Arusha, April 28, 2015 – Burundi’s “born-again” president Pierre Nkurunziza is accused of violating the 2000 Arusha peace accords and the Constitution adopted five years later, but he is turning a deaf ear. Several people have now died in protests following news that Nkurunziza would run for a third term in June elections. 

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The government is trying to clamp down on the protests and on the press. It arrested a leading human rights activist and shut down the independent radio station Radio Publique Africaine (RPA).

Despite various warnings from inside and outside the country, the president’s party on Saturday backed him as their candidate for the June presidential polls. Warnings have come from his predecessors Pierre Buyoya, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya and Domitien Ndayizeye, as well as civil society, opposition parties and Burundi’s powerful Catholic Church.

The United States, the European Union and African Union have also warned former rebel Nkurunziza that he would risk plunging his country into a new crisis.

So how does this “born-again” president, who often dances in church, justify his bid to stay in power in the face of protest from his citizens and the advice of the international community?

This crisis, which has been brewing for months, centres on two diametrically interpretations of Burundi’s 2005 Constitution. Article 96 says the President “is elected by universal suffrage for a five-year mandate, renewable once”.

Presidential supporters argue that Nkurunziza was only elected by universal suffrage in 2010, which means he can run again. But the opposition says his supporters are misinterpreting the Constitution for their own ends.

In effect, since Nkurunziza came to power when conditions were not ripe for a free and fair election, the same 2005 Constitution allowed special provisions. Article 302 says that “as an exceptional measure, the first President of the post-transition period is elected by the National Assembly and Senate, meeting in Congress, by a majority of two-thirds of members”.  This is what happened in 2005 when the two houses of parliament elected Nkurunziza to lead the new Burundi. In June 2010 he was re-elected, for the first time by direct universal suffrage.

Former president Domitien Ndayizeye thinks both texts are without contest. “The spirit of the Arusha Peace Accord and the Burundian Constitution are both clear that it is impossible to have a third presidential mandate,” he told RPA radio (shut down in the latest crisis). Ndayizeye, who signed both of these fundamental texts, thinks Nkurunziza should not fall into the trap of his supporters but rather let others in his party emerge.

Another former president, Pierre Buyoya (Tutsi), agrees. “The Arusha accords are clear on the number of mandates,” he says. “The President of the Republic is elected for one five-year mandate, renewable once. No-one can have more than two presidential mandates.”

In a joint statement on Monday, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Burundi human rights league  ITEKA said they “condemn the acts of violence that have occurred in parts of Bujumbura” that left several people dead. They also condemned the arrest of human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa and the government’s clampdown on independent radios.

Even more worrying, say FIDH and ITEKA, is that presidential party youth known as Imbonerakure have been on the streets alongside police in certain areas. Groups of Imbonerakure are reported to have marched in the streets in groups of 50 to 100, wielding sticks and chanting threats such as “we will get you if you continue to demonstrate”.

Fear of being lynched by the Imbonerakure has already forced many Burundians onto the road, including 15,000 who have fled to neighbouring Rwanda.

On Tuesday, the European Union, whose calls have so far been in vain, again denounced intimidation and violence in Burundi and called on the authorities to guarantee the peaceful exercise of civil and political rights.

“The intimidation and violence, the dead and injured, the arrest of human rights defenders and restrictions on the press, the flow of refugees to neighbouring countries, all these things have no place in an electoral process,” said a spokesperson for the EU’s diplomatic service.

Will the EU be heard this time?