Burundi – Still in the Tunnel and No Light Yet

Burundi’s President Nkurunziza continues to preside over human rights abuses, regional isolation, and increasingly militant protests against his rule.

President Pierre Nkurunziza wanted a third term but I doubt if he is enjoying it. The same goes for most of the population. The protests and ferocious government reprisals continued in many of Bujumbura’s neighbourhoods until earlier this year. There is now less obvious tension but there are still arrests and killings, usually of opponents of the regime, recently including the death of a journalist on the only independent journal, Iwacu. Fourteen mass graves were recently identified in the country. The party youth wing has an ever bigger role in “security”. The President continues to refuse to negotiate with any real opponents (or even to meet human rights leader Pierre Claver Mbonimpa). He has refused to allow peacekeepers from the African Union — and more recently observers from the UN Security Council — into the country. (A one-day “boycott” of the French language was organised to protest against France’s proposing the Security Council resolution in question.) The president fears for his safety, visits the capital rarely, and reportedly seldom sleeps in the same place. Some of the president’s friends have grown rich but nearly everyone else grows poorer: prices of basic foods are rising all the time (not helped by the recent closure of the frontier with Tanzania), the economy continues to shrink, and jobs are impossible to find.



The East African Community may be losing patience with its troublesome member. They arranged a security assessment mission at the end of July but no other action has taken place since.

An important UN report on Burundi’s human rights situation is expected. The Burundian delegation that went to Geneva to answer questions for it reportedly walked out in anger. The ruling party ran a national consultation to find out the public’s opinion on a fixed number of terms for presidents and (quelle surprise) found that most were against them, though civil society groups point out that the responses came from a very limited sample. Parliament is to discuss the findings.

Relations with Rwanda are at rock bottom: many of the 270,000 Burundian exiles are there, including most of the staff of the independent radio stations; the border is often closed; and the recent comments by Pascal Nyabenda, the chairman of the ruling party and of the national assembly, throwing doubt on the Rwandan genocide will have poisoned the atmosphere further.



The only hopeful sign is that the president’s efforts to paint his opponents as entirely Tutsi have not succeeded. Outside and inside the country both Hutus and Tutsis remain active in opposition to the regime, though it does not appear clear that the various opposition parties have succeeded in working out a strategy, violent or peaceful. A sign of possible violence to come is that Nkurunziza’s old comrade, Hussein Radjabu, has now publicly promoted FOREBU, a rebel force bent on removing the regime, which is sure to link up with other malcontents (not that a Radjabu regime would be any better than the present one, judging by his behaviour when he ran Nkurunziza’s government in 2005–07).

All in all a depressing picture. External pressure may be the only way to bring about change and there is not much sign that Burundi’s problems are being taken seriously amidst so many crises in the world. Perhaps the only recent positive in world media is that Burundi’s small Olympic team looked great in their traditional costumes and Francine Niyonsaba’s silver in the women’s 800 metres added some deserved glory!


Nigel Watt worked in Burundi for several years and was formerly Director of the Africa Centre in London. A revised and updated edition of his book, Burundi: The Biography of a Small African Country, was published by Hurst in March 2016.

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