Following the July 2015 election in which Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza won a disputed third term, violence among state forces, suspected opposition members, and civilians has increased significantly, particularly after October 2015. In December 2015, security forces killed more than ninety people, mostly suspected anti-government supporters, in retaliation for an attack on a military base by gunmen opposing Nkurunziza’s presidency. More than 285,000 refugees have fled Burundi, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and more than 400 people have been killed, although that number could be as high as 1,000.
In December 2015, the African Union’s (AU) Peace and Security Council authorized the deployment of five thousand peacekeepers as part of the African Protection and Prevention Mission in Burundi. When Nkurunziza threatened to fight against the force, the African Union abandoned its plan in late January 2016. In early April, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proposed sending a force of 3,000 police to the country, but in response, Nkurunziza said he would only accept twenty unarmed police officers.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for more than thirty years, was appointed as head mediator for peace talks between Burundi’s government and opposition groups. Although the United States, African Union, and various European countries have urged both opposition groups and the government to negotiate since the election last July, Museveni has been unsuccessful in bringing the parties together.
Since gaining independence in 1962, Burundi has experienced multiple episodes of mass violence, including massacres in 1972, 1988, and during the early 1990s, which led to the outbreak of a twelve-year civil war in 1993. Burundi’s past conflicts have stemmed from divisions between social groups, primarily along ethnic lines between Hutus and Tutsis, but intertwined with social and institutional control, economic opportunity, and a history of discriminatory policies. Burundi’s history mirrors Rwanda’s history. The two countries share the same ethnic groups and have experienced mass violence, but whereas in Rwanda a repressive Hutu government led a genocide against Tutsis in 1994, in Burundi a repressive Tutsi governments committed mass violence against Hutus. In Burundi, this violence led to civil war.
More than 300,000 people were killed during the civil war, which ended with the Arusha Accords, signed in 2000 but not implemented until 2005. The peace agreement created a power-sharing deal for political institutions and integrated the various rebel groups into the state military, using an ethnic quota system to ensure more balanced representation.
Though the last rebel group transitioned into a political party in 2009 and large-scale violence has not broken out again since the civil war, Burundi’s president and the ruling party—the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD)—have steadily consolidated their grip on power since the country’s first democratic elections in 2010. In the lead-up to the election, CNDD-FDD members intimidated opposition supporters and used political violence—torture, disappearance, and murder—to suppress opposition. Members of CNDD-FDD’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, were implicated in political violence targeting opposition members, although no investigations or prosecutions were conducted.
Since 2010, Nkurunziza has enacted legislation targeting members of civil society and shrinking democratic space. The government passed a law in June 2013 curbing press freedom and six months later enacted a law restricting public gatherings.
In addition to tightening control over civil society, Nkurunziza illegally ran for a third presidential term and won in July 2015. This is the root of the current crisis. According to Burundi’s constitution, presidents are limited to serving two five-year terms, which would have made Nkurunziza ineligible to run for a third term. CNDD-FDD claimed that Nkurunziza was first selected by the country’s legislature in 2005, rather than by popular vote, and therefore he was eligible to run again.
Mass protests erupted in April 2015 ahead of scheduled elections and continued throughout the summer. The protests were met with political violence against opposition members and low-intensity skirmishes between police and civilians. In May 2015, former intelligence chief Major General Godefroid Niyombare and two other officials attempted a coup, which was foiled by government forces. Since then, both pro-government and opposition armed groups have committed a series of assassinations of prominent individuals, including General Adolphe Nshimirimana, Brigadier General Athanase Kararuza, and human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa (attempted), among others. Mass ethnic violence has not been widespread in the current conflict thus far, but many scholars and policymakers fear that lingering ethnic tension could intensify violence in the future.
Weak institutions, extreme poverty (Burundi is consistently listed as one of the top three poorest countries in the world), and a colonial legacy that fostered ethnic divisions have contributed to the country’s violent history. This violence risks repeating itself if the political crisis is not resolved. In the past, authoritarian governance and successive episodes of mass violence led to large-scale civil war between ethnic groups. Although the basic pillars of the Arusha Accords have held until now, Nkurunziza’s disputed reelection risks unraveling the progress that Burundi has made toward reconciliation and instituting a representational political system.
Burundi is situated in the already volatile Great Lakes region of Africa and its political problems have the potential to further destabilize the area. On the other hand, the upcoming elections in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda—both Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame are likely to run for an additional, illegitimate term—pose the risk of spillover violence to Burundi.