Burundians unite against president’s power play

Protesters overcome ethnic divisions to stand up against plans for an unconstitutional third-term in office.

Burundi protests [Jessica Hatcher /Al Jazeera]
Young and old gather in the streets demanding the president call off plans to run for a third term [Jessica Hatcher/Al Jazeera]

Bujumbura, Burundi – Sylvana Ntibariyumwe lives in the Musaga neighbourhood southeast of the capital where protesters have intensified efforts to stop President Pierre Nkurunziza from running for a third – and, they claim, unconstitutional – term in next month’s presidential elections.

“I will be out on the street with the protesters every day until the president gives up on running for a third term,” said 73-year-old Ntibariyumwe.

While those marching with placards – and in some cases Molotov cocktails – around the suburbs are mostly younger than 40 years old, this is a multiethnic and multigenerational movement. It is Ntibariyumwe’s generation of dissidents in their 70s and 80s who know what is really at stake.

Peace in Burundi is nascent and fragile. In 2005, it emerged from a protracted civil war that pitted Tutsis against Hutus to claim 300,000 lives and displace one-fifth of the population for over 10 years.

We are afraid that everyone who is against the third term will find their names on a kill list.

by Sylvana Ntibariyumwe

The framework for the country’s fragile peace was written in the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, signed in 2000, which states the president, “shall be elected for a term of five years, renewable only once. No one may serve more than two presidential terms”. 

Scars of violence

“The Arusha agreement was the safeguard of democracy in our country, the seal of stability,” recalled 62-year-old Athanase Sinzumunsi.

He watched the march standing in a pressed beige shirt and chino trousers as protesters passed by, blowing whistles and banging on makeshift drums.

Sinzumunsi is also committed to protesting in Musaga every day, “although just on the edges”, he said, admitting he doesn’t “have the strength for more than that”.  

The small wooden kiosks that sell essential goods in Musaga are boarded up.

The mirrored windows of the betting shop have been shattered, smashed by either stones, bullets or whatever else is brought about by the chaos that ensues when hundreds of people are tear-gassed or fired upon by high-pressure water cannon.

Here and there, Kalashnikov rounds – that the police deny having fired on protesters – pock-marked the walls.

There is nothing to eat, complained Ntibariyumwe.

The markets have closed and the usually clogged city centre four kilometres away becomes a ghost town when the protests peak.  

History lessons

Ntibariyumwe wore a green patterned gown with a bodice, full skirt and sleeves, and a yellowing diamanté and pearl pendant strung around her long neck. Leaning on a single crutch, she surveyed Musaga’s main thoroughfare now strewn with rocks and the blackened metal guts of burned tyres. 

Sylvana Ntibariyumwe [Jessica Hatcher /Al Jazeera]
Sylvana Ntibariyumwe [Jessica Hatcher /Al Jazeera]

She hadn’t seen any tension between Burundi’s majority Hutu and minority Tutsi communities until the 1970s, she recalled, taking a seat on a tree stump.

Her parents were farmers on a lush rolling hillside in Mbuye, part of Muramvya province in west-central Burundi.

It was the creation of political parties prior to independence that brought about the dawn of violence.

In 1972, post-independence power struggles culminated in the massacre of 120,000 Hutus at the hands of government forces and their supporters, following a Hutu-led uprising in the south.

Ntibariyumwe’s family survived unscathed, save for their cattle, which were slaughtered and eaten by the fighters.

The conflict, she recalled, largely affected those plotting to overthrow the Tutsi regime. 

The next conflict was different however. It began in 1993, by which point her family, having lost their cows, had moved to the outskirts of Bujumbura.

“Almost all of my family was killed,” Ntibariyumwe said, counting the dead on her fingers, showing no emotion.

“Four brothers, six sisters, and then all the children of my brothers and sisters – I couldn’t tell you how many of them died.” 

Her greatest fear for the present was the current crisis would turn, like others before it, into a targeted killing spree by the regime seeking to quell demonstrators.

“We are afraid that everyone who is against the third term will find their names on a kill list,” said Ntibariyumwe. 

Police state

Witnesses have alleged that during the first week of protests, police visited houses at night to beat and kill civilians.

University students, who claim police combed their campus for dissidents, have taken up residence outside the US embassy in fear of their lives.

“If you don’t affiliate with the ruling party, you are arrested, tortured, jailed,” said 28-year-old Willy Nisinbere, a student at the Institute for Applied Pedagogy. “Most of the students don’t accept what is propagated by the ruling party.” 

The government, meanwhile, has ordered demonstrators off the streets.  

“The protesters and organisers of this insurrection must immediately and unconditionally stop this insurrection that handicaps the life of Burundi and its people,” the National Security Council said in a statement. 

Outside the Commissant Municipal de Police, which houses a jail in downtown Bujumbura, about 30 people huddle under the umbrella of a tree waiting for news of loved ones who have disappeared.

Francoise Buvatabwa’s son, a law student, was arrested at his university dormitory on suspicion of having taken part in the protests. She was allowed into the jail to identify her son, but only through a glass wall – without communication, she said, tears welling in her eyes. 

Different kind of conflict

President Nkurunziza had joined the Hutu rebellion in 1994, rising through the ranks and becoming a commander, which launched his career among the top ranks of the transitional government following the peace deal.

When in 2005 he became president, many of his former comrades in arms were incorporated into the security forces of the new government, while others were decommissioned. 

Many fear the protests will lead to targeted killings as in the past [Jessica Hatcher/Al Jazeera]
Many fear the protests will lead to targeted killings as in the past [Jessica Hatcher/Al Jazeera]

Ntibariyumwe’s fears that targeted killings will recur is specifically related to this group, known as the Imbonerakure, or “those that see far” in the national Kirundi language.

Technically, they are the youth wing of the president’s ruling party. But the term Imbonerakure has come to encompass both political supporters of the president and decommissioned fighters from the civil war who had fought with Nkurunziza when he was still a rebel leader.

One such Imbonerakure is 38-year-old Sunga. He lost his brother and brother-in-law in the fighting, and left the rebellion after seven years. By that time the rebellion was struggling. Supply chains had been cut off, fighters had run out of ammunition, medicine and food.

“Some of us remember what we went through and want revenge,” he said.

Taking up arms

A few hours earlier, on his way home in Musaga, Sunga was beaten by a group of young men opposed to the president’s third term.

“I was beaten by a child,” he said, visibly angered. “If I need to reconcile this by taking up a weapon, I will.” 

Divisions, however, are appearing on many fronts.

The army, a professional and disciplined outfit adored by protesters, is reportedly split between those who support the third term and those who do not.

There are rumours the typically loyal police are questioning the actions of the president.

Meanwhile, the population is retreating into enclaves. Fear of reprisals on both sides is causing thousands to flee, while others live under a self-imposed blockade. 

Given how hard Burundians have worked to overcome ethnic divisions in the last decade, Ntibariyumwe said she thinks “there is no similarity whatsoever between the two conflicts of the past and this conflict today”.

“They were both about ethnicity, about one group going after the other,” she said.

“This time, every ethnic group is together in fighting the third mandate. We are a unified enemy of the government. Whether Tutsi or Hutu, we are together.” 

Former ambassador and minister of health, Dr Joseph Nindorera, 85, never marched in protest, even in his youth. But he is following the crisis closely and agreed with Ntibariyumwe.

“There are no longer any problems with ethnicity, it’s just a fight for power,” he said, explaining that power comes with substantial, illicit, monetary rewards.

“Here, generally speaking, no one leaves power in an orderly manner.”

Reporting for this story was supported by Humanity United.

Source: Al Jazeera