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Burundi crisis gets serious for regional leaders

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni Esther Nakkazi/IRIN
Under pressure: Many are urging Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni not to sign the Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law
Burundi’s political crisis is centred on a leader who is refusing to leave office after almost 10 years. The man sent in to mediate has been in power for almost 30. Apart from that irony, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s arrival in Bujumbura underlines just how high the stakes are for regional leaders.

As the increasingly violent events in Burundi continue to unfold, its neighbours are watching ever more closely. Since President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would seek a third term in April, protests have killed dozens and displaced more than 145,000.

In addition to confrontations between security forces and demonstrators, clashes between the military and armed groups have reached a new peak with a report from the army spokesperson on Monday claiming that 31 rebels had been killed in northern Kayanza province, close to the Rwandan border.

Concern goes further than refugees spilling across borders. Several heads of state in the Great Lakes region are seeking third terms or have been in power for more than 10 years. What happens in Burundi, a member of the East African Community (EAC) since 2007, could have serious ripple effects.

The presidential election has been postponed until 21 July, after African leaders called for a two-week delay to the original 15 July poll date.

Local and parliamentary elections were held on 5 July. Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD party overwhelmingly won, taking 77 out of a possible 100 seats. The elections were boycotted by the opposition, and the European Union and the African Union withdrew their election monitors, claiming the election could not be free or fair.

See: Journalism in Burundi is a high-risk job

As tensions build ahead of the presidential poll, IRIN looks at the positions of the key regional and international actors: 


On 6 July, President Museveni was appointed lead mediator by EAC heads of state. He arrived in the Burundian capital Bujumbura on Tuesday to begin mediating a new round of talks. While he has the blessing of the president, the opposition has so far rejected his nomination as mediator.

Museveni, who has now been president of Uganda for 29 years, is a problematic choice. In 2005, he eliminated term limits through a constitutional amendment. In 2016, he will seek his seventh term in office. At home, the Ugandan leader also frequently clamps down harshly on opposition groups and those opposed to his rule. Even since assuming his role as Burundi mediator, he has arrested two prominent opposition leaders in Uganda.

“Domestically, Museveni does not have a track record of being conciliatory to his own opposition. And so the Burundian opposition is looking at his track record in Uganda when they think of his role as mediator,” Yolande Bouka, researcher in conflict analysis and risk prevention at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told IRIN. “I’m not quite sure that the process will go further with him at the helm.”

However, Bouka noted that the opposition is unlikely to be able to persuade the Burundian government and the EAC to change mediator, partly because of disunity in its own ranks but also because Museveni is unlikely to be moved by their demands.

“I would be very surprised if Museveni recused himself because of opposition pressure,” Bouka said. “I don’t think the EAC is as responsive to this kind of pressure as the United Nations.”

Two UN-appointed mediators to the Burundi crisis have already stepped down following government pressure.


Tanzania has historically played a large role in peace negotiations in Burundi and the country has seen an influx of nearly 77,000 refugees since the crisis in its much smaller northeastern neighbour began.

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete hosted the latest EAC peace talks, and Nkurunziza was in the Tanzanian city of Dar-es-Salaam for a heads of state summit on the Burundi crisis in May when army leaders staged their abortive coup.

Analysts suggest that Tanzania crucially shifted its position on the crisis.

“Initially Kikwete had been saying that Nkurunziza had to leave, but it is Tanzania that at that critical moment at the end of May stopped insisting on Nkurunziza’s departure,” said Devon Curtis, senior lecturer in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, speaking at a Rift Valley Institute (RVI) event in Nairobi.

“There’s animosity of course between Tanzania and Rwanda, and I think that Tanzania thought that the coup attempt on the 13th of May was supported by Rwanda.”

Since mid-May, Tanzania has stopped talking about the issue of term limits and instead focused on attempting to find a negotiated, political solution.

Meanwhile, the Tanzanian ruling party appears able to change leadership smoothly – it has nominated John Magufuli as its leader for upcoming elections, replacing Kikwete after two terms in power.


Since the crisis began, Rwanda has become increasingly vocal in its criticism of Nkurunziza. Paul Kagame, however, is quick to stress that his concern is not with term limits (indeed, he too will be seeking a third stint as president in the next general election in 2017, and parliament on Tuesday voted to support a change in the constitution to allow him to do so*). Instead, he points to the performance of the Burundi president, accusing him of being ineffective and unpopular.

In May, he stated to China Central TV that: “If your own citizens are telling you, 'we don’t want you to do this or to lead us,' it is because they are saying you are not delivering much to us. So how do you say, 'I am staying anyway whether you want me or not?' This is a serious problem.”

“Rwanda is saying that the Imbonerakure, the youth wing that’s tied to the ruling party, has been receiving arms from the FDLR (rebel group) in Congo,” noted Curtis. But the accusations go both ways.

See: Who are the Imbonerakure and is Burundi unravelling?

