Burundi unrest intensifies as president pushes plans for third term

Crowds have protested for nearly two weeks, with the toll rising to at least 13 dead. Opposition leaders have argued for a postponement of a planned June 26 election.

Jerome Delay/AP
Jean Claude Niyonzima, a suspected member of the ruling party's Imbonerakure youth militia, pleaded with soldiers to protect him from a mob of demonstrators after he came out of hiding in a sewer in the Cibitoke district of Bujumbura, Burundi, yesterday.

Burundi’s president plans to register to run for a third term on Friday, a move that is likely to increase tensions and violence in the lead-up to the June 26 elections.

The news comes as an exiled judge claimed that the Burundian Constitutional Court was forced to validate President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid to extend his decade-long rule. The court ruled this week that the president could stand for reelection, saying his first term did not count because he was picked by parliament at the time, and not elected by the people.

"If we did not give the third term a green light, we were going to be in trouble," Sylvere Nimpagaritse, the Constitutional Court vice president, told the Associated Press from Rwanda, where he fled this week. Mr. Nimpagaritse said judges had gotten threats after ruling last month that Nkurunziza was not eligible for another term.

Crowds have taken to the streets and clashed with police for almost two weeks, saying the president’s plans violate the Constitution and the Arusha Accords, a peace deal that ended an ethnically charged civil war in 2005. In a televised speech on Wednesday, Mr. Nkurunziza told Burundians that if elected for a third term in June, it would be his last.

But the main opposition leader Agathon Rwasa demanded the June vote be postponed, arguing that the “credibility of the electoral process is already in doubt.”

The chairwoman of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, echoed Mr. Rwasa’s sentiments on Thursday. "Until there is peace in Burundi, we can't go for elections," she tweeted.

Protests are taking an increasing toll, with at least 13 dead and 216 wounded since the end of April. On Thursday, demonstrators assaulted suspected members of the governing party’s youth group. The demonstrations have also moved outside the capital of Bujumbura to Gisozi, about 30 miles away.

But Simon Allison of South Africa’s Daily Maverick argues that the tensions in Burundi signify progress:

At first glance, the constitutional crisis in Burundi appears to embody the very worst of African politics, to encapsulate all the negative stereotypes about leadership and power on this continent. There’s the president clinging to power, consequences be damned. There’s the constitution that’s not worth the paper it’s written on, and the pliant constitutional court that exists to rubber stamp the president’s whims. There’s the vicious crackdown on peaceful protestors, complete with tear gas and live ammunition and arbitrary detention. There are the ominous ethnic undertones, renegade armed militias and the looming threat of another genocide.

None of this is wrong. But it’s also not the full story. Look a little closer, and it’s clear that Burundi doesn’t signal a return to Africa’s bad old days. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Let’s start with Burundians themselves, thousands of whom are putting their lives on the line every day to protest against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in office, contrary to the letter of the peace agreement which brought him to power and the spirit of his country’s new constitution. This is civil society action at its very best: co-ordinated, sustained, widespread and fearless.

Fearing an escalation in political violence, 40,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries.

“We thought Burundian refugees were something we would never have to discuss again, unfortunately we are back to having a significant outflow of Burundians,” Antonio Guterres, the head of the UN’s refugee agency, told Agence France-Presse. “It must stop. We have enough crises in the world.”

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