Burundi 2005-2015: Autopsy of an embryonic democracy

Burundi went from a country heading towards peace in democracy to a country heading straight for the abyss. Kris Berwouts traces this unfortunate fall from grace in this well-informed analysis. ‘The political crisis leaves Burundi not only on the brink of civil war, but also close to economic collapse.’

  • © John Vandaele © John Vandaele

In a few months everything which had been built up in Burundi in terms of reconciliation, peace building and democratization since the peace process, has been pulverized. Burundi used to be that one country where the warring parties and the population had understood that there was no military way out of the conflict.

It was a country of unwinnable wars where competing political and military forces were condemned to negotiate if they didn’t want to be caught eternally in cycles of violence. This country now seems to be on the brink of a new civil war. We are trying to understand what exactly is happening and what is getting lost.

Peace process

In October 1993 hell broke loose when elements of the Tutsi-dominated army, supported by key people of the previous regime tried to overthrow the newly elected Hutu government. They were not able to hold power, but in a few days they had decapitated the institutions. The new President Melchior Ndadaye and many of his top collaborators were killed. The most successful failed coup in history (as it was labelled afterwards) triggered an open civil war that lasted ten years, in which the Tutsi-dominated national army was challenged by several Hutu rebellions. Hundreds of thousands of people died.

The most successful failed coup in history (as it was labelled afterwards) triggered an open civil war that lasted ten years

In July 2005 Burundi ended a historical and complex peace process with the organization of its first democratic elections. Despite the confusing political landscape with more than thirty parties and seven rebellions, some important steps were taken: (1) the elections were considered free and transparent; (2) they had a clear result: the ex-rebels from the CNDD-FDD, who had joined the transition in 2003, won overwhelmingly at all levels; (3) this victory was almost immediately recognized by everybody; and (4) these clear and accepted results led to an effective change of power. On August 26, 2005 CNDD-FDD leader Pierre Nkurunziza was sworn in as the new president. He led a government in which the CNDD-FDD was dominant but which also had also ministers of several other parties on board.

I monitored the very first electoral poll in 2005 (the communal elections) which had made clear the contours of entirely new power relations. I woke up the next morning in a country where hope was palpable in the air. Burundi had gone through an inferno but rose from the ashes and seemed ready to tackle the real problems, primarily the struggle against the extreme poverty in which a large part of the population was stuck after all those years of war.

After the honeymoon

Of course the great expectations of the Burundians after the successful completion of the transition were not met. Security and stability remained very fragile, especially because the oldest rebel movement, the FNL, continued its struggle. Human rights, freedom of expression and the democratic space were under a lot of pressure and the new leaders were not able to break with the sad tradition of bad governance.

However, some achievements seemed irreversible:

For the first time in decades, the ethnic dimension of the conflict seemed under control

(1) When the CNDD-FDD joined the transition government in November 2003, security was relatively good in all provinces except Bujumbura Rurale. The successful and fast integration of the former government army and the forces of the CNDD-FDD laid the foundation of a truly national army to protect all citizens, instead of only one community.

(2) In a region where the loss of legitimacy is a major cause of the implosion of states, a clear and widely accepted result of well-organized elections was an important asset for the future.

(3) For the first time in decades, the ethnic dimension of the conflict seemed under control. Burundi is a country of many cleavages (between ethnic groups, clans, regions, urban and rural areas, social classes, etc.), but the disaster had been that they were all completely reduced to the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi. This changed at the end of the transition.  The key element which reversed the total distrust between the two communities was the ethnic quota which guaranteed 40% of political positions and 50% of the army for the Tutsi.

(4) Burundi is one of the least urbanized countries in the world. In 2005, less than ten percent of the population lives in cities. With the CNDD-FDD coming into power, for the very first time the country was governed by people who had their electoral base with the peasants.

(5) The CNDD-FDD was autocratic but Burundi remained a vibrant multi-party system with an active press and assertive civil society that participated in the national debate.

Things went thoroughly wrong during the 2010 elections. Frustrated by their disappointing results in local elections, nearly the entire opposition quit the electoral process, including candidates for the presidency including ex-president Domitien Ndayizeye (Frodebu), Agathon Rwasa (FNL), Léonard Nyangoma (CNDD) and Alexis Sinduhije (MSD). Thus Burundi was reduced to a de facto one-party state.

The public debate disappeared not only from the parliament. Also outside, the pressure on freedom of speech increased. Key opposition leaders went in exile while the militants and local leaders of their parties were harassed, arrested and even killed, often by the gangs of the ruling party’s youth league, Imbonerakure (“those who see far”) which more and more openly behaved as CNDD-FDD’s private militia to control the population at grassroots level. With the opposition either out of the country and or totally intimidated, civil society and the press were perceived as the last bastions of dissident opinion.

New elections

The 2015 elections were bound to be an unequal battle. With their desertion from the process in 2010, the opposition was responsible for the fact that the country had turned into a virtual one party state. Also after the elections, they had failed to impress, and the platform that they had set up (ADC Ikibiri) did not become a tool for mobilization. The only opposition leader who kept his street credibility was Agathon Rwasa, the legendary leader of the Front National de Libération (FNL). The absence of democratic control had allowed the CNDD-FDD to impose their bad governance and corruption everywhere. These elections would not be very competitive.