In recent days, Rwanda has been accused by the governor of Kayanza province of involvement in a series of attacks there. “There’s been a lot of speculation for the last couple of months about Rwanda supporting parts of the opposition,” said Bouka. “Obviously, Rwanda has a history of supporting dissident groups in places like the DRC so it’s definitely in the realm of possibility.”

Nonetheless, Bouka cautioned that Rwanda is hosting a large number of journalists, opposition leaders and refugees, and therefore some of the support might be explained by their presence.

“If it is true that the government is involved, it would definitely change the dynamics,” she said.


The crisis in Burundi will undoubtedly be affected by the situation in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo – where regional actors were involved in a protracted civil war.

“Both CNDD-FDD and FNL [a Burundian opposition group that in previous years had fought in eastern Congo] parties have – in their days as anti-government militias – operated in and from rear bases around Uvira (in the eastern DRC),” Christoph Vogel, associate lecturer at the Institute for African Studies, University of Cologne, told IRIN.

“More recently, UN reports have accused the CNDD-FDD government of organising military trainings of parts of the Imbonerakure youth wing in the Ruzizi plain (which runs along the border between Burundi and the DRC),” Vogel said.

“Over the past months, the security situation in South Kivu along the Burundian border has been rather calm, but bearing in mind historical spill-overs, regional escalations should not completely be ruled out.”

However, Vogel noted that the size of Burundi, which is very small, means that it is at least for now, unlikely that the crisis could escalate to levels similar to what has been seen in eastern Congo.

Congolese President Joseph Kabila will also be watching events in Burundi closely. He too faces the possibility of a third-term vote next year. In January, he cancelled an initiative for a country-wide census, a move that would have effectively postponed the elections, after widespread protests in the country’s capital Kinshasa.

South Africa

President Jacob Zuma was personally involved in the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement – which helped Burundi eventually emerge five years later from civil war. While initially strongly against Nkurunziza's third-term bid, Zuma has also softened his stance since April.

“I think that the South Africans are leading from behind, and it’s quite unfortunate given that along with the African Union, they are guarantors of the Arusha Agreement,” said Bouka.

“Zuma at first publicly enunciated that position [against a third-term bid]. But now his officials seem to be prevaricating, wondering if the Burundi constitutional court’s decision to validate Nkurunziza’s third-term bid should be respected, for fear of undermining Burundi’s sovereignty and rule of law,” wrote Peter Fabricius, an ISS consultant.

“This ambiguous position of the South African government betrays more sympathies to the ruling parties than to the Arusha Agreement,” added Bouka.

South Africa played a crucial role in the 2000 Arusha Agreement.

“Arusha would not have happened, I think, had it not been for the South African involvement. In particular, South Africa had a protection force to protect politicians that were returning from exile to take their place in the transitional institutions after the signing of the peace agreement and then there was the very first African Union peacekeeping mission that was in Burundi from 2003-2004,” said Curtis.

Of late, perhaps due to increased domestic concerns, there has been less focus on Burundi from the South Africans. “South Africa has to some extent disengaged from the Great Lakes region,” noted Bouka. She predicted that any solution to Burundi would contain greater engagement from Burundi’s more immediate neighbours, and the role of South Africa would be diminished.

African Union

By contrast to some of the regional actors, the African Union, at least through its chairperson, has remained fairly consistent in calling for respect of the Arusha Agreement and an electoral environment that is genuinely free and fair. The Arusha Agreement, most agree, is categorical in its requirement of two-term presidencies, and has come to be seen as a proxy for expressing displeasure with Nkurunziza’s decision.

In a press statement on 26 April, the chairperson of the AU, Dlamini Zuma, “called on all stakeholders to strictly respect the 2000 Arusha Agreement, the constitution and the electoral law.” In mid-June, the African Union reiterated this position.

The strongest indication of AU intent is that they refused to send observers to the June parliamentary and local elections, stating that there was no way they could be free or fair. The Burundian government appears to have fallen out of favour with the AU and, for now, seems unwilling to accept its mediators.

However, not everyone within the African regional bloc is so opposed to Nkurunziza’s bid. Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, the current chair of the AU, recently dubbed the two-term limit “a rope around our own neck.”

Therefore, at least in the short-term future, the role of the AU is likely to be more limited.

For now, the situation seems to be at an impasse. No clear negotiator or regional leader has emerged, and Nkurunziza seems unwilling to step down. The opposition, meanwhile, is very fragmented, while some elements appear to be becoming more radicalised and violent.

“There’s a risk of economic paralysis as a result of the suspension of aid, together with the drastic reduction of internal revenue,” Willy Nindorera, an independent consultant based in Bujumbura, Burundi, said at the RVI event in Nairobi. “We risk seeing the questioning of the Arusha accords and democracy, and the risk of return to armed conflict.”

* This part of the story was amended to reflect the vote in the Rwandan parliament


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