Pierre Nkurunziza, a Thorn in the Flesh for Burundi’s Long-awaited Stability

Burundi is barrelling towards a crisis as it nears 2020 elections. Many Burundians and external actors are infuriated and justifiably so by Pierre Nkurunziza’s actions and failure to bring peace in Burundi or make headway on army reform and delimitation over years.  Nkurunziza’s intransigence stands in stark contrast to the desperation of   Burundians to find a sustainable end to the conflict.  Burundi is in danger. The first and most obvious peril is that Pierre Nkurunziza is sticking to remain in power by all means and by all maneuvers. 

Elections in Burundi are due in 6 months; the current climate of repression, intimidation and pervasive crimes against humanity is real and is being felt in Burundi.

To date, Pierre Nkurunziza plans to create an exclusive law for only himself. He reportedly wants to have a special status that will transcend the government “when he leaves” his current role in August 2020. He wants to become a monarch.

There is a much heightened tension in the country reportedly due to a “group that wants to hold on to power” by all means.  The situation in Burundi could explode any time now.

Burundians queue to cast their votes in the constitutional referendum in Buye, in northern Burundi, on May 17, 2018.| Photo Courtesy of Berthier Mugiraneza |

Deteriorating security situation

Cases of killings, abductions commonly conducted by the imbonerakure militiamen are rampant.  Currently imbonerakure militiamen from Tangara commune in Ngozi province attacked the home of a perceived opposition supporter. They ended up wounding the cow belonging to the opponent by cutting the cow’s limbs.

In a few days later, five dead bodies were found in Rugombo, Cibitoke province. They were hastily buried by authorities, as if they are trying to hide something. No investigation was conducted to identify the circumstances leading to their death and identify those responsible.

The Army in Crisis

Fragilities within the Burundi’s army are visible under the surface, and the current crisis has easily broken the key consensus on which the stability of the regime was based: between the army and civilian power, and within the army between the former rebels, most of whom come from the ruling party, and the old guard. Ever since, the regime has tried to regain its hold on the military through purging or killing real or suspected opponents within its ranks , starting with officers from the pre-war army and Tutsi officers, but also targeting former Hutu rebels, including high ranking officers.

The current crisis, in the form of tit-for-tat sideline lining of soldiers and officers not royal to Pierre Nkurunziza or those perceived to oppose his plans.  To some degree the crisis in the Burundian army also reveals political and ethnic tensions that have continued to undermine it despite the reforms. The crisis has led to numerous defections and has compromised its future prospects. The current crisis has gradually raised questions about the status and advantages acquired by the Burundian army since 2004. Subjected to a massive reduction in manpower at the end of the civil war, the National Defence Force has certainly been pampered by the government but its involvement in peacekeeping missions has been its real lifeline and has turned it into a privileged institution in Burundi. However, the government’s hard-line policies are potentially undermining this stabilizing effect.

Making the army the showcase of the peace process allowed the government Pierre Nkurunziza to develop a self-promoting discourse for its international partners, praise the success of Burundi’s approach to consolidating peace and reduce the UN’s presence in the country, perceived as too intrusive.

The current crisis is likely result to a withdrawal of international assistance and to strong questioning of the Burundian army’s participation in peacekeeping missions. The emergence of a low-intensity conflict in Burundi contradicts the army’s role as a “peacekeeping force” in other conflicts.

Recently, it was a shock surprise for Burundi National Security Council to see a colonel replacing a Major General for a big post.  Major General Silas Ntigurigwa was replaced by Colonel Pierre Claver Nzisabira as Secretary.  The assessment out of it is that it appears that Maj. Gen Silas Ntigurigwa was holding a position, not matching his rank,  but the truth  of the matter is that Silas Ntigurirwa together with Maj. Gen Steve are opposed to Nkurunziza manouvers and plans .

The tension in the army is ripe and several scenarios are possible for Burundi: a new attempt at destabilization leading to a relatively rapid change in government, the disintegration of command structures and heightened political tensions  a head of 2020 elections ; or the stagnation and deterioration of the armed forces in the same way as the country as a whole.

If the idea spreads among the military that Pierre Nkurunziza’s continuance in power through her wife or installing a dauphin and the government’s hard-line attitude are prejudicial to their interests, some of them could be tempted into a new coup. The deterioration of their economic and social situation combined with the fear of physical elimination could push them into taking the plunge, as in May 2015. Some former Armed Political Parties and Movements officers share these concerns and feel that current policies compromise their future. They might also therefore participate in a new coup attempt.

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