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Break the cycle of violence in Burundi

The East African nation requires sustained and resolute diplomacy

August 17, 2015 2:00AM ET

Burundi is gripped by uncertainty and fear. More than 100 people have been killed in violence that erupted in April after president Pierre Nkurinziza, who has been in power for 10 years, announced his bid for third term, which opposition parties and civil society groups say violates the constitutional limit of two terms. Nkurunziza insists that his first term, to which he was elected by the parliament, should not count. At least 181,000 Burundians, nearly 2 percent of the country’s population, have fled the country in the past six months.

The assassination on Aug. 2 of Lt. Gen. Adolphe Nshimirimana, Nkurunziza’s closest ally and head of internal security, has raised the specter of violence even more. A day later, one of Nkurunziza’s most prominent critics, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. Both the ruling party and the opposition have condemned the attacks but no one has claimed responsibility.

The United States and other donor countries have warned Nkurunziza about the risks of “third term-ism.” But so far he has been defiant despite appearing diplomatically isolated. He has invoked Burundi’s sovereignty to resist international pressure to ditch his bid for a third term. Regional leaders and the international community should intensify diplomatic pressure on Nkurunziza and belligerents within Burundi’s fractured opposition. They should stress the unbearable cost of continued stalemate and use targeted sanctions against those responsible for violence to force the parties to come to a negotiating table.

In addition to Burundi’s descent into violence, living conditions are deteriorating in an already malnourished nation: Imports and trade have noticeably slowed down; food prices are on the rise; tax revenues are plummeting; and many international organizations that support agriculture, education and other sectors have suspended their operations. Health clinics that rely on public funding may soon collapse.

Nkurunziza was re-elected on July 25 with 69.5 percent of the vote and boasted a 73.5 percent turnout rate. The international community, the opposition and civil society organizations have all refused to participate in the electoral process and rejected its results, citing intimidation from the ruling party’s youth wing known as the imbonerakure, which includes former combatants and are reportedly armed and trained by Nkurunziza’s ruling party. The United States and the African Union have condemned the elections as “not free or fair.”

Divided opposition

The opposition has long been divided along ideological lines and because of rampant political opportunism. But it has learned from the 2010 elections, when it boycotted the electoral process and ended up with no voice in the parliament, little visibility in the country and faced repression from the ruling party. 

Three scenarios have now emerged within the opposition. First, Agathon Rwasa, former leader of the opposition National Liberation Forces, has been elected a deputy speaker of parliament after coming second in the presidential elections with 20 percent of the vote. Critics have accused Rwasa of making a U-turn after criticizing the electoral process on the campaign trail and being bought off by the regime. But the new role gives Rwasa’s party a platform and could make him a key deal broker in future negotiations.

Breaking the cycle of violence in Burundi requires sustained and resolute diplomatic actions from African countries and donors, particularly the EU and the United States.

Second, exiled opposition leaders, who boycotted the elections and fled the country, are now trying to present a united front against Nkurunziza. On Aug. 1, former members of the ruling party and representatives of nine opposition parties, civil society groups and two former presidents formed the National Council for the Restoration of the Rule of Law in Burundi. The council has declared intentions to engage in discussions with the government.

Finally, other regime opponents have taken up arms against the regime under the leadership of some of the officers who led the failed coup in May; they are reportedly recruited from the insurrectionist areas of Bujumbura, refugee camps and the military. Clashes with the army were recently reported in Muyinga and Nyanza-Lac provinces.

Nkurunziza is also running out of time. He used the state budget to finance the elections and now faces serious budget shortfalls and drop in tax revenue. The delay in public salaries could alienate civil servants who remained largely in the regime’s corner until now. Donor countries, including the United States, have suspended some aid to Burundi, and may discontinue more programs over the next few months if the situation does not improve. Aid constitutes a little less than half of Burundi’s budget. Cancelling it could affect the ruling party, but it will have even bigger consequences on the health, education and nutrition of the poorest.

Prospects for stability

Both the ruling party and the opposition have rejected attempts by the United Nations, the African Union (AU) and the regional East African Community (EAC) to end the impasse. While both claim that in principle they agree to discuss, it is unclear who would be part of such negotiations and what exactly would be discussed. Inclusive dialogues and the disarmament of both the imbonerakure and the armed opposition are critical to achieving stability.

Negotiations would also need to go beyond a power-sharing deal among privileged elites. To counter popular disillusion, future talks must address poverty, land conflicts that were generated by waves of displacement during and before the civil war, corruption, patronage and impunity for human rights violations, which contribute to populist and inflammatory politics.

Serious negotiations still appear far away, but Washington should continue to keep access to all parties and invest in finding a credible mediator. The AU and EAC would be natural mediators but have thus far failed to adopt a proactive position. The AU might be hamstrung because the Burundian contingent in Somalia is crucial to its peacekeeping force there, while the EAC suffers from divergent interests and views among its members.

Beyond solving Burundi’s ongoing crisis, all-inclusive negotiations could also prevent further destabilization of the entire region. The influx of refugees and Burundi’s declining economy are a burden for its neighbors. What is more, tensions are mounting between Rwanda and Burundi: Bujumbura has accused Kigali of supporting the coup-plotters, while the later has accused Bujumbura of supporting Rwandan Hutu rebels involved in the 1994 genocide.

The U.N. Security Council is considering appointing a special envoy to work with regional mediators. While this is welcome, breaking the cycle of violence in Burundi requires sustained and resolute diplomatic actions from African countries and donors, particularly the EU and the United States. The international community must act now to avoid Burundi’s descent into chaos.

Jean-Benoît Falisse is a Ph.D. candidate in department of international development and St. Antony’s College at Oxford. His main research is on the delivery of basic social services in fragile settings.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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