Burundi: Key actors and speculative musings

Second day of mass rallies to protest CNDD-FDD’s Saturday announcement that incumbent president Nkurunziza will run the ruling party’s next presidential campaign. In various parts of the capital Bujumbura, a traditional opposition stronghold, crowds took to the streets calling for respect of the constitution. At the time writing, the situation has been opaque on the ground, various clashes were reported between the police and demonstrators, but no active intervention of the army (FDN), or CNDD-FDD’s imbonerakure youth organisation was reported. Rumours though, indicate line-ups of imbonerakure across town and on the side of the FDN, a tendency to escort rather than crack down on protesters. Organised opposition seems to be largely absent from the scene, while independent media are facing partial shutdowns and civil society leaders are sought for arrest. Here is to a brief overview on certain key actors and possible developments.

Who are the main players of the recent unrest?

  • Pierre Nkurunziza: The current president has obviously a key role. His personal intentions are hard to disclose, but even if he would not wish to run for office again, it might be tough for him to opt out the race after unanimous party approval by his CNDD-FDD last Saturday. As of now, there is little sign he may decide to renounce to his nomination in favour of a Mo Ibrahim prize or other honours.
  • CNDD-FDD: The rebel movement turned ruling party in 2005 retains the bulk of political power in the country. While weak in Bujumbura, it is surely the most organised political force in the remaining country. Its electoral base might even be sufficient to win elections without ballot stuffing or major political violence. CNDD-FDD manages a comparatively vast networks of satellite parties consisting of both coalition partners and nominal opposition. The CNDD however, appear to have split off as a rather independent movement. CNDD-FDD is usually seen as a Hutu movement but in reality the ‘ethnic’ cleavage is no main trait of the formation.
  • Forces Nationales de Défense: The army has a pivotal role. In post-war Burundi, it has emerged as an important troop contributor for both UN and AU peacekeeping and it professionalism enjoys good reputation. The current army is made up of ex-FAB (the former army) and former CNDD-FDD rebel forces. Peacekeeping experience has helped an ‘esprit de corps’ to develop among the former rival factions. Its Etat-Major is of mixed allegiance with certain generals pending towards the government, others towards the state as such. For instance, Defense Minister Pontien Gaciyubwenge recently disobeyed Nkurunziza’s call to integrate armed elements of Imbonerakure into the army.
  • Police and Secret Service: As opposed to the seemingly impartial army, police forces and secret service (formerly headed by Nkurunziza top aide Adolphe Nshimirimana, who is currently an advisor to the president) appear under tight control of Nkurunziza’s entourage. Continuous crackdown on political opposition (in particular FNL and MSD), as well as media stations (Bob Rugurika’s RPA and Radio Bonesha), and civil society (Nininahazwe, Mbonimpa, and others) leave no doubt over their determination to carry out executive order. However, the police also faced its limitations in terms of capacity. Increasing unrest will be manageable by the police alone. The secret service in turn has been denounced by several sources of carrying out targeted intimidation and other forms of oppression in recent time.
  • Edouard Nduwimana: As Interior Minister, he is in charge of coordinating police and secret service action in collaboration with the national security council and Nkurunziza’s inner circle. His reputation is that of a hardliner with a particularly sceptical eye against organised civil society organisations. In the past, Nduwimana has repeatedly acted in a very proactive manner to discourage both opposition and civil society leaders.
  • Imbonerakure: The CNDD-FDD’s youth wing are among the most controversial actors to follow. Hailed as a peaceful youth movement by government supporters and cursed as a second edition of Rwanda’s infamous genocidal militias, the truth probably lies very much in the middle. Imbonerakure, those who see far (Kirundi), are not a standing force but potentially easy to call upon if Nkurunziza opts for an escalation. Nominally led by Denis Karera, their are believed to have close ties to Nkurunziza and Adolphe Nshimirimana. In the past years, they have considerably extended their range of action across the country, with sub-chapters present in almost every major Burundian locality. Congolese researchers have found how certain parts were engaged in paramilitary training in the Ruzizi Plains across the border.
  • Eminences grises: Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni and Adolphe Nshimirimana, both generals, have occupied key positions in Nkurunziza’s security apparatus, e.g. heads of national intelligence, cabinet director, etc. Iwacu says, the two heavyweights ‘decide over sun and rain’ in Burundi.
  • Civil Society: Burundi’s civil society is as vibrant as it is persecuted in recent years. People like Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, Vital Nshimirimana, or Pacifique Nininahazwe are recognised as legitimate popular tribunes by vast parts of the urban population and entertain cordial relations with the country’s independent media such as RPA or Iwacu.
  • Frondeurs: This denomination refers to a group former members of the government and army circles that has openly spoken up against a third mandate of Nkurunziza. Its leading figures appear to be General Godefroid Niyombare, recently dismissed as head of the secret service, Richard Nimbesha, a former CNDD-FDD senator, and Festus Ntanyungu, a former minister, and Gabriel Nizigama, a former minister too.
  • FNL/Rwasa: Led by Agathon Rwasa, FNL is both a main opposition party and a splintered rebel movement. While two FNL factions (Nzabampema and, to much lesser extent, Shuti) are still active belligerents in eastern Congo’s Uvira and Fizi territories, Rwasa himself had “triumphantly” returned to Bujumbura two years ago. After boycotting 2010’s elections, Rwasa eyes at the upcoming polls. The rift between his FNL and CNDD-FDD is the major ‘inner-Hutu’ cleavage in the political sphere and can be taken as a showcase that the current Burundian tensions are not motivated by ‘ethnic’ framings. Rwasa’s FNL might currently be the single most important opposition movement.
  • MSD/Sinduhije: Alexis Sinduhije might be the most charismatic but also most urban leader in Burundi. His MSD has traditionally drawn support from Bujumbura’s middle and upper class, making it enjoying a rather positive reputation compared to CNDD-FDD or FNL, although Sinduhije has repeatedly been accused of curating his own armed DRC-based militia while he was in exile in other countries. In the meantime, the MSD-affiliated Congo adventures have largely come to an end and the politician is stuck in underground given arrest warrants aimed at his person. However, despite his absence in current debates he retains significant mobilisation potential in urban Bujumbura.
  • ADC-Ikibiri: A large umbrella opposition movement, ADC-Ikibiri includes various smaller opposition parties. So far, it includes part of FRODEBU (Sahwanya), CNDD (a splinter of CNDD-FDD), and others. Led by Léonce Ngendakumana, it has been said to try forming a larger anti-government alliance but failed to attract other players such as MSD or UPRONA so far. Its mobilisation potential is unclear.
  • UPRONA/Nditije: The party of the independence, relating themselves to national hero Prince Louis Rwagasore. In the past years, UPRONA has lost influence and repeatedly changed allegiance. Being part of the Nkurunziza coalition lately, the party finally split (like so many others) with one part now led by Charles Nditije but not recognised as official party, while the other part remains with the government. Some observers have argued that only a broad coalition of Nditije, Rwasa, and Sinduhije could propel an opposition victory in the presidential elections and an implicit alliance of Nditije and Rwasa has been reported.

