Burundi: ‘The Old Demons Aren’t Dead, but At Least They’re Sleeping’ – 50 Years of Independence

On July 1st 2012 Burundi celebrates 50 years of independence from Belgium. The country is situated in a complex region with a violent recent past where political and social differences became polarised and interconnected with those of neighbouring countries.

In the 1990s, at the end of the Cold War, the region degenerated into an avalanche of killing and destruction, resulting in collapsed states, large-scale organised violence and millions of victims. Together with the genocide in Rwanda, and the violence in Congo – which later became known as Africa's First World War – the civil war in Burundi is one of the worst events in Central Africa's recent history.

A war without winners

Unlike Rwanda, where the civil war ended with the comprehensive military victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), none of rebel groups involved in the Burundian conflict was strong enough to achieve a military victory. The first democratic elections in 1993 resulted in an unexpected victory by the Hutu-led opposition party Frodebu (Front pour la Démocratie du Burundi). But less then four months later the new president Melchior Ndadaye was killed in a coup by lower ranking officers. The coup was orchestrated 'behind the curtain' by key figures in the Tutsi establishment from the outgoing regime. The coup did not succeed however, and the putschists had to surrender after a few days. They left the country in great confusion and deep crisis with the legitimate government and democratic institutions decapitated. The assassination of Ndadaye and other key government personalities was followed by waves of violence and counter-violence.

It heralded the start of a long civil war where the Tutsi dominated national army fought against multiple Hutu-based rebellions, with an estimated 300,000 people, most of them, civilians, killed. After long and complex negotiations, a peace agreement was signed in 2001 in Arusha which led to the instalment of a transitional government involving the main political parties. In 2003, the main rebel movement, CNDD/FDD (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie/ Forces de défense de la démocratie), laid down its arms after new negotiations. This created the necessary stability for elections to be organised. On August 26th 2005, Pierre Nkurunziza took the oath as the second democratically elected president of Burundi. Burundi had gone through hell, but now perhaps the time had come to deal with the country's major problem – the desperate poverty caused by years of violence.

Burundians were tired of the war. The population as well as the political protagonists were convinced that no party was sufficiently strong to obtain power through military force. This being so, Burundians were condemned to talk to each other. At different moments in the recent past negotiations had been started and successfully followed through. The international community (including neighbouring countries) played an important role through a mixture of support and pressure, but more important was the permanent pressure from below, through local media and civil society. The Burundian people understood that it had nothing to win from power games within the splintered political landscape.

Burundi's leaders had made a very important decision: from the start of the negotiations, the ethnic dimension was very explicitly placed on the agenda. Whereas neighbouring Rwanda had decided to erase the ethnic problem by denying it, the negotiators of the Arusha Agreements of August 2000 stated in the final text: "The conflict is fundamentally political, with extremely important ethnic dimensions. It results from the struggle of a political elite to achieve or maintain power." They developed a detailed system based on ethnic quotas for nearly all public offices, both civil and military. The agreement guaranteed the Tutsi community a representation in the Parliament and other institutions of 40 percent, significantly beyond their 15 percent share in the population. Both inside and outside Burundi, the ethnic factor rapidly disappeared in the media, public opinion and national psychology as the ultimate source or cause of the problems and violence the country faced since independence. When you asked about it, the general response was: "The old demons aren't dead, but at least they're sleeping."

Good and not-so-good elections

The elections of 2006 were a good start for an emerging democracy – they were generally considered to be free and fair, and they had a clear result. That clear result was accepted and led to a change of regime. The first years of the legislature were marked by three phenomena:

Difficulties in finalising the peace process with the last armed rebellion which remained active, Agathon Rwasa's FNL. The government wanted to dissolve the rebellion in the political and political institutions to avoid the FNL becoming an electoral alternative in 2010. For its part, the FNL wanted to copy the timing and itinerary of CNDD/FDD's integration in to the institutions between 2003 and 2005, hoping for a similar electoral result in 2010.

