“Suicidal for the nation”: an interview with a Burundian politician in hiding

(This blog first appeared on African Arguments: read original blog here.)

Recent events in Burundi have brought the small nation to international attention, even if action remains wanting. The announcement on 23 April by President Nkurunziza that he would run for a third term has 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 have rocked the capital Bujumbura, where there are increasing reports of violence between government forces and protesters. Such reports would be worrying in any country. But they are 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. With opponents claiming that Nkurunziza is undermining the Arusha Agreement, the next few weeks are likely to be decisive in determining whether the country will remain on the trajectory towards peace or return to conflict.

Mr. Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term is clearly the trigger, but tensions have been simmering for some time, as the ruling regime has been accused of becoming increasingly dictatorial. The outcome of his actions may appear to be as predictable as his desire to retain power, which begs the question: why, as the custodian of your country, would you choose this course of action despite the risk of plunging your country back into civil war?

Nkurunziza’s insistence on pursuing the third term is particularly surprising in the light of opposition from within his own party, the Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie–Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD). So, why did members of his own party resist the move, and what does this mean for our understanding of the situation? In answer, this article draws on an interview with a member of the ruling party, who signed a petition on 23 March, along with other members of the party, requesting that the President not seek a third term in office. Since signing the petition he has been forced into hiding in Burundi. When asked why he decided to do this, he replied: “I was very happy to see the CNDD-FDD winning the general election twice in 2005 and 2010. However, things continued to go wrong when a few individuals around our President started to lead the country exactly like the group that had wanted to kill democracy two decades ago. I stood up together with my colleagues and decided to advise President Nkurunziza and his group against this course of action.” He sees the president’s intransigence on this issue as part of a longer pattern of increasingly problematic governance: “…this decision was a culmination point of a number of human rights violations by our government and a growing willingness to establish a dictatorship starting from our party and then in the whole country leadership system.”

Given how long it has taken them to oppose the proposed third term, some in Burundi have questioned the group’s motivation, suspecting that the move was a reaction to failing to garner party support for an alternative nomination. As he explained, however: “It is not true [that we are just looking for power]. We believe in getting to power only through election and legal means as provided by the constitution. What we said was simple: the current president should step down, we democratically nominate another candidate for our party as stipulated in our party’s regulations, and we go to elections. Allowing the president to come back to power in violation of the constitution will leave the country with a very bad legacy: that somebody can violate the law of the land and get away with it. It would also invalidate the war we waged against the dictators who had killed President Ndadaye. Many lives were lost, hundreds of thousands displaced and countless property destroyed for a good cause: democracy. Allowing President Nkurunziza to undo all of this is suicidal to the nation.”

There is a high price to pay, however, for his resistance. He believes he could be assassinated at any moment. A number of those who signed the petition were immediately removed from the party, losing their jobs and income. His ability to move around is highly restricted, and he is unable to visit his home. He lives with the constant fear that not only will he be attacked, but that his family and friends are also in danger.

He believed the only option left open to him was to encourage the recent demonstrations against the third term. Worryingly, he seems ready for bloodshed: “I am aware that dialogue would have been the best way forward. However, this dialogue was not possible in the party. Those who dared to speak like me were persecuted and we are now in hiding. The street seems to be the only way for the people of Burundi to fight for democracy. I know that people are already dying; hundreds are injured while a lot of property is being destroyed despite the fact that we are doing peaceful demonstrations. The government will have to answer before the court one day. I believe that democracy is not cheap. It was not cheap for the Americans, it was not cheap for the South Africans, it will not be cheap for us and the price may be as expensive as losing some of our people.” He then went on to denounce the government’s attempts to draw on fears and ethnic tensions by claiming those who are protesting are exclusively Tutsi: “This is not the case. I am Hutu and most demonstrators are Hutu. The problem is that this government does not want to obey the laws of the game in this country.”

“Fighting for democracy” has an ominous ring to it, especially in Burundi. Like many, he is hoping that the president withdraws his candidature, but he sees this as unlikely. Allegedly, the president has surrounded himself with supporters, including an armed youth wing – the notorious imbonerakure (meaning “those who can see from far”) – that is unlikely to want to relinquish power without a fight. Echoing the fears of so many, the interviewee argues that the coherence of the armed forces will disintegrate and large-scale violence will follow. If this happens, all the achievements of the past ten years could disappear, which would be a tragedy not only for Burundi but for countries across the region. With a terrible sense of déjà vu, Rwanda, DRC and Tanzania are already receiving thousands of refugees.

Despite the risks, civil war is not inevitable. Although leaders like Ugandan President Museveni and Zimbabwean President Mugabe have been able to change their constitutions to retain power, across the continent, strategies to prevent the escalation of violence from deteriorating into civil war are cause for hope. Similar protests in Burkina Faso forced President Compaore to resign and, despite fears of civil conflict, Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan accepted defeat in Nigeria’s recent election. However, it remains to be seen which path Burundi will take, and whether or not the international community will effectively support Burundians working for peace. As Burundians know only too well, legacies of violence can never be under-estimated.

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