On Thursday Burundi’s foreign ministry expelled a top U.N. official in retaliation for a U.N. report alleging the governing is arming its youth supporters ahead of 2015 presidential elections. Paul Debbie, the U.N.’s security chief in Burundi, has until Friday to leave the country.
The expulsion is the latest piece of a fight over the U.N. report, which claims that the youth faction of the CNDD-FDD ruling party, the Imbonerakure, is being trained for combat. On Tuesday, Burundi’s Vice President Prosper Bazombanza demanded the organization provide evidence for its claims, or retract the report. On Wednesday, government officials accused the U.N. of rumormongering in order to extend the mandate of its mission in Burundi (BNUB).
If the report has Burundi’s leaders in a cold sweat, it’s because the nation is already awash with tensions in the lead up to the 2015 election. President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term — despite a two-term constitutional limit — has set the stage for a severe political crisis, with analysts predicting the nation’s worse conflict since its 12-year civil war ended in 2005 after years of widespread sectarian violence. Already security forces are clashing with opposition groups, most recently in March when several dozen members of the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD) were detained after a violent rally. The opposition movement’s leader was reportedly charged with “insurrection,” a charge that carries a life sentence. Increasing violent acts by the Imbonerakure have been reported as well.
In Bujumbara, the ruling coalition is split over the issue, with the Hutu-dominated CNDD-FDD’s junior partner, the Tutsi-led Uprona party, opposing both Nkurunziza’s bid and his proposed constitutional amendments that critics warn would extend term limits. In March the CNDD-FDD narrowly lost a parliamentary vote over the changes, thanks to an Uprona boycott; the ruling party is now pushing for a referendum.
The U.N. isn’t the only outside party looking in. Washington has jumped in as well, driven perhaps by the lessons of Rwanda’s genocide, which are still looming twenty years later. Little wonder that the U.S. is calling on Nkurunziza to do away with his planned constitutional changes, which could disrupt the country’s delicate ethnic power balance. The proposed plan would appoint one prime minister to replace the existing two vice presidential posts shared between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi ethnic groups. In early April, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Powers visited Burundi — the first cabinet-level official to do so — to investigate “alarming signs” in the country.
Yet for all the external warnings, not to mention the disintegration of his ruling coalition, Burundi’s president look sets to move ahead with the controversial reforms — even as tensions continue to build on the home front. In an ominous development, opposition groups are claiming that a pro-government radio station is issuing calls for its listeners to be “vigilant,” using language reminiscent of that used by Radio Television Milles Collines during the Rwandan genocide.
For now, Burundi’s post-civil war growing pains remain overshadowed by conflicts in nearby Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. But come next year, the heated presidential race — and potential ethnic violence — could ignite a regional powder keg.