Nkurunziza to postpone vote after pressure from African leaders; S. Africa uses crisis to revive standing in region

It has been a busy week for Zuma and his deputy Ramaphosa in East Africa, with the Burundi crisis meetings and an appearance at Kenya's celebrations.

BURUNDI is to postpone presidential elections by a month to July 26 with the backing of five East African Community (EAC) member states after weeks of unrest left at least 20 people dead.

“Postponing elections for us is not a problem, but we won’t go beyond the limit accorded by the constitution,” presidential spokesman Willy Nyamwite said on the sidelines of an EAC summit in Dar es Salaam late Sunday. 

At least 20 people have died in unrest since President Pierre Nkurunziza signaled he will run for a third term, a move his opponents say violates peace accords. 

At least 112,000 others have fled to neighbouring countries, fearing a return to conflict in a nation where 300,000 people died in a civil war that ended in 2005, according to the UN Humanitarian Agency.

Burundi had slated parliamentary and presidential polls for June 5 and 26, respectively. Nkurunziza’s second term, currently the maximum allowed by the constitution, ends Aug. 26.

However, since the amendment limiting power to two terms was introduced after his first term, the president’s backers argue he can still serve another. 

Leaders from from the EAC and South Africa also urged an end to violence and called for “urgent disarmament of all armed youths groups aligned to political parties in Burundi,” in a statement read out to delegates. 

The bloc said it welcomed the “return to constitutional order” after Nkurunziza nearly lost power in an attempted coup by army generals, and urged Burundi to prepare for the return of refugees.

The Burundian president did not attend, initially casting doubts on whether he would heed the call, and underlining yet again how intractable Burundi’s conflicts are. 

Nkurunziza’s spokesman said he would instead be pushing ahead with a controversial re-election campaign that has sparked weeks of deadly civil unrest.

It was during a first crisis meeting on May 13 in Tanzania’s economic capital, attended by Nkurunziza, that a top general launched an unsuccessful bid to oust him.

The president was seen as being wary of again leaving the country.

“President Nkurunziza will not go to Dar es Salaam,” Gervais Abahiro told AFP. “He will be represented there by his foreign minister. He is campaigning and decided to delegate his minister.”

Slap in the face

His decision, however, risked been seen as a slap in the face for East African Community (EAC) leaders. Traditionally the EAC had been comprised of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. It was expanded in 2009 to include Burundi and Rwanda.

The proponents of the expansion argued that the inclusion of the two countries would bring economic benefits, and help stabilise their politics, both being post-conflict countries. However, while Rwanda seems to have seamlessly integrated into the EAC and gained across the board, the benefits have been elusive for Burundi, vindicating skeptics who thought it wasn’t ready to join.

If EAC leaders, a small cozy club, cannot get everyone around the table on Burundi, which is also the poorest member of the bloc, their usefulness in crisis is likely to be called into question.

The summit in Dar es Salaam was attended by EAC leaders Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta, and host President Jakaya Kikwete. They were joined by South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma. Tanzania, Uganda, and South Africa, were the lead Africa trio in the Burundi peace process that ended the long civil war in 2005, and they serve as the guarantors of the deal.

South Africa signalled an activist role in both regional and Burundi diplomacy by sending vice president Cyril Ramaphosa to the first Burundi crisis meeting a fortnight ago, ahead of Zuma himself putting in an appearance on the weekend. South Africa sent a large contingent of peacekeepers in Burundi after the peace agreement was finalised 10 years ago. 

It was always unlikely that Nkurunziza could risk alienating the trio by ignoring both the call by Kikwete for him to respect the Arusha agreement, and the latest one for a postponement of the polls. 

Burundi is too dependent on Tanzania for its economic survival and it can only go so far in alienating its leaders. 

Tanzania, which has been openly critical of Nkurunziza, on Friday called on Burundi’s government to “listen” to its people. “Our position is that we call on the Burundian people to remain calm and we urged the government to listen to them,” Tanzania’s foreign minister, Bernard Membe, told state-run TBC1 television. Nkurunziza seems to have blinked first.

President Kenyatta (L) welcomes Ramaphosa (C) to Madaraka Day celebrations June 1. Looking on is Kenya vice-president William Ruto.

It is however significant that Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, a key regional player and Burundi’s neighbour, did not attend and sent a minister to represent him.

Suspicion across borders

Hardliners in Nkurunziza’s inner circle have blamed elements in Rwanda of being aligned to the opposition. 

Meanwhile Rwanda officials have also spoken out forcefully about what they alleged was an alliance between pro-Nkurunziza militia and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), an eastern DR Congo-based remnant Rwandan Hutu rebel group of forces that were behind the 1994 genocide in Rwanda mostly against the Tutsi. Nearly one million people were slaughtered in the genocide.

Calls for election delay

Asked to rule on Nkurunziza’s candidacy, Burundi’s constitutional court found in favour of the president, but not before one of the judges also fled the country, claiming that the court’s members were subject to death threats.

Key international donors have withdrawn their support for the polls, as has the influential Catholic Church in Burundi, and on Saturday it emerged that a senior member of the election commission had also fled the country—further plunging preparations for the polls into disarray.

The country’s main opposition leader, Agathon Rwasa, also said elections would be a “masquerade” if they go ahead.

UN special envoy Said Djinnit said talks between the Burundian government and opposition had made progress on several issues—including the reopening of independent media and the release of detainees—but not on the key issue of a halt to protests in return for Nkurunziza’s agreement not to stand again.

He said both sides “have agreed to resume their talks after the summit in Dar es Salaam.”

Isolated Burundi

Analysts say Nkurunziza must also be feeling the growing isolation. His absence from the EAC summit photo ops, will only have helped to entrench a sense that the country is again becoming a marginal player in regional events.

Indeed Monday June 1 Kenya celebrated its celebrating 52 years of internal self-rule (called “Madaraka Day” in Kiswahili), ahead of full Independence from the United Kingdom which it celebrates on December 12.

There was yet another gathering of regional leaders. Uganda’s Museveni was in attendance, as was South Africa’s vice president Cyril Ramaphosa. 

It caps a busy fortnight for South African diplomacy in eastern Africa, with Pretoria cleverly using the Burundi crisis to rebuild its standing after its image was battered by recent xenophobic attacks on African immigrants.

However, Nkurunziza might not be attending these events for a while, both because he has been ostracised, but also likely because he is still too frightened that with his country restless, another general might make a grab for his job.

It is a shrinkage that a country, that for over a decade was synonymous with a murderous war but was recovering from, can ill afford.

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