Burundi’s Opposition Faces Uphill Task as President Nkurunziza Tightens Noose

Nairobi – The opposition in Burundi has had a change of heart and is angling to participate in presidential elections scheduled for 2020 after boycotting the last exercise held in July 2015.

With the National Council for Respect of the Arusha Agreement (CNARED), an alliance of exiled opposition leaders based in Brussels, Belgium are emerging as the latest entrants in the expected race.

“If they want to get power why are they outside the country? They should come and play the politics on the ground,” the country’s Vice-President Gaston Sindimwo told The EastAfrican newspaper, a regional paper, in Bujumbura, the capital this August.

Turns out, the exiled opponents are a heterogeneous lot, composed of former opposition leaders and Cndd-FDD dissidents, many of whom held prominent positions in government. The coalition includes many former enemies and has seen inevitable internal power struggles, leading some prominent members to leave in 2016. Initially, it included civil society groups but they, too, left as early as 2015.

“It shows a division in the opposition, between those willing to return to Burundi and others who prefer to remain in exile. The division in CNARED begun a long time ago and it’s difficult to say with certainty if CNARED in its present form represents the opposition in exile,” says Nelleke van de Walle, the Deputy Project Director, Central Africa, at International Crises Group (ICG). The ICG is an independent global organisation that works to prevent wars and shapes policies that will build a more peaceful world.

In recent days the Burundian Government has seemingly struck a charitable streak with this February 14 witnessing it approve registration of the National Congress for Freedom party (CNL) associated with Agathon Rwasa widely thought to pose the biggest threat to the political monolithism coalescing around President Pierre Nkurunziza.

Understandably, the move then was widely hailed as auspicious. But six months later, the good –feel perception has roiled.

According to Rwasa, more than 20 of its offices across the country have since been vandalized, defaced with human faeces or razed down altogether by suspected members of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy (Cndd-FDD), the ruling party.

“Our members are being assassinated, some are mutilated. There are cases of those who have lost fingers, others lost their teeth during attacks by youth from the ruling party,” said Terence Manirambona, the party’s spokesman in a presser held in Bujumbura formerly the political capital this August 22.

The Cndd-FDD has repeatedly denied being behind the attacks. Since April 2015 the country has been locked in a crisis that has escalated into Africa’s worst political crisis since a civil war ended in 2005, sparking civil unrest that has left 1,200 dead and over 400,000 people displaced to date. Not even school going children are insulated from the highhandedness of the government.

Last March, authorities released three schoolgirls who were arrested and detained for allegedly defacing a picture of President Pierre Nkurunziza by scribbling on his image in textbooks following an international uproar. With the country’s minister for justice, Aimée Laurentine Kanyana, telling the state broadcaster RTNB that the girls had been given provisional release but future cases would result in prosecutions.

School children have in the past been kicked out of school for similar offences, with some jailed and released.

In 2016, 11 children were jailed on accusations of defacing a photograph of Nkurunziza in a school text book. In another incident in the same year, more than 300 students of a school in the capital’s Ruziba neighbourhood were sent home after being accused of defacing Nkurunziza’s image.

Further emboldening the impression that the CNDD-FDD party has no intention of leveling the political playing field, the President this July appointed a former head of a Burundian militia accused of atrocities to lead the state broadcaster, RTNB, sparking condemnation by human rights groups. With Human Rights Watch saying the appointment of Eric Nshimirimana was “a blow to all victims of abuse perpetrated by the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling CNDD-FDD party as well as freedom of the press in Burundi”.

In October 2017, Burundi decided to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) becoming the first country in the world to do so, after a scathing UN report called for criminal investigations on the political leadership in Bujumbura. This came, after a Commission of Inquiry on this former Belgium colony reported in September of the same year found evidence of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and sexual violence in the two and half years since Nkurunziza, muscled his way to a third term in office.

Does this mean that leadership coalescing around Nkurunziza will escape being held accountable for the excruciating terror visiting this East African country? Not so. Under its founding charter, known as the Rome Statute, crimes in nonmember states of the ICC can still be referred for investigation by the United Nations Security Council. And the United Nations’ commission of inquiry on Burundi has to date recommended such a referral.

Turns out, Nkurunziza is the first president to be democratically elected in this country which has 33 % of its population living outside the country as political refugees, after a 12-year civil war stoked by intra-ethnic chasms drawing in the Hutu and Tutsi communities ended in August 2005.

He was elected in 2005 by the Burundian Parliament, as part of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, widely known as the Arusha Accords, which brought the civil war to an end. It’s central themes were hinged on four points which included a power sharing formula based on agreed ethic quotas; a representative of all parties in the state bureaucracy; constitutional restrictions preventing a political party becoming excessively powerful; and  integrating former rebels and minority groups into the country’s armed forces.

Since then Nkurunziza has consolidated his rule through the passage of a constitutional referendum held in May 2018, which, among other provisions, lengthens presidential terms from five to seven years. However, this June Nkurunziza vowed to step down in 2020, despite the fact that the new constitution allows him to stay in power through 2034.

Widely referred to as “the visionary” by fawning supporters, this former P.E teacher turned politico conspiratorially labels his adherents, the “keepers of the secrets.”

And the CNDD-FDD, of which he’s the Chairman has gone ahead to bestow him the transcendental title of, Supreme Eternal Guide. And this narrative of Nkurunziza being a divine gift to the 11 million people living in Africa’s second most densely populated country of whom 86 % of them live in rural areas is fraught with ominous implications for the fledgling opposition.

According to Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peace building “The human rights situation remains worrying in view of many violations of fundamental civic and political freedoms as reported by political actors, some media and civil society organizations.”

In the last polls, seventeen opposition parties boycotted the exercise after Nkurunziza successfully bid for re-election for a third term, a move that was opposed by the opposition, civil society and the influential Catholic Church as well as critical bodies within this former Belgium colony that deemed the Presidents’ move as unconstitutional.

Railroading the burgeoning opposition Nkurunziza, 55, secured a controversial third-term, winning 69% of the vote with a former army general, Agathon Rwasa as the only rival, polling 19% of the vote. In addition on May 17 2018, the President took advantage of a disputed referendum victory to amend the Constitution, allowing himself to remain in office through to 2034. However he has said publicly that he will not be standing in the 2020 election.

“The announcement by President Nkurunziza in June 2018 that he would not seek another term was a missed opportunity for the authorities to reopen civic space and defuse tensions ahead of the electoral process next year. Instead, the continued harassment, intimidation and deadly attacks on the opposition sends a clear sign that the Burundian government is not ready to work toward an inclusive electoral process in 2020,” says Amnesty international.

This May the country’s Chief Justice ordered for the seizure of property belonging to 32 exiled opposition leaders and journalists including nine jailed military officers who challenged President Pierre Nkurunziza when he announced he would run for a controversial third term in May 2015. Understandably government critics rejected the jurist ruling suggesting the country’s judicial system was under the thrall of the CNDD-FDD.

“…. the repression by the national intelligence officials and CDD-FDD youths has become more entrenched. Anyone suspected of opposing the ruling party becomes a target. Fast-forward, the future looks grim as the 2020 presidential election is around the corner. And although the repression is not as visible as in the early days it is just as brutal and it is taking place with impunity,” says a report by the Human Rights Watch.

With such a gloomy picture, the opposition in Burundi faces a tough road ahead and unless the Nkurunziza Administration ceases the reign of terror, the polls for 2020 are certainly heading for a bloodbath.