Tension remains high in Burundi with fears that the country could return to civil war following plans by the ruling party to have President Pierre Nkurunziza vie for another term in next year’s election.
The reports have sparked protests from the opposition and civil society, who insist the ruling CNDD-FDD should stick to the Arusha Accord of 2000, which set term limits for the president at five years, renewable once. President Nkurunziza has been the first democratically elected president of Burundi since 2005.
Although President Nkurunziza has not publicly indicated his intention to vie for a third term in next year’s election, his party loyalists are pushing for him to run again.
The CNDD-FDD members have started debate in parliament to change the constitution so as to pave the way for President Nkurunziza to vie for the top seat in one of the world’s poorest nations.
The move has ignited demonstrations in the capital Bujumbura with the opposition, led by Uprona party supporters and civil society, demanding that the constitution be strictly adhered to and that President Nkurunziza hangs up his boots after serving for two terms.
Demo disrupted by police
What started as a peaceful demonstration by the group on March 8 was violently disrupted by police, leaving scores of people injured. There were also reports of shooting by police last Monday to prevent a gathering of the opposition group.
Most of the Burundians who spoke to The EastAfrican in Bujumbura said they feared violence could erupt any time due to the political crisis.
The African Union (AU) has also expressed its concern over the goings-on and said the Arusha Accord, which ended 12 years of turmoil in Burundi, should be implemented to the letter.
“This is only way for parties to have transparent, democratic and inclusive elections next year,” the head of the AU in Burundi, Boubacar Gaoussou Diarra, who is also its special representative to the Great Lakes region, said. “As a mediator, we want peace and stability in this country.
“We don’t want to speak about the legality of the constitution or not. Everybody knows what the Arusha Accord is about. We don’t want to say the president is right or not.
“We want all measures put in place for a credible and inclusive election.”
Mr Diarra regretted that the government was trying to split Uprona, which is the main opposition party and seen to be representing the minority Tutsi, a thing he cautioned was a threat to peace and security.
“The government should open the democratic space by allowing parties to sell their manifestoes,” Mr Diarra said in an interview in his office in Bujumbura. “This is the only way to have democratic elections.
“It should also help Uprona to be united instead of fanning divisions.”
Mr Diarra said the government should leave political parties to conduct their activities without hindrance and adhere to a roadmap agreed upon in 2013 in Kayanza under the auspices of Bureau des Nations Unies au Burundi (BNUB), the United Nations Office in Burundi.
He said it would be wrong for the opposition parties to withdraw from the elections as they did in 2010.
“We fought hard for the parties to return in 2013,” he said. “We should help Burundi to consolidate peace and security, otherwise it will affect the security of the entire region.”
Burundian Civil Society Organisations president Vital Nshirimana has written to East African Community (EAC) Secretary-General Richard Sezibera, calling for a fact-finding mission on implementation of the Arusha Accord in order to avoid plunging the fragile country into chaos.
The letter, which was copied to Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is the EAC chairman, President Nkurunziza, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Mr Diarra, among others, accuses the Burundian authorities of contravening the agreement.
Speaking in his office in Bujumbura, Mr Nshirimana said a requirement of a two-thirds majority for any law to be changed in parliament was among those tampered with by the current regime, which is pushing for a a change in the constitution that will make it possible for half of the legislators to be able to review any law.
The civil society boss said the Nkurunziza administration was keen to break the ethnic and political balance provided for in the Arusha Accord by coming up with a Bill to water down the powers of the Vice-President.
Under the Arusha deal, if the president is elected from a Hutu party the VP is to be appointed from the Tutsi and vice versa to ensure national cohesion.
However, Mr Nshirimana said, the ruling party wants the VP to have no powers while the Prime Minister, who is to come from the president’s party, will enjoy immense powers.
In the proposed amendment, the VP can be dismissed by the president at will but it would require a two-thirds majority in parliament to remove the PM.
Mr Nshirimana said the suppression of the senate’s role in the control of ethnic and regional balance in appointments to top public offices undermines good governance.
He also accused the government of the day of making unilateral decisions instead of consensus as per the Arusha deal.
Mr Nshirimana said no amendment should be made to the constitution if it undermines national unity, cohesion of the Burundian people, the secular state, reconciliation, democracy and territorial integrity.
He said a third term of office for President Nkurunziza “would violate the constitution, the Arusha agreement and national stability.”