What scenarios are particular likely or not?

  • Escalation: Nkurunziza and CNDD-FDD decide to hold on power without compromise. A state of emergency is declared and violent crackdown on demonstration intensified by police and Imbonerakure forces. No elections take place. If the army is drawn to their side, Nkurunziza will come out successfully and retain power as international pariah. Opposition parties will mostly go into exile and South Kivu will relapse into a breeding ground for Burundian militias.
  • Regionalisation: Nkurunziza tries to push the clampdown but the tensions flow across borders. Refugee streams trigger a reaction from Rwanda, possibly invoking the Responsibility to Protect in favour of civilian populations. The unstable balance of population movements between Burundi and Congo pitch residual FNL forces into incursions. The army splits into pro- and anti-government forces and the country descends into factionalised war. Only under this scenario, a significant involvement of military actors such as RDF, FDLR, or others seem possible.
  • Low intensity: The army remains impartial and hardline government forces around Nkurunziza, Nshimirimana, and Nduwimana manage to steer a controlled crackdown with spontaneous media blackouts and selective arrests. Elections are likely to be postponed for technical reasons but major clashes are avoided. Disgruntled leaders go into exile and the situation freezes without long-term solution.
  • Ousting: Anti-government protests become much stronger as organised political opposition gets involved and powerful army elements show sympathy for demonstrations. Nkurunziza’s bid is increasingly seen unconstitutional and the police loses control over the popular movement. In consequence, the incumbent president declares to withdraw from his candidacy and CNDD-FDD comes up with an alternative candidate taking up the race in a narrow electoral contest. Alternatively, a group of army generals may orchestrate a military coup.
  • Elections: Protests cool down without major further violence and opposition groups comfort themselves with a chance to defeat Nkurunziza on the ballots. A contentious electoral campaign is marred by sporadic violence on government side and increased international scrutiny at the same time. The outcome is highly unclear and vote rigging is feared.
  • Agreement: Nkurunziza dissolves government and parliament and a national conference is invoked. A transitional phase of one year is declared in which a technocrat government in installed and peacekeepers deployed into Burundi to oversee later elections. The fate of the incumbent president however, remains unclear and political uncertainty prevents Burundi from further calming down. Contest is rescheduled.

These ideas follow up on earlier analyses, such as International Crisis Group’s recent report and Filip Reyntjens’ suggestions. They are to be taken as ‘ideal cases’ and, needless to say, with a pinch of salt. Mode d’emploi: Take two scenarios and mix them, this gives a healthy wealth of the complexity and helps imagining how many different outcomes the current situation can have. Two important caveats should be kept in mind: While ‘ethnic cleavages’ continue to be employed rather often in rhetoric and debate, the current political crisis in Burundi is much more one of power and elites than of Hutu and Tutsi. Burundi has a historical track record – despite the events of 1993/94 and 1972 – of placing clan identity over (colonially constructed) ethnic identity. This is notably up into the current contestation, in which ethnicity plays much more an instrumental than underlying role. Then, in addition, rumour mills are ripe with doom scenarios in which mass murder seems an unavoidable consequence. It is important in such circumstances to take reports with caution and question both messages and messengers. Like in other parts of the region (and the world), misinformation is a key political tool in Burundian conflicts too. In order to increase chances for this unrest to find an amicable end, and there is still good chances for this, intoxication should be kept at the minimum.

Selection of further readings on Burundi (plus suggestion to regularly consult http://www.iwacu-burundi.org)









Click to access the-challenge-to-the-burundi-state.pdf




9 Responses to “Burundi: Key actors and speculative musings”
  1. Ian Cox says:

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