Burundi stands at a crossroads. On Wednesday, May 13, weeks of protests in the capital, Bujumbura, against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term culminated in a chaotic military coup. Burundi’s economic stagnation, lack of opportunities for youths and other frustrations with the regime’s policies have since come to a head.
That evening, news of the coup and plans for a presumed transitional government were greeted with dancing and singing from an exuberant population. By Thursday, the coup had failed after heavy fighting between the coup plotters and Nkurunziza loyalists. Many of the coup leaders who surrendered were arrested and are now to be tried. The coup’s chief, Godefroid Niyombare, is said to be on the run.
Despite relative calm, Burundi’s future is far from certain. More than 100,000 refugees across Burundi have fled to Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania. Uncertainty in Bujumbura and rural areas will likely drive this number higher. Civil society groups, which led the demonstrations against Nkurunziza, have distanced themselves from the coup but called for protests to continue.
Of particular concern is the electoral campaign, slated to begin May 26. Should the elections go forward as scheduled, Nkurunziza’s victory is almost assured, despite calls from the African Union, the United States and regional leaders to postpone the polls and for Nkurunziza to drop his bid. The campaigning has already been delayed by a week because of the unrest, and many international donors have pulled their financial support for the elections.
The blocking last month of social media networks because of the protests has limited communication. Most private media were destroyed during the latest clashes, and others were shuttered for security reasons. The state-owned national radio, RTNB, and pro-Nkurunziza private radio stations refer to the protesters as insurgents bent on wreaking havoc. The crackdown on the media has left the rural populations without any independent sources of information about the events in the capital, including the protests, the coup attempt and other political developments.
There is serious concern about violence among various youth groups affiliated with different political parties, especially about whether the ruling party’s youth wing, Imbonerakure, will take up arms against anti-Nkurunziza activists. The Imbonerakure were accused of intimidation, beatings and extrajudicial assassinations in the 2010 elections and in the months leading to the current crisis. Many Imbonerakure members are former rebel combatants from Burundi’s civil war, which lasted from 1993 to 2005.
Complicating the crisis are the divisions in the national police force and the military. During the protests, police killed at least 20 protesters and injured hundreds. The military, acting as a buffer between police and protesters, restored respect for the rule of law and the protesters’ rights to demonstrate. This may be because of the millions of dollars and extensive training the military received in support of professionalization activities, especially from the United States, which has developed more than 28,000 Burundian soldiers.
But now with Nkurunziza back firmly in control, it remains to be seen whether these divisions will lead to continued frictions between various branches of the security forces. On Friday, the army was seen patrolling the streets of Bujumbura alongside the police and helping remove the barricades that the protesters set up.
In a speech from the presidential palace on Friday, Nkurunziza urged calm and called for dialogue. He said elections would go on as planned and called for the resumption of international aid to support the electoral process.
The first order of business will be for Nkurunziza to restore order to Bujumbura and assure a frightened population in the city and beyond that life will return to normal. Shortages of fuel and water have been reported, many stores have been shuttered for weeks, and domestic commerce has been halted. The government must restore peace and stability while respecting the rule of law. Funds may be short, given the withdrawal of international aid.
Second, a decision must be made about the upcoming elections. Will they be postponed or proceed as scheduled? Could the parliamentary and local elections be pushed back to allow for a full campaign? Will donors and election monitors be able to support electoral activities without interference?
Burundi is one of the poorest countries in Africa. The government relies heavily on international aid for nearly half its annual budget. If Nkurunziza runs and is elected to a third term, donors may suspend some military and governmental funding in protest. It is clear that the road to peace and stability in Burundi has many potholes; Nkurunziza and his administration must forgo post-coup repression, assure the population of stability, restore order quickly and assuage the fears of donors and international partners, lest they risk sliding further into chaos.