The absence of democratic control had allowed the CNDD-FDD to impose their bad governance and corruption everywhere.

The two questions left were: (a) would the CNDD-FDD manage to keep its monopoly in the institutions and continue to rule for another term without any democratic control, and (b) would the CNDD-FDD be able to hide its internal disagreements and conflicting interests under the carpet? The question whether Nkurunziza could run for a third mandate seemed subsidiary. Firstly, the Burundian constitution (unlike for example the Congolese and Rwandan) left an opening for this, and secondly: who could stop him as long as the relative unity of party crystallized around him?

But it didn’t: the mirror cracked at the end of November 2014. Four important generals were removed from top positions in the regime, including Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni and Adolphe Nshimirimana. As chief of Burundi’s intelligence service, Nshimirimana was not only considered as the number two of the regime but also as its ultimate bad guy. It was hard to know for an outsider what exactly was happening inside CNDD-FDD but is was very obvious that the volcano rumbled.

Three months later, the rumbling increased. On February 18, 2015 Nkurunziza fired general Godefroid Niyombare who had succeeded Nshimirimana as head of the intelligence service, because he had written a report stating that any attempt to obtain a third mandate for Nkurunziza would drag the country into chaos and violence.

In the same period, it became increasingly clear that the streets of Bujumbura would be a factor to be taken into account.  Popular protest was growing and crystallized around the arrest of journalist Bob Rugurika, director of the free radio Radio Publique Africaine (RPA). Rugurika was arrested on 20 January. Several demonstrations were organised against his detention, and when he eventually was released on February 19th from a prison at 50 km of Bujumbura, many thousands of people accompanied and cheered him on his joyous entry back into town.  

In free fall

The volcano erupted on April 25 when the CNDD-FDD organised  its electoral congress and nominated Nkurunziza as its candidate for the office of president. This decision immediately gave rise to new demonstrations which were met with particularly violent repression by the government. It was generally expected that the demonstrations’ intensity would decrease after a few days, but it did not. There were victims, both on the side of the demonstrators and the security forces, and the government called the demonstrators terrorists and enemies of the state. Meanwhile, nearly 200 000 Burundian refugees have been registered in the neighbouring countries since the riots started.

On May 13 a group of soldiers led  by general Godefroid Niyombare tried to seize power, taking advantage of Nkurunziza’s participation at a regional summit on Burundi  in Dar es Salaam. The former intelligence chief declared in a radio message that the president was deposed, and that the airport and borders had been closed. Thousands of people celebrated the coup in the streets of Bujumbura.

The failed coup gave the government the opportunity to label the non-violent demonstrators as accomplice of the coup-plotters and disturbers of law and order

In the first hours of the coup it looked like it would succeed, but then the capital exploded into heavy violence with rival military groups battling for control over the strategic sites in the city and the national broadcasting studios. One of the coup leaders admitted their defeat  thirty hours after they had started, but it had very clearly demonstrated how vulnerable Nkurunziza was. The neighbours could not do much more than condemn the attempted coup against a legitimate head of state.

The failed coup gave the government the opportunity to label the non-violent demonstrators as accomplice of the coup-plotters and disturbers of law and order. But on May 18, the demonstrations were resumed. The pressure of the international community on Nkurunziza to withdraw his candidacy and not to aspire a third mandate increased. They also asked for the election to be postponed because it was impossible to organise free and fair elections in the country in the circumstances.

Eventually they took place: in the legislative elections of June 29th, the CNDD-FDD scored 60% of the votes, with Agathon Rwasa’s party Abigenga mizero Y’Abarundi (the historic FNL has been splintered in different fractions in recent years) obtained a clear second place with slightly more than 11%. In the presidential elections of July 24th Nkurunziza won with 69% of the votes. Also here Rwasa was second with 19%. After the elections, Rwasa was nominated as deputy speaker of the Parliament.


1) the clashes between security forces and opponents of Nkurunziza in the streets of Bujumbura became more and more grim, more a matter of hit and run attacks with heavy weapons than a question of brutal repression of non-violent demonstrations and riots.

2) the opposition reorganized under a new umbrella: CNARED, Conseil national pour le respect de l’accord d’Arusha et la restauration d’un Etat de droit au Burundi, was founded early August after three days of discussion in Addis Ababa. Its main objective is to  «fight Pierre Nkurunziza who violated the Arusha Agreements and the Constitution of Burundi by aspiring a third term.”  But CNARED looks very similar to ADC-Ikibiri which never made any difference. There is no indication that they have the leadership and credibility to inspire or mobilise the population.

3) the chances that the implosion of the regime on the question of the third term develops into a full scale civil war are increasing

Chances that the implosion of the regime on the question of the third term develops into a full scale civil war are increasing

This deteriorating climate resulted in a major blow: on August 2nd Adolphe Nshimirimana was killed in his car during an attack with heavy artillery.  The former intelligence chief and number two of the regime, dismissed in November 2014, had been decisive when the coup in May was countered. His death gave rise to numerous conspiracy theories, including possible power struggles in the inner circle of the regime.

