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Burundi is on the verge of returning to a conflict which was believed to be left behind.

Fragile Democracy or Fragile Authoritarianism? The Prospect of Elections and a Failed Coup d’Etat in Burundi

June 22nd, 2015

By Darja Schildknecht – Associate Fellow

The announcement that President Nkurunziza was running for a third term in office in Burundi’s presidential upcoming elections sparked demonstrations in the capital Bujumbura, which ultimately lead to a failed coup d’état in May of this year. In running, President Nkurunziza and his Hutu-dominated party, ‘The National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy’ (CNDD-FDD) are attempting to hold on to power in violation of the country’s constitution, which limits the presidential office to a two-term period. Although the situation is calm at the time of writing, conditions in Burundi are extremely volatile. The period leading up to the presidential election on 15 July and its immediate aftermath will show if Burundi’s democratic institutions are strong enough to deal with this turbulence, which is reminiscent of the build up to Burundi’s 1993 civil conflict.

The unrest in Burundi has so far resulted in the death of 40 people, and left many more injured. In addition, more than 100,000 Burundians have fled the country. Amongst the latter are two of the five members of the CENI election commission, which is responsible for monitoring the polls during Burundi’s election in June/July 2015. The opposition is boycotting the elections, as they claim that the country cannot possibly have free and fair elections under the given circumstances. In reaction to the opposition’s claim, the parliament appointed two Nkurunziza-loyalists for the vacant positions in the electoral commission. Yet, these measures are regarded as a farce and are seen as valid neither by the opposition nor by the international community. Due to international and regional pressure, President Nkurunziza has postponed the elections – originally scheduled for 26 June 2015 – to 29 June for the local government elections, 15 July for the presidential elections and 24 July for the senatorial elections.

Analysing the recent decades of conflict in Burundi helps us to understand the struggle of the country today. Burundi’s history is marked by ethnic conflict between Hutus, which constitute the larger part of the population (85%), and the Tutsis, a minority of 14%. These ethnic tensions have been mainly based in inequality of access to national resources and political power. As a Belgian colony, Burundi’s rulers introduced the ‘divide and rule’ strategy, which was based on favouring the ethnic minority group of Tutsis, using them to assist in the administration of the colony. After gaining independence in 1962, Burundi experienced regular crises, with the Tutsi ethnic group holding on to power. In 1992, due to the pressure of international donors, a multiparty system was introduced, marking the end of the Tutsi military rule. The holding of “free and fair” elections one year later brought forward a Hutu government, directed by President Melchior Ndadaye and its party ‘Hutu Front for Democracy in Burundi’ (Frodebu). The assassination of President Ndadaye was the beginning of a twelve-year-long civil war between Hutus and Tutsis during which an estimated 300,000 people – mostly civilians – lost their lives.

With international effort and the endeavours of the governments of Tanzania and South Africa, Burundi’s Hutu government signed a ceasefire agreement with three major Tutsi militias. The so-called Arusha Accords of 2000 prompted a transitional government based on a power sharing principle between the different ethnicities, and also established a new constitution. The Arusha Agreement has subsequently been followed by five protocols, and some previously absent rebel groups have signed the ceasefire. In 2003, as part of these amendments to the agreement, Hutu rebel group ‘National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for Defence of Democracy’ (CNDD-FDD) leader Pierre Nkurunziza – Burundi’s current President – signed the treaty to end the civil war at the summit of African Leaders in Tanzania. Two years later, in 2005, Burundi had its first parliamentary elections in more than ten years. These elections were the start of President Nkurunziza’s reign, as his party won the majority in parliament and appointed Nkurunziza as president.

Since 2005, the country has held a sort of fragile stability, with minor clashes between different rebel groups and the government continuing. In 2007, the UN officially shut down its peacekeeping mission, instead focusing on peacebuilding and reconstruction in the country. Three years after this, Burundi held its first presidential election (on the basis of a popular vote), with the main opposition parties remaining absent from the polls due to allegations of CNDD-FDD corruption and electoral fraud. As a result, President Nkurunziza was re-elected on uncontested grounds. During the last five years of his presidency, Nkurunziza has introduced increasingly authoritarian measures, including a strong regime against opposition members, the reduction of political freedoms, and the restriction of the media in the country.

