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