Burundi: A Nation on the brink?

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Burundi: A Nation on the brink?

The decision by President Pierre Nkurunziza to seek as third term has caused chaos within Burundi leading to an attempted coup to try to overthrow him. President Nkurunziza was attending an emergency summit in Tanzania when Major-General Godefroid Niyombare, a respected former army chief, tried to seize power, and for more than a day pro-coup forces prevented the president’s return to Burundi. The president has signalled that he will continue to crack down on street protests calling for him to step aside in June elections, in line with the constitution that limits the president to two terms. Recent events have caused observers to fear a return to the ethnic conflict of the past which culminated in a civil war costing 300,000 lives.

The 51-year-old former rebel leader argues that he is entitled to run for a third term because he was first appointed to the role by parliament in 2005 rather than being elected by the people. The constitution states a president should govern only for two terms, but earlier this month a court upheld Mr Nkurunziza’s interpretation. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets and were confronted by police firing teargas and shots in the air, as Burundi faces its worst political crisis since the end of an ethnically fuelled civil war in 2005. Crowds gathered from early morning in a south Bujumbura suburb mostly inhabited by members of Burundi’s ethnic Tutsi minority, waving placards, burning tyres and chanting slogans accusing the president of breaking the constitution. The army and police were then deployed to quell the protests, which have been described by government officials as an insurrection. The phone lines of private radio stations have also been cut by the authorities to prevent news of protests from spreading. The ruling party’s Vice-President Joseph Ntakirutimana compared one radio station to a former Rwandan broadcaster which was accused of fuelling the 1994 genocide. Messaging services including Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter have been cut off. The government has also banned protests, deployed the army and shut down the main independent radio station. African Public Radio, known as “voice of the voiceless”, is one of three radio stations whose live broadcasts have been stopped as the government said the radio station was disrupting the peace.

A coup was then declared by General Niyombare a former ally of the president and intelligence chief. When the coup was announced thousands of protesters marched to the capital, Bujumbura, alongside soldiers and two tanks to celebrate the announcement by Major General Godefroid Niyombare but the coup failed and Police shot at the soldiers and the crowd killing at least two protesters. The coup has had mixed popularity. In some parts there was panic and fear with people running to safety and locking themselves into any building they could find. But there were also those who were celebrating, saying that this is what they wanted. Tens of thousands of Burundians have fled to neighbouring states in recent weeks since the crisis began.

Burundi, one of the world’s poorest nations with half of the population living below the poverty line, is still struggling to emerge from a 12-year, ethnic-based civil war which cost 300,000 lives. It comes second in the world in stunting, the main symptom of chronic child malnutrition yet is a country fertile enough to be self-sufficient in food. But it is also a land sucked dry by corruption. Since independence in 1962 it has been plagued by tension between the usually-dominant Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority. The ethnic violence sparked off in 1994 made Burundi the scene of one of Africa’s most intractable conflicts. There is no ethnic dimension to the present struggle in the country however it could still pose a threat to the peace process, Burundi’s ex-President Pierre Buyoya has warned that Burundi could return to war if the crisis is not resolved. Eighteen people have appeared in court in Burundi accused of helping to organise the failed coup against President Pierre Nkurunziza and comes amid what appears to be a crackdown against those suspected of involvement in the plot. The situation makes the task of reviving a shattered economy and forging national unity more difficult as well as posing questions about the countries democratic future and whether it will sink back into ethnic warfare.

Written by Nathaniel Robinson