The small East African country of Burundi has been full of unrest over the past month as people have taken to the streets to protest President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term as president, which many view as unconstitutional. Since taking power in 2005, Nkurunziza’s government has grown increasingly authoritarian as it has cracked down on journalists and opposition figures. It has also been accused of intimidating voters at the polls.

In April, the constitutional court ruled that despite a two term limit, Nkurunziza could seek a third term on the grounds that he was appointed by lawmakers instead of elected for his first term. This move sparked outrage and thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets to demand for the president to step down.

More than 20 people have been killed in clashes with authorities and more than 100,000 have fled to neighboring countries. A group of soldiers and high ranking generals have already launched a failed coup attempt. Many, including the African Union, are urging the president to postpone the elections, which are scheduled for June, and restore peace.

Many fear Burundi is heading into a civil war. The tensions are threatening to derail the peace accords that ended a decade’s worth of fighting in the 1990s. Like neighboring Rwanda, Burundi has struggled with a violent conflict between Hutus and Tutsis for several decades that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. In Burundi, the conflict has included two genocides.

The 2000 Arusha Peace Agreement helped bring an end to the fighting. Most observers feel that Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term violates the agreement, which includes a two term limit as one of its provisions. The United States has been very critical of the bid for a third term, which it states as a clear violation. To make matters worse, some observers accuse Nkurunziza, a Hutu, of exploiting Hutu-Tutsi tensions to win support and detract from his government’s failures. Most of those who have fled over the past month are Tutsi.

The prospect of more violent conflict is bad news for a country that is already one of the poorest in the world. Nearly half of Burundi’s GDP comes from foreign aid, but many governments are considering cutting off aid because of the government’s behavior and some already have. Only half of all children receive any schooling and HIV/AIDS is one of the leading causes of death. According to some counts, the country has the world’s highest rate of malnutrition.

Neighboring Rwanda has been watching the tensions with a lot of unease. Many fear another bout of Hutu-Tutsi violence may emerge and that it could threaten to destabilize the region. For the time being, the future is very uncertain.

– Matt Lesso

Sources: The International Business Times, The Washington Post, DW.DE,span> The Independent
Photo: Flickr

Violent protests following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to pursue a third term have left at least 19 dead and pushed over 50,000 out of their homes. With the streets ablaze in Burundi, a landlocked southeastern African country, analysts fear for the region’s economic stability.

A shirtless man, sporting a pink whistle around his neck, screamed at army officials for bulldozing a barricade made of old tires, his French wavering. Mismatched protestors stood behind the man, while police officials slowly closed in on the group, billy-clubs raised.

Days later, tear gas and live ammunition would be used on hundreds of civilians gathered only a kilometer away from Nkurunziza in the country’s capital of Bujumbura.

This political discord follows a decade-long civil war that ended in 2005 with the Arusha Agreement, which set the terms for the presidency. The accord, implemented by the constitution, reads “no one may serve more than two presidential terms.”

Operating on this basis, many Burundians see a third term as an illegal and unjust power grab. For some, however, the issue with Nkurunziza extends beyond these technicalities. For the past five years, the president has muffled the voices of his people – restricting the press and the freedom to protest.

“This present electoral problem is the result of the last five years’ rule of President Nkurunziza,” said Thierry Vircoulon, the project director for Central Africa at the International Crisis Group.

Though economic growth has remained stable in years past, mostly because of coffee exportation and the mining of nickel, the mass exodus of Burundi citizens could have serious monetary implications. According to Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are currently more than 20,000 refugees in Rwanda, 10,000 in Tanzania and 5,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We are extremely worried,” he said, speaking in Nairobi.

Rwanda, already a haven for 74,000 refugees from the Congo, has been overwhelmed since mid-April. Though a new Mahama refugee camp is capable of holding 60,000, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees predicts this still won’t be enough.

Sitting slightly above Rwanda and bordering Lake Victoria, Uganda will likely feel the heat of the protests. Exporting large amounts of coffee and scrap metal, Burundi currently stands as Uganda’s biggest trade partner, according to a tax analysis report.

“We are expecting if the situation in Burundi gets worse there could some economic effect on Uganda,” said Nebert Rugadya, a business commentator in Kampala.

The instability in Burundi has had a domino effect – compromising trade, straining health care systems and drying up foreign aid in neighboring nations. According to François Conradie from the African Economic Consultants NKC, tension could also foment civil war in the region of Goma on the Congo-Rwanda border.

“A stable Burundi means a lot for stability in the region,” Rugadya said.

Concerns over an overall reduced quality of life are also surfacing. The country’s 67 percent poverty rate, which has been greatly increased by civil conflict in years past, continues to climb.

– Lauren Stepp

Sources: BBC, UNICEF, US News, VOX, Washington Post
Photo: Flickr