After Election, Can Burundi’s Nkurunziza Endure Five Years of Tension?

Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza attends the swearing in of his new cabinet, formed after his contentious July reelection. Bujumbura, Burundi, August 25, 2015. (Renovat Ndabashinze/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Raids, arbitrary arrests, and killings continue in crisis-hit Burundi despite reelected President Pierre Nkurunziza’s appointment of a new power-sharing government. As gunfire and shelling increasingly disrupt parts of the capital, Bujumbura, and a low-level insurgency waged by unidentified rebels continues in the country’s northern provinces, there are serious doubts as to whether the president can steer the ship for another five years.

For more than three months leading up to the July election, Burundi was in turmoil over the constitutional legitimacy of Nkurunziza’s third run for office, resulting in strong international condemnation and the threat of sanctions from donor countries. After taking power, the president moved swiftly to try and quell the instability that plagued the election campaign.

In a speech laying out a five-year plan for growth and development, he demanded the reestablishment of joint security committees composed of members of the police and the public. Nkurunziza gave the committees two months to dismantle armed units active in Bujumbura in particular. He also called for compulsory civic education of youth to encourage patriotism and stem growing dissent.

The opposition Amizero y’Abarundi coalition has strongly criticized the reestablished committees as an attempt to introduce police functionaries within civil society. These, they say, would be similar to the Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth militia, which is accused of perpetrating human rights abuses and colluding with security forces to intimidate suspected anti-government figures. Nkurunziza has thus raised fears of a greater crackdown on his opponents, which could invariably prolong the tide of political violence in the country.

A string of murders of opposition figures, ruling party members, and high-profile military figures characterized the month of August, in which Burundi celebrated the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Arusha Accords, the peace agreement that ended a 13-year ethnic civil war. Days after Nkurunziza’s inauguration, Pontien Barutwanayo, a local administrator and member of the opposition Forces for National Liberation party was shot dead at a bar in Cibitoke, just outside Bujumbura. A subsequent raid led to the arrest of at least 23 opposition members and the seizure of a cache of weapons.

Prior to this, Colonel Jean Bikomagu, former military chief during the civil war regime, and General Adolphe Nshimirimana, the powerful head of intelligence, were assassinated within weeks of each other. The deaths of Bikomagu and Nshimirimana, a man considered to be the second most powerful and possible leader of the Imbonerakure, exposed the violent fractures between Nkurunziza’s National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) party and the national security forces.

Observers such as Thierry Virculon, Central Africa researcher for International Crisis Group, have suggested the presence of a breakaway faction within the army. Small numbers of junior officers have defected to join the rebels in Kayanza in the northeast near the Rwandan border and while little is known of their capacity, they are thought to be aligned to those involved in the attempted coup in May when an army general tried to overthrow Nkurunziza. Some of the plotters were arrested, but resistance has continued.

Supporting the rebels, General Leonard Ngendakumana, a former military serviceman involved in the attempted coup, has warned of an impending power struggle if Nkurunziza remains in office. In recent weeks, armed rebels are also thought to have infiltrated pro-regime districts in Bujumbura such as Kamenge and Musaga, which are strongholds of the Imbonerakure.

Nkurunziza has offered the formation of a unity government as a potential solution to the ongoing tensions. The president, who is a Hutu, recently appointed a new cabinet with a Tutsi vice president—Gaston Sindimwo of the opposition Union for National Progress (Uprona)—as well as 12 Hutu and eight Tutsi ministers. This complies with the constitution based on the Arusha Accords, which says there must be a 60-40 Hutu-Tutsi balance in government.

Members of the Amizero y’Abarundi coalition, which boycotted the presidential elections and the preceding parliamentary polls in protest of the third term bid, were also awarded five of those posts in the cabinet, including the ministries of public service, governance, and rural development and public transport. However, some members have refused to take up their parliamentary seats and cabinet posts. These include coalition co-leader Charles Nditije along with seven of his elected members of Uprona, who said they cannot form part of a government and work with a president whose reelection they do not recognize.

With the support of neighboring Uganda, Nditije continues to call for an immediate resumption of suspended United Nations-mediated talks and moves towards a rerun of elections. By contrast, co-opposition leader Agathon Rwasa of the FNL appears to have accepted the post of deputy speaker in the National Assembly and the offer of ministerial positions for his party. Twenty FNL members have attended parliament on the basis that the party cannot betray those who voted for them.

After dominating the elections—including communal polls also held in June—the CNDD-FDD has firmly ruled out holding a rerun, considering the victories to be a sign of endorsement from the people. In the new government the party retains control over the key levers of power such as security, finance, and justice.

The equation may not be as simple as that, however, as the previous power-sharing agreement between the CNDD-FDD and Uprona attests. Three Tutsi ministers resigned from the government in 2014 after the CNDD-FDD allegedly tried to force Nditije out of his post for opposing Nkurunziza’s attempt to push his third-term bid through parliament.

Nkurunziza’s actions at the time also rattled the ruling party itself, stirring internal divisions within the upper-house of the senate and among senior officials. Claims of corruption and patronage were leveled at the president for appointing his military allies, including Nshirimanana, into positions of power. Ignoring a petition against running for a third term from at least 17 senior party members, including the Council of Elders and military generals, he tried to amend the constitution in his favor, but failed by one vote.

Nkurunziza appears determined to rule under whatever circumstances he must. Nonetheless, Burundi’s political tensions have decreased internal security, led to over 200,000 fleeing the country, jeopardized international support for the country, and risked creating wider regional instability. The president’s much-desired third term may prove to be his hardest by far.

Tendai Marima is an independent postdoctoral researcher and freelance journalist based in Southern Africa. Her work has been published by Al Jazeera English, African Arguments, and the Daily Vox. @i_amten.