Burundi’s fragile peace can still unravel

Apart from the flow of refugees, the crisis in Burundi remains containable – for now.

Opposition demonstrators confront army soldiers in Bujumbura, Burundi [AP]
Opposition demonstrators confront army soldiers in Bujumbura, Burundi [AP]

A month has passed since the outbreak of the ongoing instability in Burundi. Anti-government protests have become a regular occurrence in the central African country’s capital, Bujumbura. With confrontation between protesters and the police further entrenching the crisis, led by Major General Godefroid Niyombare, a faction of the army staged a coup on May 14, albeit lasting for only one day.  

Yet, the conditions that precipitated the coup persist. The opposition against President Pierre Nkuruniza’s bid for a third term in office and the ensuing political instability that rocked Burundi’s capital Bujumbura since the end of April remain unresolved. If anything the contestation and most notably the political crisis have been further deepening, although its scale remains limited.

Having survived the coup, Nkuruniza seems bent on continuing with his plan to run for a third term. The coup has shaken his government. The government’s sense of security has suffered a blow and not unexpectedly it feels wounded. It appears to be determined to fight back.

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Government security forces have been on a hunt to capture those who participated in the failed coup.

Defiant and opposed

The opposition and civil society organisations involved in the pre-coup protests against the president remain defiant and opposed to Nkurizinza’s third term. They resumed protests on May 18.  

The security forces have become divided and fragile. The police, accused of deploying a heavy handed response to the protests, are seen as being partisan.

The fragility and division in the army came to the open during the intense, albeit brief, fighting that ensued following the declaration of the coup between members of the army supporting the coup and those that remained loyal to the president. Despite his acceptance of the defeat of the coup, the leader of the coup is on the run. 

Faced with a plethora of political, institutional, security and humanitarian challenges, Burundi is on the verge of the precipice.

The first issue that needs urgent attention is the contestation over the president’s third term bid.


The first issue that needs urgent attention is the contestation over the president’s third term bid. While national processes in Burundi played their part including in the form of the contested decision of the Constitutional Court, the issue has not gone away and has become a crisis requiring external mediation. 

The mediation process bringing together the relevant national stakeholders that the UN, African Union and the East African Community have been working on needs to be reinvigorated. 

Apart from ensuring that confrontation between police and protesters are avoided, efforts should be made to secure an enabling environment for talks. This includes security for opposition and civil society leaders as well as journalists.

This is crucial to avoid a repeat of events similar to the killing of Zedi Feruzi, head of one of the opposition parties, Union for Peace and Development, which triggered further protests and led opposition and civil society groups to break off the talks with the government. 

Palpable tension

The timing of the elections should also be settled. Given the events the country experienced, the palpable tension and reported violations, the blow that security institutions responsible for safeguarding the freedom and security of the election suffered, the large number of people who fled the country, it would only be logical for the Electoral Commission of Burundi to postpone the elections.

The EAC and the AU as well as the UN have called for the postponement of the elections. The parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for May 26, were pushed to early June. It remains uncertain if the date for the presidential elections, June 26, will also be rescheduled. Together with the European Union, which is running an electoral support mission, the UN and the AU should work on how to help the country create the minimum conditions for holding the elections.  

Protesters walk past the headquarters of the ruling party in Burundi [AFP]
Protesters walk past the headquarters of the ruling party in Burundi [AFP]

There are reports of reprisal attacks against those suspected of participating in the coup. Those charged with plotting the coup have reportedly been beaten.

Killings and kidnappings of wounded pro-coup soldiers in Bumerec hospital have also been reported. Measures should be put in place to stop or address the occurrence of violation of human rights and thereby reduce the tension and insecurity.

Commendable step

In this regard, the decision of the AU to deploy human rights observers is a very commendable step. For this initiative to have the required impact, it should be implemented promptly and the mission should have adequate number of monitors.

Finally, the humanitarian situation that the flow of refugees to neighbouring countries has created and its impact on the region should also be addressed. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 105,000 people are seeking asylum in neighbouring DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.

As part of the mediation and stabilisation process, more immediate action should be taken to stem the flow of refugees. 

For now, apart from the flow of refugees, the crisis in Burundi remains containable. However, if the situation is allowed to fester indefinitely and measures along the lines above are not taken, it could plunge the country into wider violence capable of upsetting the delicate peace between its major ethnic groups and potentially reigniting the civil war.

Dr Solomon Ayele Dersso, a legal scholar and analyst of African affairs who writes on current African issues, is former head of the Peace and Security Council Report at the Institute for Security Studies and non-faculty assistant professor of human rights at Addis Ababa University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.