Violence plagued the village of Ruhagarika in the rural province of Cibitoke, which serves as a border between Burundi and the DRC. Last Friday, 26 Burundian people were brutally killed, and at least seven were injured. The perpetrators, whose affiliation is unclear, burned and shot people, leaving 24 of the victims to die in their homes before any medical responders arrived.
Burundi is the third poorest nation in the world, with an average life expectancy of 50 years. The country has struggled with severe ethnic-based violence, and this massacre took place about a week before the controversial May 17th referendum vote. This referendum would extend presidential terms to seven years from five, but limit the President to two terms. The protests are the reaction to the third term of Pierre Nkurunziza, which was highly contentious and resulted in further unrest within the country.
Nkurunziza, who is currently on his third term, would be allowed to continue his presidency till 2034, for the referendum would ignore the context of his past terms. Nkurunziza is a former Hutu rebel leader, the son of a Hutu father and Tutsi mother, and was actively involved in the military section of Conseil National pour la Défense de Démocratie (CNDD-FDD). His father’s death, which was caused by the ethnic conflicts, led him to become politically involved. It was his role in arriving at a peace accord with former President Domitien Ndayizeye which gained him immunity, for he was earlier sentenced to death because of his engagement with rebel groups.
Nkurunziza’s presidency yielded some healing, his cabinet consisted of 11 Hutu and 9 Tutsi, with nearly half being women. This is significant because in Burundian society, women’s roles are deeply tied to domestic work and their literacy rates are far below that of men. However, his announcing of a third bid birthed the worst violence since the end of the Burundian Civil War. The country’s Constitutional Court deemed that the third term was legal, for he was elected through Parliamentary means the first time, exempting him from limits applied to those elected by the people. The pushback against this ruling included a failed coup by Godefroid Niyombare, a general, and ended with the assassination of Zedi Feruzi, an opposition leader.
Nkurunziza’s legislation has advocated for the limiting of the press and other public freedoms. Reporters Without Borders remarked that “this is a black day for freedom of information in Burundi,” after the approval of a law restricting media and journalistic content. Many citizens died in protests and over 150,000 people left the country in fear after his third term began. Pressures to join the dominant party manifested in violence by the State government, resulting in the fleeing of Burundians to neighbouring countries, such as Tanzania, the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda. The UN Refugee agency has pushed for funding to support the refugees, but only 19% of that funding has been provided, leaving the Burundian people without enough aid. The referendum, if denied, would mean a close end to Nkurunziza’s presidency.
The proximity of these killings to this vote has led many to believe they are the acts of exiled rebel groups. Security Minister Alain Guillaume Bunyoni labelled it a “terrorist” attack, and suspicion has fallen on CNARED. CNARED is an organization which opposes the current controllers of Burundian politics, but they have stated they wish to collaborate. The state has been dismissive of communication with CNARED due to their categorization as “terrorists.” CNARED’s main issue is the fact the third term violates the Arusha Peace Accords, which ended a bloody 12 year Civil War.
This peace agreement instituted quotas to ensure collaboration and integration between the two primary ethnic groups. It also ended the Civil War, which resulted in at least 300,000 deaths. The Civil War began with the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye, the first democratically elected Hutu President. The ending of this war is marked by the swearing in of Nkurunziza and the implementation of the peace accords.
Recent violence marks a shift away from the relative stability achieved because of the Arusha Accords. It has gained international attention, with the ICC investigating and the Human Rights Watch claiming opponents of the referendum were being killed, tortured, and intimidated by the state itself. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was chosen as the peace mediator between opposition groups and the current Burundian government, yet his efforts have proved unsuccessful.
The right to vote must not be tainted with threats. Regular citizens being targets for political gain is not acceptable. The divides in the nation have an extensive history, and priority must be placed upon providing security for the refugees who have fled. Future actions, in regards to the grander scale hostility in the country, must be planned after the vote occurs. This vote will either see the continued rise of civil dissatisfaction or it will calm the country. The international community must right now help those who have fled, and aid Burundians after the vote as they work towards peace. It is vital that the country avoids slipping back into the levels of violence which marked the Civil War.
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