A strong tendency towards autocracy: immediately after the elections violent repression began against militants and sympathisers of the FNL. This led to a narrowing of the democratic space and an big increase in human rights violations. Several internal factions and interest groups paralysed the ruling party and negatively affected its coherence.

In the second period of the legislature, a peace agreement with the FNL finally materialised. The FNL laid down its arms, 3,500 combatants were integrated in the national army, 5,000 others demobilised and 33 leaders were given responsibilities in civil institutions. Agathon Rwasa himself became director of the National Office of Social Security. Within CNDD/FDD, the ranks closed around President Nkurunziza because most party members with ambitions of their own realised that Nkurunziza was more popular than the party, and was consequently indispensable for the party to remain in power.

The CNDD/FDD started the electoral race in clear pole position. The FNL however discovered that integration into civil institutions had weakened them. Decades of armed struggle had given them a near mythical status, and descending from their hills to join Burundi's institutional administration had reduced them to their real proportions. They were further demystified by their internal divisions which were reinforced and exploited by the regime.

FNL dissidents were encouraged to start their own splinter party, thus complicating the political landscape and the choice for voters. The same strategy was applied to other parties as well: Frodebu also saw some of its leaders leave and set up a new party with approximately the same name, claiming Ndadaye's historical heritage, but loyality to CNDD/FDD. The former ruling party and icon of Tutsi domination, Uprona, was able to maintain its unity. This made it by far the most important Tutsi party, and even before the elections, it was guaranteed a major role in the post-electoral political calculations because of the 60/40 proportions stipulated by the Arusha Agreements.

A remarkable newcomer on the political landscape was Alexis Sinduhije, former director of the independent African Public Radio. He had played an important role at the end of the war, contributing through his radio programmes to a climate of reconciliation, negotiation and change. Sinduhije's party, MSD (Mouvement pour la Solidarité et la Démocratie) had an important voice in the debate because it counted a lot of intellectuals, journalists and civil society people in its ranks.

The electoral cycle started on May 24th with the communal elections. CNDD/FDD won a landslide victory of 64 percent, followed by FNL with 14 percent. The other parties remained far below 10 percent. Uprona confirmed its position as the leading Tutsi party with just over 6 percent. After the communal elections, six of the seven candidates for the presidential elections left the process, referring to what they considered to be 'massive fraud'. The various international observation missions as well as local civil society monitors had reported irregularities but no large-scale rigging.

Early in July, the parties which had withdrawn their presidential candidates and created a political platform, ADC-Ikibiri (Alliance des Démocrates pour le Changement), decided to extend their boycott to the parliamentary elections. The result of the boycott was that the presidential elections were reduced to a plebiscite that Nkurunziza won with 91 percent of the vote, and legislative elections where CNDD/ FDD obtained 80 seats out of 100. Between the two elections, most of the opposition leaders left the country. If we extrapolate the results of the communal elections, we find that FNL, Frodebu and MSD had thrown away the possibility of establishing strong groupings in the Parliament and a coherent opposition policy. This was a wasted opportunity.

Turning the page of conflict?

The elections of 2010 were a major relapse in the democratisation process. The immediate result was a quasi-institutional monopoly by the ruling party at all levels, (a situation which brought back bad memories of the decades of the one-party system,) and a marginalised and frustrated opposition outside the country with several parties having their origins in the armed struggle. This considerably increased the potential of violence and of a new rebellion, and it undermined the struggle against poverty and bad governance, both underlying causes of the conflict. The country needed a strong and representative government with a clear mandate to elaborate and implement a coherent approach against poverty. Any struggle against poverty is doomed to fail unless there is real political will to fight bad governance too.

