Unrest in Burundi: A Primer

Nigel Watt explains the background to the violent protests and threats of election boycotts in the central African state

When I wrote the first draft of my book on Burundi I gave it the subtitle, ‘An African Success Story’. A peaceful, well-organised election in 2005 had produced a legal and popular government. My tone in the book that was ultimately published was still fairly optimistic in spite of growing evidence of corruption and intolerance. The opposition parties unwisely boycotted the 2010 election, leaving President ‘Peter’ Nkurunziza and the ruling CNDD-FDD party unopposed, except on the streets. The party subsequently behaved more and more as if Burundi was a one-party state and, although the president seemed to have no vision for the future of the country, it became clearer by the day that he wanted to stand for a third term. The constitution allows two terms but his legal loophole is that, as part of the transition process, he was first elected by parliament rather than by direct vote.

While the born-again footballing president retains some popularity in rural areas, the government has steadily lost support in the towns, and the decision to stand for a third term risks destabilising the delicate constitutional framework. Not only civil society (which he despises), the opposition parties (strong in the capital) and the ‘international community’, but also the very powerful Roman Catholic Church and some leading members of his own party opposed or counselled against his standing again. The former party leader, Hussein Rajabu, who first made Nkurunziza the presidential candidate, escaped from prison where he had been held since 2007 and added his weight against the president. There was great excitement in Burundi at the news of what happened to Blaise Compaore, the then President of Burkina Faso, who was forced to resign in October 2014 after seeking to alter the constitution to allow himself to remain in power.

President Nkurunziza’s stupid and arrogant decision has already resulted in demonstrations and a few deaths on the streets of Bujumbura. The government suppressed the excellent free radio stations and has gone on to cut off access to Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter. What next? The ruling party’s youth wing is well armed and ruthless. The police are poorly trained. It remains to be seen how courageous or how violent the demonstrators will be. The main battle lines are no longer drawn between Hutu and Tutsi. The strongest opponents of the president are likely to be Agathon Rwasa of the Forces pour la Libération Nationale (FLN), an even more Hutu dominated party, and Rajabu. However, the government likes to demonise Alexis Sinduhije, the Tutsi leader of the Mouvement pour la solidarité et le développement (MSD) party and founder of the now banned African Public Radio, who actually helped Nkurunziza to power back in 2005.

Local elections are due in May, presidential and parliamentary ones in June. Some opposition leaders are in exile. In the tense atmosphere that pervades the country a fair election will be impossible. It seems to me that there will either be continuing protest and violent suppression of it, or possibly the elements in the army that are unhappy with Nkurunziza’s decision may try to step in.

Either way the president has created an entirely unnecessary crisis that sets the country back years.


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, will be published by Hurst in August 2015.

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