Thinking Aloud: Burundi Unraveling?

May 1, 2015 by Darius 

This week’s street protests in Burundi are being met with an increasingly violent response.  The country is on the verge of unraveling in the run-up to a presidential election.  Hundreds of students have sought refuge at the US embassy and protesters have refused to leave the streets in response to an announcement by the president, Pierre Nkuruninza, that he will seek a controversial third term.

Nkuruninza came to power following a decade-long ethnic civil war in 2005.  Burundi, like its neighbor Rwanda, is divided between a Hutu majority and a Tutsi minority.  In 1993, Burundi held its first democratic elections post-independence.  A Hutu candidate won and was promptly assassinated by Tutsi extremists.  Armed forces from both ethnic groups fought for the next ten years, killing an estimated 300,000 people.  (This slow-motion slaughter is largely forgotten because in neighboring Rwanda, up to a million people were killed in an intense spasm of ethnic violence in the spring and summer of 1994.)

Nkuruninza is himself Hutu and commanded Hutu fighters during the civil war.  Eventually, his group became a political party and won parliamentary elections held in 2005.  The elections were considered to have been free and fair by international monitors, and Nkuruninza’s ascent marked the effective end of the civil war.  Ten years on, fighting has been sporadic.

Burundi’s constitution limits the president to only two terms.  However, for his first term, Nkuruninza was appointed by the parliament, not directly elected.  His supporters claim, therefore, that the first term doesn’t count against the two-term limit.  The opposition and protesters obviously disagree.

However, the current protests don’t appear to have an ethnic tint.  Two of the main opposition parties have said they will boycott any election involving Nkuruninza, but the opposition parties are also Hutu-dominated.  For his part, Nkuruninza has labeled protesters insurrectionists and has threatened to crush them.

Burundi doesn’t seem likely to devolve into ethnic civil war.  However, people killed in non-ethnic violence are just as dead.

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