THE controversial and violent process to determine who, barring unforeseen events will lead Burundi for the next five years, is now over. Despite media reports and claims by Western - and African - officials and numerous commentators that he was unwanted by the people of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza is to remain president.
Despite winning 69.41% of the votes cast, his victory has been dismissed by some as without credibility because the political environment was not conducive to free and fair elections.
Meanwhile reports indicate that, while turnout was 30% in the capital Bujumbura and in some peri-urban areas, in most rural areas it was well over 70%. And if one disregards the capital where bullets and explosions were reported, voting happened in a quiet and peaceful atmosphere. It makes one wonder if media coverage of “the crisis” did not mislead the world by presenting what happened in Bujumbura and peri-urban areas as representative of goings-on all over the country.
A rural hero
It suggests that, despite the much-publicised dismal record of his previous 10-year rule, Nkurunziza is popular among the rural masses. Their coming out to elect him in large numbers may as well have been evidence of their indifference to arguments that he was ineligible to stand.
In this, Burundi is not unique. There are numerous examples in Africa of sitting presidents insisting on contesting even when internal circumstances have seemed, at least to detached observers, to indicate that large numbers of their countrymen and women would rather they stepped down.
The contests have been followed by allegations of rigging alongside reports of peaceful and orderly voting and, subsequently, the incumbents winning handsomely in rural areas. Methinks we in media and the “analysis industry” often fall victim to our own prejudices and are easily seduced by the forceful arguments of the urban elite that we neglect to try and understand why rural people vote the way they do.
Not a solution
In Burundi as in other places where intra-elite quarrels and fights precede elections, the opposition boycotted the polls citing lack of trust in the electoral process and in the institutions superintending it, and unwillingness to legitimise the incumbent’s guaranteed victory.
And here as elsewhere, the incumbent, seemingly confident in his own popularity with the masses, betrayed no signs of caring who would or wouldn’t boycott, or if any potential contestants boycotted at all.
But Nkurunziza’s victory is not one he and his supporters should celebrate. There are several reasons for this. One very important one is that it is not a solution to any of the multiple problems bedevilling Burundi. One unhappy post-election scenario could see intra-elite fights intensify, leading to further internal turmoil.
People watch through a window as voting officials count ballot papers in Burundi’s Bujumbura Rurale province, on July 21, 2015. Pierre Nkurunziza won the election. (Photo/AFP).
Although main opposition leader Agathon Rwasa of the Amizero y’Abarundi coalition has called for a government of national unity, and although the ruling party, CNDD-FDD has agreed to engage on the issue, other opposition groups seem intent on doing whatever it takes to bring him down. A key strategy is to “paralyse the work of the government”.
Any government worth its salt will respond robustly to this kind of challenge. In Burundi it is likely to be with repression and retribution.
Fortunately, regional and international efforts are underway to try and calm things down and bring the protagonists to a roundtable for dialogue. The objective is to goad Burundians into agreeing about where they want to take their country and what they need to do to get it there.
Recipe for more violence
It is possible that, with victory secured, Nkurunziza and what remains of the CNDD-FDD leadership will become more obstinate than they have hitherto been and seek to dictate terms to a similarly obdurate opposition. It is a recipe for more violence.
There is, however, a chance that now he has achieved another term in office, the one objective he was not prepared to forego, Nkurunziza will seek to placate his opponents. He could do so by bringing those who are prepared to work with him into the government via the tried and tested method of offering positions and privileges.
There is, nonetheless, no guarantee that those who object to him personally and to his record in office which, according a local observer, has entailed enjoying the trappings of power while showing no interest in governing, will want to facilitate his continuation or that if they don’t, they will at least sit out his next term, in the hope that it will be the last.
Paid a heavy price
Burundi has been lauded for the “vibrant” media and civil society that have emerged and thrived over the last 10 years under Nkurunziza. Local commentators say that, before the crisis, CNDD-FDD saw this as one of their big achievements.
Alongside international praise for successful post-conflict reconciliation, it has been key to their sense of “mission accomplish”, even as the country made only modest progress elsewhere.
However, it was the same media and civil society that led opposition to Nkurunziza’s pursuit of another term in office. For that, they have paid a heavy price in terms of assets and lives lost, and members who are now in exile.
