A land frozen in time. Burundi then and now - real reason Nkurunziza 'won' a 3rd term, and his big trump card

There is a more existential narrative. It's complicated. Here a young opponent of the ruler said, "hunger is sometimes stronger than ideology.”

THE political conflict over a third term for Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza is far from over. 

He might have won the elections which were boycotted by the opposition but internal and external pressure is only growing. Radical opponents in the country seem to be organising and arming themselves. The threat of a low intensity war is real. The international community is turning off the aid taps and threatening other measures as well.

Burundi was the only country mentioned by name by the American president Barack Obama in his critical speech to the African Union on the tendency of presidents on the continent to believe their job is for life.  The months running up to the elections in Burundi were marred by police killings during demonstrations and a failed coup attempt.

What happened to Burundi that was full of hope ten years ago when Nkurunziza started his presidency?  Now the country is engulfed in fear. More than a hundred thousand people fled to neighboring countries.

Frozen in time

Many opponents and critics of Nkurunziza admit that the real reason for anger and frustration at the president’s third term is the poor development of the country. 

At first impression nothing much has changed. There is still hardly any activity at the international airport on the outskirts of the capital Bujumbura. 

There are more cars on the roads but everything still looks shabby and run down. Bicycles have partly been replaced by motorbikes made in China.

But with the thousands of people milling around everywhere in Bujumbura in the hope of earning a meal for the day, Burundi is listed as one of the poorest countries in the world. Buying a sim card for a mobile phone sets in motion a mass of young people involved in hawking them. They almost end up in fistfight over a single buyer. 

Like its airline, Burundi once had hopes of flying high but is grounded instead. (Photo/David Proffer/Flickr).

The country has no oil or gas, and coffee provides three quarters of all exports. With its gentle rolling hills, swaying palms and the Tanganyika Lake that sparkles in the sun, the it easily could be transformed into a tourist destination. Besides a few new up market hotels nothing much has been done to attract visitors. And they will not be coming any time soon as peace too has now taken off for the hills.

‘Make soup instead’
President Nkurunziza tries to show that he is developing the country. He commissions new school buildings, but there are no teachers, no books, and quite often even no benches. 

The rural areas in particular seem to be frozen in time. Most people there depend on subsistence farming on tiny plots. Burundi is the second most densely populated country in Africa.  Space is a problem. There are hardly any government initiatives to help people farm in a more efficient way. 

Country roads are dilapidated, and this makes the transportation of any agricultural product a headache. The west of the country had this year an abundant harvest of tomatoes. But in the east of Burundi tomatoes are scarce. “To transport a tender vegetable like that over our country roads would be stupid. You might as well immediately make tomato soup out of it”, a farmer told me.


Burundi is a highly agricultural economy. (Photo/ECHO/Martin Karimi/Flickr).

It is in the countryside that the majority of the people who support Nkurunziza live. This has to do with the composition of the Burundian population. Some 85% is Hutu and 14% Tutsi. 

The ethnic rivalry between the two groups is one of the main reasons for the country hardly knowing any real peace since its independence in 1962. The hostility escalated into a civil war in 1993 when Hutu rebels fought the Tutsi-dominated army. There were heavy casualties on both sides, with estimates putting the dead at over 300,000.

Unforgotten wars

The rural population, mainly Hutu, have not forgotten the war which ended in 2005. The older generation in particular believes that Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader, has to remain president in order to protect them against what they still perceive as a Tutsi threat. 

In the cities, and especially in Bujumbura, the population is far more mixed. Young people take pride in saying that they are of ethnic mixed parentage. Many of Nkurunziza’s opponents are Hutus. The president himself is the son of a Tutsi mother and a Hutu father.

It is especially these young people who have been vocal in the demand that Nkurunziza should not stand for a third term. At the Arusha accord which brought an end to the civil war 10 years ago, it was agreed that a president could only spend two terms in office.  Nkurunziza however argues that his first term does not count as he was then chosen by parliament, and not by the people at the ballot box.

Feeling abandoned
About 65% of Burundians are younger than 25 years.  Many of them are jobless and demoralised. 

The government has not made any effort to create more jobs especially for the younger people who trekked to the towns in the hope of finding employment. Nkurunziza’s young critics feel forgotten and abandoned.

According to political observers, joblessness and poverty might also be the reason for the enthusiasm among Hutu youngsters in joining the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD, Nkurunziza’s party.

According to human rights organisations, some of its members received military-style training in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Opponents accuse the group, called Imbonerakure, of terrorising the public and working together with the police to suppress any dissent against Nkurunziza. 

A young opponent said: “I fear and also dislike them, but I can understand why they join. It brings them at least something, before they had nothing. Hunger is sometimes stronger than ideology.”


Nkurunziza retains big support in the rural areas. (Photo/AFP)

It is hard to comprehend how just 10 years ago the hope was so high on the streets when Nkurunziza, the sports teacher, a football enthusiast, a preacher and a rebel leader was chosen to lead the country.  

The population was sure then that it would be playing a winning match. The descent into the present mayhem already started some five years ago. The people saw that despite the foreign aid coming to the country, their lives were not getting much better. And the more the criticism grew, the harder the government tried to suppress it.

At sunset in 2005, people gathered in open-air bars to drink beer from litre bottles and ate brochettes, which had grilled meat of skewers. Today, even before it gets dark, the streets in Bujumbura empty fast. The population seeks the relative safety of their homes as the ringing of shots and the explosions of grenades is audible almost every night in the capital. 

Expecting little from the world

The anti-Nkurunziza forces don’t expect much from the outside world besides some harshly-worded criticisms. Cutting aid will harm the government, but also the populace.  Sanctions targeting the president and the small clique of hawkish generals around him, will not make a real difference as it has been proven in other countries.

According to the anti-Nkurunziza elements the president has a powerful trump card in his hands. 

Though Burundi’s contingent to Amisom, the military mission of the African Union in Somalia that fights against the Islamic extremist organisation Al Shabaab, has shrank to the fourth largest - after Ethiopia’s, Uganda’s, and Kenya’s, it was once the second biggest and a pillar of the thankless mission. 

Every country that helps to combat extremism can count on the support of the international community which may at the very least choose to look the other way. As long as the fear of an Al-Qaeda affiliated extremist takeover of Somalia is higher than the dislike of Nkurunziza clinging to power, he will easily string his rule along for some time.

-The author, a journalist based in Nairobi and who travels widely around the continent, is a Mail & Guardian Africa contributor. She just returned from Burundi.

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