As Kabila grows cold feet, huge rally for popular critic gives Burundi's third-term bid leader plenty to think about

President Pierre Nkurunziza has announced he will seek to stay on in June elections, but he may not have it so smooth.

A MARCH by thousands through the streets of Burundi’s capital in one of the largest demonstrations in recent years following the release of a popular journalist and government critic from jail, will have given president Pierre Nkurunziza pause for thought as he seeks a controversial third term in June elections. 

Vast crowds singing and dancing filled the streets of Bujumbura a day after Bob Rugurika, director of the popular independent African Public Radio (RPA), was released from prison on bail.

There was no official figure for how many took to the streets, but residents said the mass rally of tens of thousands was the largest they could remember.

“I’m 50 and I have never seen such a crowd in the streets,” said Fabian, a teacher, saying the only event comparable in size he could remember were celebrations for Burundi’s first elected president Melchior Ndadaye in 1993.

Nkurunziza will seek a third term if selected to run by his ruling CNDD-FDD party “in compliance with the constitution,” spokesman Willy Nyamitwe said last week, defying campaigners who say the move is illegal and a recipe for violence.

A new mandate for Nkurunziza would violate Burundi’s constitution, critics have said, even as supporters argue that his first term was not by election but by appointment  by parliament. He has been in power since 2005.

The president of neighbouring DR Congo president Joseph Kabila looks to be backing out of a similar bid ahead of elections next year. Rights groups said protests against Kabila’s perceived move killed at least 42 people, a toll much higher than the official count.

On January 25, an election bill that would have allowed Kabila to stay on, was passed by parliament stripped of its most disputed provision that would have allowed the election to be postponed for years until a national census was done, and calm returned, although the new legislation does little to ease the fears of Kabila’s detractors.

In Bujumbura, Nyamitwe warned that anyone seeking to spark protests would face the law.

“Whoever calls on people to take to the streets…will be considered a troublemaker and will be treated as such,” he said. “The people of Burundi aspire to peace and [we] will not stand idly by in this case.”

But the turnout for the Bujumbura march, the size of which caught policemen by surprise forcing them to pull back despite the march having been banned by the interior ministry, suggest Nkurunziza’s bid to rule longer will not be the walk in the park it had seemed until recently.

The arrest of Rugurika for “complicity” in the murder of three Italian nuns sparked protests by civil rights activists and fellow journalists, who have accused the government of doing all it can to sideline political challengers ahead of elections in May and June, including arrests, harassment and a clampdown on free speech.

The radio is seen as close to the political opposition, and often interviews those who say they are victims of injustice or discrimination.

“I have no words to thank the Burundian population,” Rugurika said in radio broadcast, after entering the capital followed by supporters crammed into dozens of cars and hundreds on motorbikes.

“Thanks to your support, your commitment… I’m free at last.”

Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group (ICG) said the demonstration showed that people in the capital were “fed up with those in power and their methods.”

Charged with complicity

Rugurika was arrested on January 21 after broadcasting the purported confession of a man claiming he was one of the killers.

A court on Wednesday granted him bail of 15 million Burundi francs ($9,500), but his lawyer Lambert Nigarura said there was a need for a proper investigation into the “real murderers of the three nuns.”

For broadcasting the alleged confession, Rugurika was charged with complicity in the murders, “breach of public solidarity” and disclosing confidential information regarding a case.

The supposed confession contradicted a police account of the crime and implicated the security services.

He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Burundi, a small landlocked nation in central Africa’s Great Lakes region, emerged in 2006 from a brutal 13-year civil war. The political climate remains fractious ahead of local, parliamentary and presidential polls beginning in May.

The three Roman Catholic nuns, aged between 75 and 83, were murdered at a convent north of Bujumbura in September.

Rights groups have warned of growing fears of the risk of violence ahead of elections, with a string of attacks including a five-day battle last month between the army and rebels.

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