A defiant President Pierre Nkurunziza spoke out for the first time on Thursday, as protests against his continued stay in office spread to other parts of Burundi, calling on citizens to turn out in large numbers to vote in the upcoming elections.
Speaking in Gitega, the country’s second-largest city, about 100 kilometres east of the capital Bujumbura, President Nkurunziza issued a warning to protestors who have clashed with police since the ruling CNDD-FDD political party picked him as its candidate for what would be his third term in office.
“We call on the youth who are being manipulated by some of the opposition to protest on the roads to stay away because, just to remind you, the country’s laws don’t allow protests during the electoral period,” President Nkurunziza said in a town that has also witnessed clashes between the police and protestors. “The elections will be peaceful than ever before so I call on all Burundians to turn out in large numbers.”
At least 29 people were reported injured in the clashes on Thursday and, while the Labour Day holiday on Friday saw some calm return to the country, the protests spread out to Matana in the south. Local leaders in the area said one protestor was shot in the leg and two policemen injured in clashes.
Protestors say Nkurunziza’s candidature for a possible third term in office violates the Constitution and the Arusha Accord that ended more than a decade of civil war in Burundi.
His supporters say his first term, in which he was elected by parliament and not universal suffrage, does not count and that he is entitled to stand for what they say would be his second elected term.
At least six civilians have been killed since the protests broke out on Sunday April 26. On Thursday, a policeman shot and killed a soldier in what many fear is a sign of fraying relations between the police, which has fought to quell the protests, and the army which has in some areas protected peaceful protestors on their marches.
Red Cross officials in the country confirmed the death of the soldier but a police spokesman declined to do so. “We don’t have any information about that, we just heard it through the radio but we will be releasing the report on the incident soon,” the police deputy spokesman told The EastAfrican.
Mr Nkurunziza said his government would investigate and punish protestors and radio stations accused of supporting them.
“Some leaders have used some of the media platforms to promote violence; I call on media leaders to be careful with the words and sayings they use during the electoral periods,” he said.
A leading independent radio station, RPA, was shut down on Monday and there were reports of disruptions to social media used by organisers of the protest to mobilise their supporters.
A prominent human-rights activist, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, was released without charge on Tuesday after being held for over a day. Other political activists have gone into hiding while more than 20,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries.
The Burundian Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons said Friday that 600 protesters have so far been arrested and that prisons in the country were struggling to cope with the number of detainees.
Hundreds of Burundi University students sought refuge outside the US embassy in Bujumbura after the campus in the city was closed and the students sent home.
“We fear for our security because they told us to leave the university to go back home to the countryside but some of my classmates went missing. I don’t know where they are so that’s why we came here to seek refuge,” one of the students outside the embassy said.
The US government has threatened to impose sanctions on Burundi if the violent protests continue. “There will be consequences in our relationship with Burundi including targeted measures against those who are responsible for violence,” Tom Malinowski, the US Assistant Secretary of State for democracy, Human Rights and Labour, said in Bujumbura after meeting President Nkurunziza.
Washington has publicly condemned Nkurunziza’s attempt to stand for re-election, with American diplomats warning that it would be outside the law and could further destabilise the country.
South Africa’s Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chairperson of the African Union, has also expressed misgivings about Nkurunziza’s nomination while the AU Peace and Security Council has expressed “deep regrets” over the violence and taken up the matter, and was expected to hold further discussions on Friday evening.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, sent his Great Lakes envoy to the country said Djinnit was expected to brief the UN Security Council on developments on Thursday evening via video teleconference. Details of the discussion were not available by press time.
In a message on its Twitter account on Sunday, the British High Commission in Rwanda said London “deeply regrets” the decision to nominate President Nkurunziza for re-election. The UK later issued a travel warning to its citizens to avoid the country.
The European Union also issued a statement on Tuesday calling for calm and warning that the violence, arrests of human-rights activists and clampdown on the media would undermine the credibility of the electoral process.
Despite the growing international pressure on the government in Burundi, other East African Community member states remained quiet almost a week after the violence broke out.
But EAC Secretary-General Dr Richard Sezibera on Friday, called for dialogue “that brings together all key actors and stakeholders in Burundi for the realisation of a peaceful, free and fair electoral process.”
Noting that Burundi had made substantial progress in establishing and maintaining peace and stability in the past decade, Dr Sezibera said the forthcoming elections provided an opportunity to consolidate and enhance the country’s social and economic development.
He noted that “on March 9, 2015 all political actors signed a code of good conduct in which they committed to refraining from pursuing violence in the electoral process. The EAC notes that the attainment of peace and stability in Burundi amounts to peace and stability in the entire region and urges all regional and international stakeholders to actively engage in the attainment of these objectives.”
Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohammed told The EastAfrican on Friday that she had sent her Permanent Secretary, Karanja Kibicho, to Burundi to hold discussions and assess the situation.
“We are disturbed and concerned with what is happening. We hope this will come to an end and that Burundi will have a peaceful and fair election,” she said. Ms Mohammed, however, declined to give Kenya’ position on President Nkurunziza’s bid for another term.
Earlier in the week Mr Kibichio said his mission to Burundi was to deliver 150 laptops to the electoral commission there and refused to be drawn into the third-term debate. “As a friendly country our role is to support the decision of the people of Burundi,” he said. “Our role is not to interrogate whether decisions are constitutional or not.”
In Kampala, the Head of Public Diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Fred Opolot said that in recognition of Burundi’s sovereignty, Uganda was treating current events there as “essentially internal” and sees no reason to adopt a public position on this.
With an election around the corner and with its own history of controversially changing the constitution to allow President Yoweri Museveni to stand for re-election in 2006, Ugandan diplomats are careful not to be seen to be influencing events there in any way.
Regional political mechanisms such as the EAC and ICGLR have not come into play yet, so this is not being treated as a crisis for now.
A former rebel leader, President Nkurunziza is no stranger to harsh conditions or life and death situations. However, his current attempt to side-step the law and stay in office after 10 years in power will require a lot more than the firepower his police officers have been demonstrating on the streets.
Apart from the demonstrators on the streets opposed to a third term for him, President Nkurunziza has to contend with the growing diplomatic pressure from the African Union and from influential Western donors, including Britain and the United States.