Burundi at crossroads

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Despite the laying down of arms by Burundi’s last rebel group, the National Front for Liberation (FNL), in 2005 the country has been tinkering between peace and war since the disputed 2010 elections. Opposition leaders, who had fled the country, have returned home to prepare for the 2015 polls, whose outcome may return the country to war or cement democracy and peace.

President Pierre Nkurunziza will be seeking a third term of office despite the constitution limiting presidential terms to two. The opposition leaders fled following the victory of Nkurunziza’s National Council for Defence of Democracy (CNDD) claiming fraud in the elections which, had been described by foreign observers as credible. Subsequently, the government cracked down bur2on the opposition, accusing it of causing instability in the country. As a result, the FNL resumed low-level rebel activities which targeted government and ruling party officials. The government reacted by carrying out extrajudicial killing of FNL members and cracked down on the media and civil society organisations. Bodies of FNL members, who had disappeared or had been arrested by security personnel, were fished out of rivers and civil society and international human rights organisations then pointed fingers at security bodies. The government has also amended and toughened the 2003 media law, further straining relations with donors. The new version of the law forces journalists to disclose sources and makes it mandatory for them to have a university degree. It also gives the state-appointed National Communication Council the prerogative of issuing press cards and withdrawing them at will. The law also prohibits broadcasting of what it vaguely calls “National Defence secrets, information on national currency and any information which could affect the credibility of the state and the national economy or engage in propaganda for the enemy of the nation in peace or war times”. Consequently, several journalists have spent months appearing in courts while others have been jailed.
 Bad economic environment
 Donors put pressure on the government by tying economic assistance to progress in human rights situation, fight against corruption and improving good governance in general. In October 2012, they pledged 2.6 billion dollars, little of which has been disbursed to date owing to the continuing violation of human rights. The donors’ action has weakened an economy which largely depends on their magnanimity and the budget has experienced deficit of 48 million dollars. In bur4order to bridge the gap, the government has slapped a 10 per cent tax across the board, including basic necessities, thus worsening the situation of the poor. The economy has also slowed down and its growth rate, which had been predicted to increase to 6.6 per cent this year, has been reviewed down to 4.8 per cent, a weak performance for a post-war economy. Prices of commodities have also hit the roof. At 1,600 Burundi francs against the dollar, the local currency is weaker than ever before.
Burundi is among the world’s poorest countries with per capita income of 210 dollars. Even its northern neighbour, Rwanda, which is slightly smaller than Burundi but with a bigger population and less natural resources than Burundi, had a per capita income of 644 dollars in 2012. The deteriorating economic situation, coupled with a tense political atmosphere in the country, has negatively affected President Nkurunziza’s popularity even among his strongest supporters, the peasants. Frustrated by conditions tied to the release of financial assistance by western donors, President Nkurunziza, in April 2013, made a visit to Iran to seek assistance. The latter is under international sanctions over its nuclear energy programme.
Opposition leaders’ return
CNDD members say President Nkurunziza`s decision to seek a third term has divided the ruling party, splitting it between the Ngozi and Gitega factions. President Nkurunziza comes from the northern province of Ngozi while his second vice-president, who is also eying the presidency, Dr Rufyikiri, is from the central Gitega Province. Most of the opposition leaders who had fled the bur3country or were in hiding, have in recent months either returned home or come out in the open to prepare for the 2015 elections. The leader of the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, Alexis Sinduhije, and the candidate for the Movement for Peace and Development, Pascaline Kampayano in March 2013,  returned home after more than two years in exile. FNL’s Thomas Agathon Rwasa, who, like President Nkurunziza draws support from the Hutu majority, also resurfaced in August. “I call upon all peace and justice loving people to join me and the FNL, because there is need for change at the Burundian leadership level”, Rwasa said after quitting his hideout.
Opposition`s rough road to 2015 polls
However, analysts say the government will not give easy life to the opposition, especially Rwasa Agathon. The ruling CNDD and Burundians believe the next president will come from the CNDD or FNL, if Rwasa is allowed to stand. The government has helped Rwasa’s opponents within the FNL to take over the party’s leadership and it is determined not to allow him to stand as an FNL presidential candidate in order to decrease his popularity among the majority Hutu population.  Security personnel refused permission to Rwasa to address his supporters on the first day of his public appearance despite the presence of western diplomats. Security agents forced their way into his Bujumbura residence, where he was speaking to journalists, a sign of what is yet to come. Congolese Tutsis known as Banyamulenge have also taken Rwasa to court over the killing of 166 members of their community in Gatumba, in western Burundi, in 2004. Rwasa’s FNL faction suspects there is a government’s hidden hand in the matter whose ultimate objective is to stop him from standing in the presidential elections. But western diplomats in Bujumbura have brandished their baton by pegging financial assistance to the success of the 2015 elections. Speaking in July 2013 to journalists after a meeting between donors and the Burundian government over projects funding, the Belgian ambassador to Burundi, Marc Gedopt, said “the money will naturally strongly be tied to the holding of the 2015 elections as well as the evolution of political rights in the framework of good governance”.
Charles Bigirimana


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