If President Nkurunziza continually ignores wiser counsels, a full-blown civil war may become inevitable in Burundi. With every step Nkurunziza takes towards turning Burundi into a fully fledged autocracy, it seems only a matter of time before he treads on the landmine that will trigger more widespread violence and civil war. In contemporary Africa, Lord Acton’s famous line about absolute power corrupting absolutely seems depressingly relevant.