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Burundi president's bid for third term sparked crisis

May 17, 2018

Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza was named "eternal supreme guide” by his CNDD-FDD party on the eve of the constitutional referendum. A 'yes' vote could keep him in office until 2034. 

Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza
Image: DW/A. Niragira

Observers say what the ruling party has sold as the will of the people is, in fact, the outcome of the a climate of constant fear. International media report that the intimidation and repression of members of the opposition and journalists reached new heights in the weeks leading up to the referendum. At the same time, many opponents of the government stayed far away from the polls.

Burundi in ongoing crisis

In the eyes of many, Burundi has been in a state of crisis since Nkurunziza s nomination for a third term in April 2015, in violation of the constitutional restriction of two presidential terms.

There are regular reports of assassinations, kidnappings and torture. Only a few days ago, unknown assailants killed 26 people in a robbery in north-western Cibitoke province.

Since the start of the crisis, 1,200 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has been investigating alleged crimes against humanity in Burundi since November 2017. The country has, in the meantime, quit the ICC.

A life characterized by violence

How far will Nkurunziza go to stay in power? To understand the Burundian president, one has to take into account his role as rebel leader in the civil war between 1993 and 2005, said Burundi expert Phil Clark. "Nkurunziza's leadership style is based absolutely on these violent years," the political analyst from SOAS, University of London, told DW.

Like many of his generation in Burundi, Nkurunziza (born 1963) encountered violence early on. His father – a Hutu official and governor of two provinces – was killed in a wave of ethnic violence in 1972. In a few months, more than 100,000 Hutus and more than 10,000 Tutsis were killed at the time, according to estimates. Nkununziza, his siblings and Tutsi mother survived.

 Civil war career

In the 1980s, Nkurunziza left his home in Ngozi Province to study sports science in the capital Bujumbura. He was working as a sports teacher and assistant lecturer at the university when the civil war between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-dominated army erupted in 1993. Two years later, Nkurunziza narrowly escaped an attack on the university campus by the army in which more than 200 people were killed. Shortly after, he joined the rebel FDD group, the armed wing of the Hutu-dominated CNDD.

Nkurunziza built his career in the militia and took over as leader of a splinter group of the FDD in 2001. In this role, he entered into peace talks with then president Domitien Ndayizeye and was appointed to the cabinet in 2004. A year later, the CNDD-FDD – now a political party – won the first post-civil war parliamentary election and party leader Nkurunziza became Burundian president.

The war years also left traces privately: Five of Nkurunziza's siblings were killed in fighting and massacres. 

Corruption alleged

The new president was celebrated at home and abroad for his efforts to end the civil war. But, according to Burundi expert Clark, it was in those early years that Nkurunziza began creating the climate for the crisis that has gripped the country since 2015.

"To defeat political opponents and bring the party and the state under control, Nkurunziza dipped into the state treasury from the outset," said Clark.

This strategy no longer worked when Burundi suddenly lost money in the late 2000s due to the international financial crisis.

Clark puts the gradual collapse of the state in recent years down to the corrupt regime built by Nkurunziza.

President for life?

Many of Nkurunziza's colleagues have turned away from him since he began increasingly resorting to repression and violence at the beginning of 2015. One of them was Onesime Nduwimana, the former speaker of the CNDD-FDD. In an interview with DW, Nduwimana said: "One has the impression that Nkurunziza simply doesn't see the scope of his deeds.” The only thing that counts, is his power.

That his party has now bestowed upon Nkurunziza the grandiose titles of "visionary” and "eternal supreme guide” is a sign, said Clark, that the president actually wants to remain in office beyond 2034. It also signals that the extremely religious Nkurunziza also wants to be seen as a sort of messiah or savior of the Burundian people.

What happens after the constitutional referendum is anyone's guess. Presidential elections are due in 2020 and experts predict a possible escalation in the violence. They are particularly concerned that Nkurunziza is relying more on religious and ethnically-charged rhetoric.  "If that is the case, it would fan dangerous tensions in Burundian society,” Clark warned.  

Eric Topona contributed to this report.