The next day, the Burundian human rights defender Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa was shot. He is currently recuperating in Belgium. On Saturday, August 15  Colonel Jean Bikomagu, who led the armed forces during the country’s civil war, was gunned down as he drove through the gates of his house. On September 11, the head of Burundi’s armed forces Prime Niyongabo survived an assassination attempt in Bujumbura.

The swearing-in ceremony for Nkurunziza’s third term was planned for August 26th, but on the 20st his spokesman Willy Nyamitwe declared that the president would take oath the same morning. Many observers believe that he wanted to anticipate the storm of rumours about what could be planned by rebels or dissident during the ceremony.

Point of no return?

Where does Burundi stand today? The UN warned two weeks ago that the situation in Burundi has not yet reached the point of no return  but is spiraling in that direction, and called for an immediate return to political dialogue. The country is heading straight for the abyss.

  1. Burundi seemed to be the country which was most advanced in effectively creating a post-conflict situation, based on the awareness that wars only had losers. But this country is on the brink again of civil war or at least generalized violence.

  2. The successful integration of the regular army and the rebel forces in 2003 was very important to complete the transition and organise the 2005 elections. The national army has remained undivided by ethnicity or party ever since. This was crucial because the police never was neutral and has operated together with the Imbonerakure as the armed wing of the party. But the issue of Nkurunziza’s third term deeply divided the army.

  3. Probably the greatest achievement of the transition and the first legislature was that the ethnic differences as root cause and ultimate explanation for all evil in the country disappeared. But the old demons are not dead. They are only sleeping. There are already signs that they might wake up, for instance because of Nkurunziza’s alleged plans to drop the ethnic quota from the Arusha Agreements.

  4. The assassination of Nshimirimana and Bikomagu, and the assault on Mbonimpa bring the country alarmingly close to the climate of very focused political murders Burundi has known several times over the last decades. Security has never been complete but during the first legislature, it looked like it was reduced to the problem of extreme poverty in a post-conflict context where the villages and suburbs were never thoroughly disarmed. A lot of people disappeared and were killed during the second legislature, but mainly middle rank leaders and local militants. But since early August, political assassinations at the highest level are back, with potentially the devastating consequences we have seen in the past

  5. The most legitimate government the country has ever had organised its third elections in circumstances which did not allow them to be free and fair. The regime now relies on a much more narrow base than before in Burundi and is internationally isolated since the last semblance of legitimacy has disappeared.

  6. The political crisis leaves Burundi not only on the brink of civil war, but also close to economic collapse. This is a giant step back in a country where ten years ago a successful fight against poverty was the most important condition to consolidate the post-conflict situation.

  7. The current crisis in the CNDD-FDD made clear that the party’s civilian leaders did and do not weigh in the internal debate. For years, people as Gervais Rufyikiri (formerly speaker of the Senate and vice-president of the republic), party president Pascal Nyabenda or ombudsman Mohamed Rukara looked like being the leaders of the future. They were CNDD-FDD members but did not have a military background and were approachable on themes as good governance, human rights etc. But recent events showed that the key players remain army chiefs and former rebel leaders such as Pierre Nkurunziza, Godefroid Niyombare, Agathon Rwasa as the main challenger, Léonard Nyangoma as CNARED’s chair.  Ten years of post-conflict politics has not demilitarized the leadership.

  8. The regional dimension is extremely important. Different countries are in a comparable situation: elections in Burundi and Tanzania in 2015; DRC, and Uganda in 2016, and Rwanda in 2017.

  9. It is to be expected, and is in fact already visible, that the events in each of these countries will influence the others, especially regarding the possibility of presidents to remain in power beyond what is constitutionally permissible. At this moment for instance, the hardliners in Kabila’s camp are reinforced in their ambition to take Kabila’s reign beyond 2016 because Nkurunziza proves that it pays to maintain one’s position despite all pressure. So Kabila is actively supporting Nkurunziza.

  10. Nkurunziza suspects the Rwandan regime of hosting the coup plotters of May and other enemies. The interlinkage of the (pre-)electoral problems in the different countries creates an increased potential of transboundary violence and, in the worst case, a new regional war.

In ten years’ time, Burundi changed from embryonic democracy in a post-conflict context into an authoritarian state with bad governance as the binding principle. But since April the country has been in free fall. Right now, the most optimistic scenario seems to be that Nkurunziza is forced to accept a new dialogue which would probably lead to a new transition, under his own presidency.  Even if this scenario avoids a new civil war, it would be a huge step backwards in the credibility of peace and democratization processes, not only in Burundi but also in the entire region.

Kris Berwouts

Kris Berwouts (Ghent, 1963) studied African linguistics and history. He worked over 25 years for a number of different Belgian and international NGOs focused on building peace, reconciliation, security and democratic processes. Since January 2012, he works as an independent writer and expert on conflict, security and democratization in Central Africa. He can be followed on Twitter.

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