An optimistic scenario would envisage the government reaching fresh accommodation with now weakened media and civil society.
A gloomy one envisages a deeply scarred government narrowing the space within which they operate to ensure they remain weak and subdued, a move that could further damage relations between the government and the donor community.
Burundi’s media have paid a heavy price, as this picture of its main independent radio station African Public Radio in Bujumbura shows. (Photo/AFP).
The situation may be rendered even more complicated in terms of what the government choses to do, if Nkurunziza’s former allies who have been threatening to fight him go ahead and launch a full-scale insurgency.
In addition to harming the prospects for an inclusive dialogue, it would threaten the wider region’s pursuit of durable peace, stability, and prosperity.
If Burundi descends into civil war, and this is possible given reports of defections from the national army and of armed skirmishes in parts of the country, the fall-out would have far-reaching implications for the region.
The “Rwanda angle”
There is, for example, “the Rwanda angle”. The Nkurunziza government and some of its allies and lobbyists have seemed keen to drag Rwanda into the Burundi crisis.
This can be seen from allusions in some media to cross-border incursions by armed elements from Rwanda. Although as yet not sufficiently specific, the claims raise the spectre of a similar situation to the one in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012/2013. When the M23 insurgents took up arms against its government, allegations about Rwanda’s involvement rallied the DRC’s allies and major powers against it, leading to damaging aid cuts.
If repeated in connection with war in Burundi, they would again offer Rwanda’s regional allies and antagonists and other actors a chance to intervene in ways that could ignite a wider conflict. A key risk would be the diversion of attention and resources from development initiatives such as the infrastructure development projects of the Northern Corridor countries. The Rwanda angle does not end here.
Until 2012, Burundi and Rwanda cooperated actively against the FDLR, leading to disruption of their cross-border networks. In 2010, for reasons that remain unclear the cooperation ended. Since then, sources in Kigali say FDLR elements have stepped up their presence in Burundi. Whether this is with official blessing remains unclear.
However, some observers are sceptical, saying they have seen no evidence of it, and accusing Kigali of exaggeration. Others, though, go as far as naming locations along the Burundi-DRC border, which they say are used by the insurgents. Were the claims to be true, a civil war in Burundi might present FDLR elements with a chance to infiltrate Rwanda and compromise its internal security. It is unlikely Rwanda would do nothing. Potential for escalation would be high.
Said by seasoned observers to be shaky, Burundi’s security architecture and related internal dynamics within its security organs are also cited as potential threats to regional stability. Specifically, reports point to active ethnic divisions within the military, reportedly little trusted because of its constitution along ethnic quotas, and ideological antagonisms between the army on the one hand, and the highly trusted and largely mono-ethnic police on the other.
This, analysts contend, is underlain by instability within the intelligence services, which apparently lack ‘basic cohesion’, and wider internal contradictions stemming from all-too frequent changes in leadership. It is the kind of context in which a determined insurgency would thrive.
War or no war, the Burundi economy is now on its knees. Its capacity to export and import has been severely diminished by nearly three months of upheaval.
Donors have withdrawn aid and are unlikely to restore it soon. It is therefore hardly certain that even with the elections over, the country’s citizens, now reported to be leaving at the rate of hundreds a day in all directions, will stop from trying to cross into neighbouring countries.
There is the immediate problem of impoverished refugees imposing a financial and social burden on countries that need all the meagre resources they have to cater for the needs of their own citizens. And then there is that of Burundi’s business and other elites taking their money and skills out of the country in such of safer places to work and invest. This can only prolong the economic crisis and exacerbate the same urban disaffection that observers credit with igniting protests once it became clear that Nkurunziza would seek another term in office.
It is entirely possible that none of the gloomy scenarios will materialise. However, regional and international actors must be prepared in the event that they did. Whoever wishes Burundi and the wider region well must strive to identify solutions that pose no risk of enflaming an already highly combustible situation.
The efforts should entail, first and foremost, helping Burundians reach a political settlement that prioritises political stability, as the foundation for whatever else needs to happen. It can only be one that does not exclude actors with capacity for trouble making.
—The author is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs