|Nkurunziza, Kikwete, Kenyatta, Museveni, and Kagame (Associated Press)|
Burundi stands at a crossroads in its peace process. As Burundian go to the polls tomorrow to elect a president, more than at any other time since the signing of the Arusha Agreement in 2000, the country risks relapsing into broad scale violence.
Since President Pierre Nkurunziza announced on April 25 that he would stand for a third term in office––a step explicitly barred by the Arusha Agreement of 2000––the country has been in turmoil. Three weeks of protests in the streets of Bujumbura culminated in a coup attempt, which failed and sent the coup plotters into exile or prison. The coup also transformed the dynamics of protest, allowing the government to portray all protesters as rebel sympathizers (some radios and protesters had indeed celebrated the coup) and to radicalize their repression. This, in turn, sent a message to the opposition that "the only way [to get rid of Nkurunziza" will be through violence," as Alexis Sinduhije, leader of the MSD party, put it.
The future, to a significant degree, lies in the hands of regional leaders. South Africa and Tanzania were the brokers of the Arusha Agreement, as well as of subsequent agreements between the then-government and the CNDD-FDD rebellion (now in power) in 2003, and between the government and the FNL in 2008. It is true that donors have extensive financial influence––around half of national budget comes from foreign aid, and the country would be insolvent with outside support––but the Burundian president appears willing to tighten the country's fiscal belt if needed, and aid cuts would probably hurt the poor fastest and hardest.
It would be more difficult for Nkurunzuza, however, if, as Burundi's neighbors began to force him out of power. When Pierre Buyoya carried out a coup in 1996, its neighbors imposed a trade embargo for several years that brought the country to its knees.
Indeed, this time, again, it appeared that the region was going to weigh in against a third term for Nkurunziza. In March, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete came out against a third term for Nkurunziza. Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, who himself appears to be seeking a third term, rather said that Nkurunziza should step down because he is not delivering for his people.
However, a meeting of the East African Community (EAC) in Dar es Salaam on 31 May concluded only by condemning the coup attempt and asking for the government to postpone elections and disarm youth militias. It made no mention of the third term issue, despite a confidential report (leaked later) by the Attorneys-General of the EAC saying that another term would violate the constitution. Since then, Kikwete has instead suggested that the crisis could be resolved by forging a government of national unity. Similarly, while South African President Jacob Zuma initially called on Nkurunziza to respect term limits, South African officials appear to be prevaricating now. (Zuma's former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chairperson of the African Union, has been more consistent)
Why this change of opinion? In part, it may just be because leaders in the region are attempting to placate and talk reason into an increasingly obstinate Nkurunziza. Also, it is difficult for leaders such as Museveni, who changed his own constitution in 2005 to run for another mandate, and Kagame, who appears to be preparing to do the same, to oppose term limits.
But a more likely reason is geopolitics. Burundi has become swept up in regional antagonisms that pit Rwanda against Tanzania and South Africa. Part of this is economic––Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda form part of a "union of the willing" within the East African Community more eager to pursue regional integration than Burundi and Tanzania.
But there is also a larger, more weighty power struggle. Tanzania has chided Rwanda for not negotiating with its armed opponents, the FDLR. This lead to virulent attacks against Kikwete by Rwandan media and politicians, and relations between Kagame and Kikwete are famously frosty. South African officials still bridle at Rwandan attempts to assassinate its opponents on South African soil, including just before the beginning of the World Cup in 2010.
The two countries' decision to send troops as part of the United Nations special brigade to combat the Rwandan-backed M23 in the Congo should be seen in that light. As should evidence that Tanzania has been hosting FDLR delegations since at least 2013 (as documented by the UN Group of Experts), and the unwillingness of both Tanzania and South Africa to back military operations against the FDLR in the Congo. In meetings with diplomats, Tanzanian officials have gone so far to call the FDLR "freedom fighters." Rwanda now claims that Nkurunziza is colluding with FDLR, although there has been little evidence of that thus far.
There is also mounting evidence that Rwanda has been backing Burundi's coup plotters. Several of them fled to Rwanda after their failed attempt to take power. According to sources in Rwanda and among the diplomatic community, insurgents who launched an attack on northern Burundi on July 10 came from Rwanda and had some backing there. Both Rwanda and the coup plotters deny these accusations, and the attacks appear to have been weak and poorly organized. However, diplomats who attended the EAC meetings suggest that Kikwete's change of heart came because he believed Rwanda was trying to overthrow Nkurunziza.
Burundi's crisis is unlikely to escalate further without regional interference. None of the political parties and armed factions in Burundi appear to have the resources or manpower to challenge Nkurunziza's hold on power at the moment. If the region continues on this path, however, the country could take a turn for the worse. Alternatively, if the region opts for peace, there is a strong likelihood they will be able to usher it in.