Contrary to the Arusha Accord
Said Mr Nshirimana: “While President Nkurunziza has not clearly indicated his intention to run for a third term, the nation was informed of such an ambition through his party and we consider that such a plan is actually contrary to the Arusha agreement for peace and reconciliation.”
He added that there were efforts to weaken the judiciary, with a meeting of lawyers being banned twice by the government.
Mr Nshirimana also alleged introduction of ethnic quotas in judicial appointments, which he said could interfere with efficiency.
The president of the Supreme Court is also appointed by the president and those who do not toe the line get sacked.
The civil society leader further expressed his concern over alleged introduction of harsh laws that he said restricted freedom of assembly and of the media.
The civil society boss regretted that those against the irregular amendment of the constitution are threatened, persecuted or jailed.
“In this regard, the former vice-president of Burundi, Frederic Banvuginyumvira, was unduly arrested and jailed for a fake case of corruption,” Mr Nshirimana said.
“The president of the Burundi Bar Association, Isidore Rufyikiri, was disbarred from the roll of advocates following a press conference he held denouncing any process of amending the constitution to allow for a third term for the President.”
He added that youth affiliated to the ruling party, “Imbonerakure,” were taking the law into their hands and preventing people from exercising their rights and fulfilling their duties.
The youth conduct patrols at night and arrest and beat people and they have been blamed for widespread killings and assassinations of perceived government opponents, he said.
Mr Nshirimana regretted that political activities were being allowed in schools and universities, threatening stability of the country.
“Several political parties — including Frodebu, FNL, UDP-Zigamibanga and Uprona — are divided following a zealous involvement of the Ministry of Interior, whose responsibility, according to the law, limits it to checking whether the parties follow their constitutions,” Mr Nshirimana said. “However, the ministry often interferes with organisation of the parties.”
The main opposition leader, Agathon Rwasa, the last rebel commander to lay down arms in 2009, accused President Nkurunziza of seeking to rewrite the constitution for his party’s selfish gain and of behaving increasingly like a dictator.
The turmoil in the East African country centres on a row between President Nkurunziza’s Hutu-led CNDD-FDD party and its junior coalition partner, the predominantly Tutsi Uprona, over constitutional amendments proposed by the president that could allow him a third term.
Mr Rwasa commanded the National Liberation Forces (FNL) during the 1993-2005 civil war that was triggered by the assassination of the country’s first democratically elected president, an ethnic Hutu, after decades of post-colonial Tutsi rule.
The FNL was among several Hutu rebel groups to rise up against the Tutsi-led military government. The biggest was Mr Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD, which in the early 2000s negotiated an end to rebellion in return for government and military jobs.
Mr Nkurunziza was elected president by lawmakers in 2005. His army battled the more hardline FNL until it laid down arms in 2009.
Mr Rwasa, accused by the government of committing some of the worst atrocities during the conflict, is widely viewed as posing the biggest threat to President Nkurunziza’s leadership at the ballot box.
President Nkurunziza has not said he will run again and his supporters say he has stuck by the rules of the constitution in keeping a careful balance and fully representative government.
Mr Rwasa said it was false to depict the current crisis as an ethnically motivated spat between the CNDD-FDD and Uprona, citing widespread discontent among the Hutu community at rampant corruption and sluggish growth.
The government does not consider Mr Rwasa the legitimate leader of the FNL, a party that has faced infighting. The opposition say rifts were stoked by the government to dilute the challenge to the ruling party.
The crisis blew up after President Nkurunziza sacked his vice-president, prompting Uprona ministers to walk out of the coalition in protest.
The President appointed a new deputy and three more ministers from Uprona, as required by an ethnic power-sharing deal in the constitution, but the party rejected their nominations, saying they did not represent the mainstream membership.
The head of state wanted to split Uprona and its support base before the election, as it has done with Mr Rwasa’s FNL and other opposition parties, analysts claimed.
Mr Rwasa, who teamed up with other opposition leaders to boycott the 2010 presidential election, has said he will run for president in 2015 if he is chosen by FNL members but claimed that the political chaos undermined his hopes for a free and fair vote.
After he went into hiding after the 2010 poll, saying he feared for his life, Mr Rwasa only re-emerged last August. He claimed he and colleagues were frequently harassed by state agents and the party was unable to operate freely.