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Burundi situation 'violent and volatile'

Jane Ayeko-KümmethAugust 5, 2015

An assassination of a powerful general followed by an attack on a human rights activist. Is the fragile political situation in Burundi further spiraling into chaos?

A police officer runs along a street in Bujumbura
Image: Getty Images/AFP/L. Nshimiye

Tension is high in Burundi following the non-fatal shooting of a leading human rights activist just a day after a top general and close aide to President Pierre Nkurunziza was assassinated. Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa had publicly opposed Nkurunziza's controversial bid for a third term.

Deutsche Welle spoke to Africa analyst Phil Clark to get a sense of just how fragile the situation is in the embattled West African nation.

DW: What do you make of the attack on activist Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa and the assassination of General Nshimirimana?

Phil Clark: I think this shows just how violent and volatile the situation in Burundi is at the moment. The assassination of General Nshimirimana really rocked all Burundians because of how powerful he was in the Burundian political and military system. Many people would even see him as having been more powerful than the president. His role in the military was absolutely central. He was really responsible for ending the coup attempt against President Nkurunziza a couple of months ago. He was profoundly popular, not just within military ranks but through many, many segments of Burundian society. And so, the message that his assassination sent was that the country is not secure and also that there are crucial divides within the military ranks. I think that's the thing that many Burundians are fearful of - that if the military splits, if we start to see different military factions fighting one another, then the violence across the country could escalate quite quickly.

The killing of the general and the attack on the human rights activist - could these incidents be related?

It's difficult to know exactly what's happening in Burundi at the moment. There are all sorts of rumors and innuendos flying around. So I think we have got to be very careful about connecting events. But for example, one rumor that is doing the rounds here in the Great Lakes region is that perhaps it was even the forces loyal to President Nkurunziza who committed this assassination against General Nshimirimana. It could that the president in fact saw the general as too powerful and as a threat to his own position as president. But certainly the attack on Monday on Pierre Claver Mbonimpa is also shocking to many Burundians because he has been such an outspoken, vocal human rights activist and one of the most vocal opponents of President Nkurunziza running for this third term.

What do these two incidents tell us about the political path that Burundi is treading at the moment?

It tells us that it is a very dangerous path. This was the fear when President Nkurunziza basically pushed ahead with the presidential election despite massive protests. The fear was that the situation would escalate, that it would deteriorate. I think that's exactly happening at the moment and also it's frightening that the violence is occurring through so many different sectors of Burundian society. It's not just small groups of protesters who are being targeted, it's also high ranking military officials which seems to point to splits within the military ranks and it's also very high-profile human rights activists who are being targeted. When you see violence cut across so many different levels of Burundian society, that's the kind of thing that makes many everyday people extremely fearful.

Phil Clark
Phil Clark is an expert on the Great Lakes regionImage: privat

Recently, Agathon Rwasa, a critic of President Nkurunziza, was elected as a deputy speaker of parliament with massive support from Nkurunziza's party. What do you make of this new relationship between Nkurunziza and Rwasa?

This looks like a marriage of convenience and I think it's being treated with a great deal of suspicion, not just in Burundi but also here where I am in Rwanda and right across the region, that someone who was such an outspoken critic of President Nkurunziza as Rwasa was has done such a remarkable political u-turn. But I think that Rwasa is also being an opportunist. He knows that there is increasing domestic and international pressure on President Nkurunziza to stabilize the situation in Burundi. There is pressure on the president to form some sort of a government of national unity and I think that Rwasa saw this as an opportunity to maneuver his way into a very powerful position and perhaps even try to get a very senior position in any kind of government of national unity that is formed.

Do you think he will continue to be critical of President Nkurunziza?

It will be very difficult for Rwasa to be highly critical of the president. I think Nkurunziza is so powerful at the moment that he could very easily force Rwasa out of that position. And even in the last few days, when Rwasa has been asked about Nkurunziza and about his government, he has been careful. He has worded his responses in a very cautious manner.

Phil Clark is a researcher with SOAS at London University. He is currently in Rwanda

Interview : Jane Ayeko-Kümmeth