Protests began breaking out in Burundi on Sunday following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial announcement that he will seek election for a third term in office. Although he contends that exceeding the country’s two-term limit is permissible because his first term wasn’t the result of direct democratic elections, this argument has been broadly rejected. Three days of protests have sparked heavy clashes with the police, and six participants have been killed.
Thousands of Burundi citizens are reportedly involved in the protests, which were almost immediately declared illegal by Nkurunziza’s government in the capital of Bujumbura. Many sources say that riot police and pro-government militia forces engaged with demonstrators so as to be deliberately provocative, and at least one BBC journalist has confirmed that such forces shot unarmed protesters using live rounds.
For a country that was plagued by civil war from 1993 to 2005, the unrest looks terrifyingly prescient. Some 15,000 Burundi citizens have fled their homes amid fears of impending violence, which could escalate if the stand-off between state and opposition isn’t diffused. Activists in neighboring states have urged their own governments to willingly accept Burundi’s refugees for safe resettlement.
As unsettling as these past few days of violence have been, Nkurunziza’s defiant announcement — and the enraged populist response — doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. The contentious 2010 election cycle for Nkurunziza’s second term was also marked with violence, and intermittent protests against the government’s human rights crackdowns have continued ever since. As rumors swirled in recent weeks regarding Nkurunziza’s unconstitutional power grab, opposition politicians including Agathon Rwasa warned that the government’s draconian methods were “terrorizing the people,” who “don’t want to struggle anymore in this country.” (Rwasa has not yet announced his candidacy for the presidency against Nkurunziza, but is considered likely to run.)
E.U. and U.S. officials explicitly warned Nkurunziza against violating his term limit, but diplomats have reportedly been instructed to enact a policy of neutrality in wake of this week’s bloody clashes. The situation in Burundi provides a disappointing contrast to the widely lauded events in Nigeria weeks ago, when incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan stated his intention to peacefully acquiesce to election victor Muhammadu Buhari.
The protests have also inspired a renewed assault on dissent and civil society, perhaps galvanizing a movement partially rooted in resistance against such oppression. Free media outlets have been forcibly closed in recent days, and famous activist Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa was arrested. (It isn’t the first high-profile arrest for Mbonimpa, who has been targeted by the government in the past.) Not only is political dissent viciously suppressed in Burundi, but the standard officials use to decide what constitutes it is notoriously wide: activities as innocuous as jogging clubs have been rounded-up for anti-government assembly.
In a country with as distressed a recent history as Burundi’s, crises naturally launch anxiety. Years after the end of the civil war, the country remains divided along rival ethnic lines — ensuring the seeds of conflict are never far from the surface.