The announcement of President Nkurunziza’s candidacy for a third term – based on the argument that he only served one term as president directly elected by the people – was the trigger for a failed reconciliation, which prompted the recent violence.

As portrayed above, the elections of 1993 are of utmost importance to today’s struggle in Burundi. Introducing democracy (defined as holding multiparty elections) in a country without having the necessary pre-existent conditions can be inherently perilous. Having been constituted under military rule, Burundi’s administrative, legal and democratic institutions were insufficiently developed to manage the problems of competitive pressures introduced by the holding of elections. Moreover, no power sharing guarantees were put in place to reassure the minority Tutsis of their rights in politics – hence, the return to violence by the Tutsis, followed by a strong response of the Hutu majority.

The constitution designed on the basis of the Arusha Agreement includes the provision of power sharing arrangements such as a grand coalition, proportionality, minority overrepresentation and elite cooperation. This pre-existing condition of power sharing in the elections of 2005 was instrumental in ending the earlier civil conflict in Burundi, and ‘de-ethnicising’ the conflict situation. Yet, this one pre-condition – which was one of the main focuses of the Arusha peace agreement and seen as a solution to the conflict – failed to prevent rivalries between different parties being institutionalised in today’s electoral system. Moreover, it was unsuccessful in preventing the trend towards electoral authoritarianism, with President Nkurunziza and his party using selective and well-targeted violence to increase their political power.

Given the history of Burundi and the fact that many of the tensions in the country have not been resolved, the election in June 2015 risks being a trigger for re-emerging violence. Yet, in contrast to the elections in 1993, Burundi now has better-established democratic institutions which are hopefully strong enough to deal with the electoral pressures arising around this period.

The stability of Burundi has not only domestic implications, but also holds regional significance. If President Nkurunziza successfully holds on to the presidential office for a third term, he would join the ranks of other African leaders who have stayed in their positions beyond constitutional limits. Examples include Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, and of course Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. Moreover, the conflict could set a precedent for neighbouring countries, as Burundi would be the first country in the region to have its leader exceed the two-term limit since the regional conflict ended. The DRC’s current President Joseph Kabila has to hand over power next year, and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame will finish his two-terms (seven years) in 2017. It is up to Burundi’s President Nkurunziza to join the good examples of African leaders, such as Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan, who stepped down after his defeat against Muhammadu Buhari earlier this year.

A reigniting of violent and systematic conflict in Burundi would also certainly have a devastating spill-over effect in the DRC and Rwanda, as rebel groups would take the conflict across the borders, as has been the case in previous conflicts. The activity of rebels across Burundi’s borders could lead to an intervention by Rwanda, which firstly could reignite the ethnic tensions between the Hutu and Tutsis and secondly, in turn could mobilise anti-Rwandan militias currently based in the DRC. Furthermore, the DRC, a conflict-ridden country itself, provides a relatively easy ungoverned space from which emerging rebel groups could plan attacks on Burundi.

Burundi is on the verge of returning to a conflict which was believed to be left behind. We encounter a situation where President Nkurunziza and the CNDD-FDD are not only failing to contain violence, but are in fact inciting the situation in their country, risking to overturn Burundi’s fragile democratic institutions. Elections under the current circumstances will lead to chaos in the East African country, as the results would not be recognised by the opposition and the international community. Although the elections have been postponed for a few weeks, this is not enough time to rebuild trust in society and to rectify the government’s current trend towards authoritarianism. Therefore, it is of utmost importance for the African Union, as the regional actor of ensuring peace and security, to exert significant pressures on Burundi to immediately cease the arbitrary arrests and human rights violations, to remove media restrictions, and to further postpone the elections, leaving more time for an inclusive national dialogue.

About Darja Schildknecht

Darja Schildknecht is an Associate Fellow in the Security and Defence Team. Darja is currently working at the London School of Economics (LSE) as a Graduate Intern on the research project Above the Parapet – Women in Public Life. Previously, Darja has worked for the Permanent Mission of Liechtenstein to the UN, covering all Security Council issues.