Between the 2010 elections and early 2012, there were waves of violence which could be attributed to an emerging rebellion. There were clear signs that Agathon Rwasa was trying to build up an armed force. The question then became: are we talking about an old school FNL rebellion rising from its ashes, or do we have a rebellion with an entirely new form and content. Beyond the old ethnic schemes, there were rumours and indications that a lot of Tutsi (ex-) officers who belonged to Sinduhije's electoral base left Burundi to join this 'new' rebellion.

There are two concurrent processes taking place within the ruling party and opposition that we must now address. Firstly, there is palpable tension between the military power base within the ruling party and a reforming wing – of which many national and international observers consider Second Vice President Gervais Rufyikiri to be the leader. The main point at issue is improving governance and dismantling the business networks of the military power base. The second process is taking place inside the united opposition in the Alliance des Démocrates pour le Changement (ADC-Ikibiri). Opposition worthy of the name, such as a young democracy like Burundi needs, can only come from the ADC-Ikibiri or from its members. At the same time, an armed struggle of any scale could also only come from the ADC-Ikibiri members. In the second part of 2011, the speeches of the ADC-Ikibiri leaders leaned towards this, rather than non-violent political opposition, which only a section of Frodebu around Léonce Ngendakumana seems to support.

If a well organised rebellion starts we will then have to fear a tougher attitude on the part of the regime. This will strengthen the position of its hard-liners. If the hard-liners in the two camps take the lead, the chance of dialogue, (already under pressure), will disappear altogether. It all culminated in the tragic apotheosis of the Gatumba massacre of September 18th, where more then 40 people died and more than 100 were severely injured. Later that year, the UN Panel of Experts on Congo provided details on the way in which the rebellion was prepared.


Today, the expected polarisation after the Gatumba massacre has not materialised. On the contrary, there has been a clear decrease in violence over the last few months. That's true for violence from non-identified armed groups, as well as for the disappearances and killings which are part of government repression. Within the CNDD/FDD, the military wing seems to be losing ground. The most obvious indication this was the election of Pascal Nyabenda as the new president of the party. Most observers see this as a strong indication of the demilitarisation of the party summit. Burundian Civil Society remembers Nyabenda as the MP who was very active in the installation process of the independent national human rights commission led by Frère Emmanuel Ntakarutimana. More sceptical observers consider Nyabenda's election as a non-event: do the generals need the party to coordinate their actions and to plan their strategies? Probably not, but that doesn't mean the CNDD/FDD isn't changing.

The ADC leaders in the diaspora no longer talk about armed struggle and instead are preparing for the elections in 2015. They have stopped claiming that the 2010 elections weren't legitimate, and many want to go back to Burundi to develop political activities at grass roots level. They want to create a more unified political configuration to challenge the CNDD/FDD in 2015. But we have seen in Congo how difficult that can be.

Over the last three months there have been some positive developments, including some moves towards efforts for better governance, it is however too early to judge the success of this. So far, these developments have not had positive consequences for active political pluralism in Burundi. The opposition remains marginalised, does not participate in any debate and has no access to the electorate. The regime continues to have a lock on the political space, for instance through the law on the political parties, which stipulated criteria for political party formation that made it very difficult for the development of an effective opposition. Media and civil society still also work under a lot of pressure. But at least we no longer have the impression that in the two camps, government and opposition, the hardliners have the initiative.

The parliamentary elections of 2010 were unsuccessful largely because the opposition left the process. It gave the ruling party a monopoly on the running of state institutions. The challenge will be to catch up with the country's tradition of dialogue and consultation and ensure that the 2015 elections are conducted more successfully.

Kris Berwouts has, over the last 25 years, worked for a number of different Belgian and international NGOs focused on building peace, reconciliation, security and democratic processes. Until recently, he was the director of EurAc, the network of European NGOs working for advocacy on Central Africa. He now works as an independent expert on Central Africa.

Burundi will celebrate 50 years of independence from Belgium on July 1st 2012.

Burundi has a violent recent past where political and social differences became polarised and interconnected with those of neighbouring countries.