EVEN as protests swirled, Burundi president Pierre Nkurunziza gave the surest sign yet that he would not back down from a bid for a third term as he Friday handed in his papers to the electoral commission ahead of June elections that the African Union doubts can be held under the current climate.
The official declaration of his contested candidature would further rile protesters who have see him as a repressive, divisive leader incapable of reducing extreme poverty.
The move could further render a high-profile presidential summit set for next week in Tanzania as an exercise in damage control. It could be interesting: A tweet from the Rwandan presidency Friday posed the question: “If your own citizens tell you we don’t want you to lead us, how do you say I am staying whether you want me or not.”.
Hundreds of people have meanwhile been arrested since protests against Nkurunziza’s bid to run for office again broke out.
Journalists also face intense pressure. Since the protests began, the country’s main radio station has been closed, while two others have been blocked from broadcasting to the countryside.
Accused of extra-judicially executing dozens of people—mainly opponents and rebels—Burundi’s police force is believed to be working with the ruling party’s Imbonerakure militia.
The government denies all the claims, and brands the protesters “terrorists”.
Opponents say Nkurunziza’s bid is an unconstitutional violation of the Arusha agreement that established a fragile power-sharing balance to end the 1993-2006 civil war that pitted the then Tutsi-dominated army against Hutu rebels.
Ex-Hutu rebel chief Nkurunziza has come under fire over claims he is upsetting that balance.
Last year, he tried to amend the constitution in order to change the power-sharing system. Though he failed, his move pushed members of the main Tutsi party to flee the country.
The government is also seen as having given the Hutus dominance in the police force in violation of Arusha, which stipulates a strict parity between the two ethnic groups.
While the opposition includes Hutus as well as Tutsis, analysts fear the government may try to use the ethnicity card to its advantage should the unrest persist.
One of the world’s poorest countries, tiny Burundi is still struggling to recover from a civil war that left 300,000 people dead and completely shattered the economy.
More than half of the population suffers chronic malnutrition, and annual Gross Domestic Product just scrapes $260 (230 euros) per capita.
As prices continue to rise in the capital Bujumbura, students and jobless young people who can barely afford to get through the month now form the bulk of the anti-Nkurunziza protest movement.
The president takes pride in having built thousands of schools and making education free of charge.
Ironically, his opponents say education indicators have never been so low, and while the number of students grow, there aren’t enough trained professionals to teach them.
Corruption also plagues Burundi, which is ranked 159th out of 175 countries by watchdog Transparency International.
With much of the population struggling to put food on the table, politicians are seen as lining their own pockets.
The unrest has seen the region scrambling to forestall an escalation of conflict. East African foreign ministers, from neighbouring Rwanda and Tanzania, as well as Kenya and Uganda, were this week in the country “to propose ways out of crisis,” foreign ministry spokesman Daniel Kabuto said.
A special meeting on the issue of the five East African heads of state is scheduled next week, as almost 40,000 Burundians have fled to neighbouring Rwanda, Tanzania and Congo in the past month.
Rwanda has warned Burundi it must protect civilians saying it was concerned at “reports” violence was linked to ethnic Hutu rebels of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who fled Rwanda into Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after the 1994 genocide of 800,000 people, mostly minority Tutsis.
Opposed to President Paul Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated government, the FDLR are accused of carrying out brutal attacks on civilians in eastern DR Congo and of smuggling gold and charcoal.
An FDLR foothold in Burundi would not only signal the rise of the extreme elements in so-called “Hutu power” politics, but would mean Rwanda would be sandwiched between the rebels to the north and south.
That is one of the factors making the current upheaval in Burundi dangerous. In the past, Rwanda did not feel so threatened with developments inside Burundi.
With a policy of pre-emptive strikes against what it calls “genocidal” forces, Rwanda has previously sent troops into DR Congo to target the rebels.
Beyond stoking fears of a return to conflict if rebel groups abandon the agreements that ended a 12-year civil war in which 300,000 were killed, all these factors are combining to raise fears of the potential of the crisis to destabilise the Great Lakes region that includes the DRC, the world’s biggest source of cobalt and Africa’s top copper producer, and the Central African Republic (CAR) which is still in the throes of a sectarian conflict.
It would also be a costly distraction. UN troops are preparing an offensive against Hutu rebels in the DRC after plans for a joint operation with the Congolese army fell through, the UN peacekeeping chief said Thursday.