The Tragic Death of Democracy in Burundi

The Tragic Death of Democracy in Burundi

A few weeks ago, Burundi faced a complex political and legal conundrum that could have been resolved peacefully. Now it is faced with a farcical election that will likely result in violence and instability.


On May 13, General Niyombare declared that President Nkurunziza had been “relieved of his duties” by a coup; Nkurunziza was in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania at the time—ironically attending a summit of African leaders that had been convened because of the unfolding political instability in Burundi in response to Nkurunziza’s campaign for a third term as president. What followed Niyombare’s “coup” was sheer confusion. There were no clear answers as to where Nkurunziza was, who was in control of the country, or the extent to which Burundians supported the coup.

By May 15, however, it had become clear that Nkurunziza had returned to Burundi and had regained power. It is also apparent that Burundi cannot carry out “free and fair” elections at this point in time. The attempted coup has given the president enormous leverage to crack down on political dissent and has undermined the legitimacy of the political opposition that considered the third term unconstitutional. What began as a troubled electoral process, following the CNDD-FDD’s nomination of Nkurunziza as their presidential candidate, has been rendered farcical by this week’s coup attempt.


The protests that followed Nkurunziza’s nomination revolved around the interpretation of the country’s constitution, which stipulates that the president is limited to two terms following direct popular elections. Nkurunziza and his supporters argue that since his first term, following the country’s brutal and destructive civil war, was the result of parliamentary appointment, his campaign is within the bounds of the law. The Burundian constitutional court ruled in Nkurunziza’s favor a week before the coup. The announcement galvanized the political opposition and led to an increase in protests on the street; Jean Minani, a leader of opposition party Frodebu-Nyakuri, responded to the announcement saying: “We don’t care about the constitutional court decision because we know this court is manipulated.”

Minani’s skepticism is warranted; Judge Sylvere Nimpagaritse, the court’s vice president, fled to Rwanda the day before the announcement was made. Nimpagaritse told AFP that the court’s seven judges had been placed under “enormous pressure” and had received death threats from political elites to approve Nkurunziza’s campaign.

Prior to the coup, there was the potential for a robust political debate in Burundi. That is not to say that there was not violence or impropriety—prior to the coup, over 50,000 Burundians had fled the country, and there were reports of police brutality and of the CNDD-FDD’s youth wing (the Imbonerakure) marking houses of political opponents to target. However, there was a political opposition that needed to be dealt with. The constitutional court’s decision gave political opponents a tangible example of the manipulative tactics of the ruling party and could have been used as a rallying point for civil society and peaceful political opponents.

Gordien Niyungeko, the deputy head of Focode and an active member of Burundi’s civil society, told Reuters, “Protests to reject the third term for Nkurunziza will continue. Our movement had nothing to do with the attempted coup.” Thierry Vircoulon, of the International Crisis Group in Burundi confirmed the divide between the political opposition and the coup plotters, reporting that “General Niyombare’s rebellion … failed to win over public support from Burundi’s political opposition, even though they share the aim to prevent the president’s unconstitutional third term.”

The coup, however, has changed the political landscape in Burundi and has given Nkurunziza a means of legitimizing a crackdown on political opponents and civil society. There are some that have gone as far as to argue that the coup was organized by Nkurunziza to provide him this sort of leverage; while such analysis may be far-fetched, it seems likely that in the coming weeks, the president and his supporters will purposefully blur the lines between political protesters and supporters of the coup in order to stymie dissent.

After the coup was declared, the police in some suburbs of Bujumbura told residents “they would be treated as rebels and shot at if they demonstrated.” Since Nkurunziza returned to Burundi, there have been reports of a crackdown on independent Burundian media. Innocent Muhozi, of the Burundian Press Observatory, told AFP that the regime “want[s] to break the journalists’ morale. There is harassment, phone calls, threats, blacklists. Some have gone into exile, others are in hiding.” The culture of repression and fear has lead to an exponential increase in Burundians fleeing the country; in the past week, the number of Burundian refugees has doubled to total more than 100,000.

A few weeks ago, the country was faced with a complex political and legal conundrum that could have potentially seen a peaceful solution. At present, the country is faced with a farcical election that will likely result in violence and instability, undermining nearly a decade of peace.

Hilary Matfess is an African Affairs analyst. She has conducted fieldwork in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Nigeria.

Image: Flickr/Brice Blondel