Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza submitted his papers to the electoral commission as international pressure continued to rise on him ahead of a regional emergency meeting in Dar es Salaam this week to try to resolve the political crisis.
By Friday, only President Nkurunziza, who is seeking a third term in office on the ruling party CNDD-FDD’s ticket, and the opposition UPRONA candidate Gerald Nduwayo had submitted their papers to the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI).
Another candidate, former rebel and FNL leader Agathon Rwasa, said he was still “considering submitting” his candidature by the Saturday, May 9 deadline.
Other opposition leaders convened an emergency meeting ahead of the deadline.
“So far we haven’t yet made any decision on whether or not to contest,” said Jean Minani, the chairman of FRODEBU Nyakuri.
President Nkurunziza, whose decision to seek a third term in office has sparked violent protests in the country, has announced that, if elected, it would be his last term. Those opposed to his candidature accuse him of violating the country’s Constitution, which sets a two-term limit, while his party argues that he has been elected by universal suffrage only once, and thus qualifies to seek re-election.
A ruling by the country’s Constitutional Court that President Nkurunziza is free to run for another term failed to end a second week of protests in which the death toll rose to over 12 and the number of refugees fleeing the country topped 50,000.
UN Special Envoy to Burundi Said Djinnit called for calm late on Thursday and warned of consequences if the violence continued.
“It is with great concern that we note a rise in violations of human rights and acts of violence, some resulting in death including of children, and many more injured and arrested. The perpetrators and instigators of acts of violence will have to answer personally before national and international courts,” said Mr Djinnit.
On Friday, UN-sponsored talks between middle-level leaders from government, political parties and civil society organisations resumed in Bujumbura after being suspended to allow officials to meet EAC foreign ministers.
Although the protests initially broke out over the third-term quest, this week they evolved into clashes between protestors on the one hand and, on the other hand, police and members of a youth militia allied to the ruling CNDD-FDD party, tapping into wider grievances about state harassment, corruption and incompetence.
“This government has been arresting opponents, intimidating journalists and brutalising us ever since 2010,” a protestor who only identified himself as Pascal, told The EastAfrican in Musaga, one of the areas near the capital Bujumbura that have borne the brunt of the fighting. “Enough is enough.”
Speaking at a symposium in Switzerland on Friday, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame echoed the feeling that the crisis has now gone beyond the term-limit question, and asked authorities in Burundi to do more to stop the instability and the refugee outflow it has sparked.
“It’s not just about the third term, it is about delivery,” President Kagame said. “If your own citizens tell you we don’t want you to lead us, how do you say I am staying whether you want me or not?”
An estimated 40,000 refugees have now crossed over into Rwanda and the statement will be seen as renewed pressure on Bujumbura.
Rwanda’s concerns about the humanitarian crisis and the risk of hostile elements using the crisis in Burundi to attack it have raised fears of the situation turning into a wider regional conflict.
Mr Rwasa expressed concern about the possibility of Rwanda being drawn into the conflict. “Some are fearing that Rwanda will intervene,” he told The EastAfrican in an interview in Bujumbura.
“We don’t want Rwanda to meddle in this business. What is needed is the solidarity of Burundians to ensure that we maintain our stability and we maintain our security ourselves.”
He warned that the situation could evolve into an ethnic conflict if Rwanda intervened in Burundi.
Although it opened its borders to fleeing civilians and granted them prima-facie refugee status, Rwanda has not announced any plans to intervene in the conflict.
With rival Burundi sides refusing to back down and with violence continuing to spread through the country, the region spent this week scrambling to find a solution to the problem.
In his capacity as chairperson of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), a clearing-house for conflicts in the region, Angola’s President José Eduardo dos Santos sent a special envoy to meet President Nkurunziza on Wednesday, only hours after the visit of foreign affairs ministers from the EAC.
Details of the message were not made public but officials in Bujumbura say the meeting in Dar es Salaam is an opportunity to de-escalate the crisis and initiate political dialogue between rival factions.
Wilson Kajwengye, the peace and security officer at ICGLR, said the 12-nation regional body with its headquarters in Bujumbura has been following the crisis and could facilitate a wider dialogue if asked by the heads of state.
Finding middle ground will not be easy. On Wednesday, President Nkurunziza announced he would take up his party nomination to run again and said elections were the only way out of the country’s crisis.
Although the president said it would be his last term if elected; ordered for the release of all children arrested during the crisis and offered to drop charges against organisers if they call off the protests, several diplomats and civil society officials interviewed in Burundi said they saw it as a hardening of position by the ruling party and the incumbent.
“That he should issue the statement after meeting the EAC ministers and knowing that there is an emergency summit coming up, shows that he is defiant and wanted to go into the negotiations with the upper hand,” a diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said. “It is not helpful at all.”
The Chairperson of the African Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, weighed in last week in an interview with Chinese television, maintaining her earlier position against President Nkurunziza seeking another term in office, and warning that conditions were not conducive for the country to hold elections.
Regional leaders are expected to endorse the view that elections, scheduled for May and June, ought to be postponed to allow for a political solution to the crisis to emerge.
EAC heads of state have been criticised for not acting fast enough on Burundi. Sources told this paper that President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania met with President Yoweri Museveni on Monday night in New York, and they agreed to get more involved in the situation.
The next day, President Kikwete, in his role as current chair of the EAC Heads of State Summit, sent the region’s foreign ministers to Bujumbura on their fact-finding mission.
Although the EAC has now been thrust to the forefront of efforts to resolve the crisis, there are questions about the ability of the region to force concessions out of the Burundi authorities.
“The EAC is primarily a regional bloc and doesn’t have the mechanisms to enforce or deal with peace and security challenges,” a regional diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“They are likely to rely mostly on their personal relations with Nkurunziza, especially Tanzania and Uganda, which have been his patrons for a long time. But it could get complicated if he pushed back and pointed out that Museveni had changed the constitution to stand for a third term in Uganda, and there are noises in Rwanda about doing the same.”
The diplomat drew parallels to the 2007/8 post-election violence in Kenya during which goods destined for Uganda and Rwanda were blocked or destroyed by angry mobs.
“Uganda and Rwanda offered to send in military support if needed but the bigger problem, which few people paid attention to, was that the EAC hadn’t created mechanisms to allow for intervention within a member state if conditions threaten to get out of hand,” the diplomat said.
The institutions that have been created, such as the East African Stand-by Brigade and the ICGLR, he added, are primarily designed to deal with non-state actors like rebel groups seeking to topple sitting governments, “not sitting governments seeking to topple constitutions.”
Friends in few places
Rwanda’s sharp comments last week add to critical positions taken by the United States, the United Kingdom and the African Union over President Nkurunziza’s pursuit of a third term.
President Kikwete, who steps down later this year after serving two terms, has also suggested that a third term would not be in the best interests of Burundi. Of the four fellow EAC member states, Burundi’s government is likely to struggle to win the support of at least two, with Kenya’s position unclear.
The key player is likely to be Uganda, where highly-placed sources say a legal brief, casting doubt about the legality of a third term, was prepared for the attention of the country’s top officials.
A senior Ugandan diplomat, however, expressed concerns about the risk of a power vacuum in Nkurunziza’s absence.
“There are not many people in the opposition who are presidential material,” the diplomat said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “There may be issues with the incumbent but you need to be convinced that there is a plan and leadership afterwards otherwise you could make a bad situation worse.”
Additional reporting by MOSES HAVYARIMANA