Africa’s most volatile regions. Even though the coup appears to have failed, political and ethnic tensions are running high. Burundi’s history of genocide, civil war and refugee exodus are a grim reminder of what might follow.
The attempted ouster of Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, followed days of violent protests against his decision to run for a third term. Confrontations between the police and protesters have left at least 15 dead, including two police officers.
Some protesters have been involved in the stoning and burning of suspected Nkurunziza sympathizers. With the president seemingly determined to hold on to power, the country is dangerously divided. The instability and violence do not augur well for the prospect of a free and fair election in June.
A dispute over presidential term limits is at the heart of the crisis, not the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic politics that have divided Burundi in the past. Burundi’s 2000 peace accord, which ended a seven-year civil war, and its 2005 Constitution both stipulate that presidents are limited to two terms in office.
Mr. Nkurunziza first came to power in 2005, when he was elected by Parliament. Because he was not elected by “universal direct suffrage,” as mandated by Article 96 of the Constitution, the president claims that only his second term is covered by the article’s term limit clause. But opponents argue that according to Article 7, the people’s will is sovereign, whether it is indicated by direct elections or mediated by their representatives in Parliament; in other words, they maintain that Mr. Nkurunziza’s election in 2005 counted as his first term.
Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare’s decision to try to depose Mr. Nkurunziza is evidence that the political and military elites are themselves deeply divided over the issue. (According to a Reuters report, the general is now under arrest.) Both sides of this conflict have the capacity to mobilize loyalists and wreak violence.
Burundi’s army is especially volatile, comprising an amalgamation of militias organized around ethnic quotas. The president’s party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy, also counts among its membership hard-liners with the potential to inflict violence on opponents.
An escalation of the crisis in Burundi is still preventable. But the longer the conflict continues, the harder it will be for the international community to come up with a viable solution.
The United States has been focused on the Burundi problem for several months. The former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold, who was until February the United States special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa, warned of impending problems should Mr. Nkurunziza attempt to run for a third term. In April, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, Tom Malinowski, traveled to Burundi to persuade Mr. Nkurunziza not to risk a new round of conflict. The presence in the region last week of the State Department’s most senior Africa expert, Assistant Secretary Linda Thomas-Greenfield, also reflects Washington’s concern to head off trouble in Burundi.
Much of the international effort has been concentrated on forcing Mr. Nkurunziza to step down. While the focus has understandably been on the president’s third-term gambit, the United States and the international community should also put pressure on the opposition parties to respect the rule of law. A solution is possible only if both the government and the opposition are willing to compromise. The two sides must negotiate an end to violence and work out a political transition that rapidly returns Burundi to democratic, constitutional rule.
Historically, Burundian political parties have used ethnicity to mobilize support. To his credit, Mr. Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel leader, did succeed in reconciling Burundi’s Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups and establishing a working consensus. The danger is that some will try to exploit a crisis that is about governance and turn it into a tribal conflict.
To restore Burundi’s democracy and prevent atrocities, the international community should impose immediate travel and financial sanctions on anyone who incites ethnic hatred. Leaders of the nonviolent opposition must also get international support for their quest to hold free, fair and well-monitored elections. And just as she did over the threat of violence in Nigeria’s recent election, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, should issue a public warning that anyone engaged in atrocities will be liable to investigation and prosecution.
The East African community of countries and the African Union have issued strong condemnations of the coup, a positive step. But they also need international backing to help resolve Burundi’s conflict.
Even if he has survived the attempted ouster, Mr. Nkurunziza must be persuaded to abandon his re-election plans and make way for transparent elections; however, this is likely to happen only through a negotiated settlement that guarantees Mr. Nkurunziza a safe departure from office. He should also issue an immediate appeal to his supporters, especially the youth wing of his party, to stop fomenting violence.
In the long term, Burundi needs more aid from the international community to offer a better future to the country’s marginalized youth. Even before this round of instability, the country’s economy was feeble. Without major investment in education and job creation, Burundi will continue to be vulnerable to the entrepreneurs of violence.
Etienne Mashuli, a Soros New American fellow at Yale, is a graduate student in African studies. Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, is a senior fellow at the Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy, also at Yale.