Nkurunziza 2.0: Burundi sailing into rough sea.

(Edited twice, translation of ‘imbonerakure’ on 25 April and info on demonstrations on 26 April) 

As expected by numerous Burundian and international observers, ruling CNDD-FDD has nominated incumbent president Pierre (‘Peter’) Nkurunziza as their presidential candidate for the upcoming June elections. A landslide win (sources report 93% to 100% of delegates’ votes) accompanied the official begin o Nkurunziza’s 2015 campaign, considered unconstitutional by many Burundians and the international organisations. While some say his first mandate from 2005 to 2010 is not covered by the constitutional term limit, there is reason to doubt the legal validity of this argument.

Nkurunziza’s nomination is the outcome of a months-long stand-off pitting divergent forces within CNDD-FDD as well as the army against each other. The country’s ruling party derives from an earlier rebellion who transformed into political party bringing the incumbent president to power (for some more background on this blog, check this longread). In recent years, it has been a notoriously multi-faceted political movement with tentacles wide into the larger political scene. Burundian analysts have told me years ago how the core CNDD-FDD maintains a network of co-opted coalition partners and seeming opposition movements, making it difficult for bystanders to grasp the networks of power in the tiny Central African country.  A recent Crisis Group report provides very useful background on the current political chess and its historical path dependence.

The political opposition is as fragmented (and partly infiltrated as recent developments have shown, e.g. in the cases of FNL, ABC, or UPRONA). Key individuals and leaders such as Charles Nditije, Agathon Rwasa, or Alexis Sinduhije will face enormous difficulties to set up a workable coalition to contest Nkurunziza’s bid, for various reasons:

First, despite public contest and visible opposition in Bujumbura (many examples have shown so over time, such as repeated arrests – Mbonimpa, Rugurika, etc. – and the bicycle demonstrations of MSD), CNDD-FDD tightly controls large parts of the rural hinterland, especially in the east of the country. Even without ballot stuffing, Nkurunziza could probably make it to re-election.

Second, the government and loyal security forces have shown its readiness to employ brusk measures in order to maintain ‘stability’ and avert major unrest. In particular the para-governmental ‘imbonerakure’ (Kirundi: those who see far/those who see it from far away) vigilante groups were functional to CNDD-FDD’s grip over the population. Over the past years, certain of these units have been ‘trained’ both in eastern Congo’s Ruzizi plains and in remote areas in Burundi. During the party congress on April 25, they were heavily deployed across the city centre of Bujumbura.

Third, several reasons have made it difficult for Burundian opposition to form a meaningful alliance. Sinduhije seems paralysed ever since he had to go underground due to legal charges, Rwasa is fighting against his movement’s split that has become most visible in FNL’s Congolese rear bases, and Nditije lost official leadership within UPRONA. Also FRODEBU appears to be divided. This indicates that most potential contenders of Nkurunziza are busy on their own home front instead of overcoming differences amongst themselves.

However, Nkurunziza’s re-election may still not go undisturbed. The international community has repeatedly urged Burundi to respect the spirit of the Arusha agreement, Rwanda is pointing a worried look at Bujumbura after having received already 15,000 ‘preemptive’ refugees, and the Burundian armed forces, FDN, may be much less loyal to a third mandate than the police or ‘imbonerakure’.

From the morning after Nkurunziza’s nomination, Burundians took to the streets uttering dissatisfaction with what they conceive unconstitutional and a breach of the Arusha agreement. A series of minor clashes with police and riot police units ensued in several parts of Bujumbura and beyond. Besides heavy deployment, the key reaction of Burundi’s security apparatus was the partial shutdown of independent radio stations. International journalists confirmed that Radio Bonesha and RPA were not allowed to livestream their coverage of the national events anymore. Various Burundian friends and colleagues confirmed this, almost ironically adding they had switched to RFI and BBC now.

A first major tendency arises from this unsettling day in Burundi. Nkurunziza and his inner circle seem to be determined – he called himself candidate at 700% after the nomination ceremony, and reshuffles in CNDD-FDD’s council of elders indicate attempts to manage power inside the party. Secondly, the official security forces (basically everything that is police) already seem to be overburdened in controlling the people. In some parts of town, reports indicate they had to withdraw. Any deployment of the army, perhaps the only organised security force that has the capacity to keep things calm would however massively change the situation and also pose high risk for Nkurunziza. Against this backdrop, a main danger in the coming days could be an uncoordinated deployment of imbonerakure units. On the other side, Bujumbura also remains to good extent an opposition stronghold, with Rwasa’s FNL and Sinduhije’s MSD being key players. But it is certainly to early to speculate about further developments at this point.

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