Burundi: a democratisation from which violence may stem

The international community has indirectly contributed to making Burundi a facade democracy, now prey to a political and even a security crisis. Français

Charlotte Arnaud
4 July 2014

While the president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, has attempted to revise its constitution and seek a third presidential term, the country presents worrying signs of instability, indeed of political crisis. Although the international community declares itself concerned about the political situation, its activity is focused on immediate programmes to assist preparation of the general elections of 2015. Such programmes were implemented before the 2010 elections but political instability remains. The time may thus have come to question frankly the state of democracy in Burundi and the impact of international programmes on the political scene. What is the relevance of these programmes if the political and security conditions of their application are no longer met?

Democracy in Burundi—myth or reality?

The Burundian political space is encompassed by and revolves around the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD. The government has recently reduced the space for, and freedoms enjoyed by, opposition parties and civil society. In March, after violence at a demonstration between security forces and militants, the government suspended the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD), thus forcing its leader, Alexis Sinduhije, to flee the country. Forty-eight activists of the party were sentenced to life imprisonment. The Uprona party, victim of the strategy of nyakurisation[1] put in place by the presidential party, is weakened and on the verge of imploding. The National Forces of Liberation (FNL), a former mainly-Hutu rebel group and signatory to the Arusha accords of 2008, and the Frodebu, another Hutu-dominated political formation, strive to denounce the practices of bad governance and corruption but are hampered by the campaign of political intimidation orchestrated by the ruling party. And while the main opposition coalition, ADC-Ikibiri, bringing together eleven parties, publicly denounces the closure of political space and the “dictatorial drift”[2] of the country, it seems devoid of a line of attack against the CNDD-FDD, which no longer conceals its intention to remain in power and seems ready for whatever it takes to do so.

Indeed, the Burundian president recently made known his willingness to extend his mandate, presenting a draft constitutional revision to the National Assembly which in the end was rejected.[3] At the same time, the United Nations has charged his party with distributing weapons to the Imbonerakure, the CNDD-FDD’s youth movement. The party denies the accusations but a climate of fear and mistrust festers, nourished by the recent violence which erupted between the Imbonerakure and activists from the opposition Frodebu Nyakuri.

Civil society also suffers from this political hardening and change of course: freedom of expression loses ground against the growing strength of the presidential party, in power since 2005. Human-rights activists are increasingly targeted by the state—like Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, leader of the Burundian Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH), still held in Bujumbura. So, one year before the elections, the conditions seem conducive for the outcome to be a foregone conclusion for the party in power. Faced with this alarming observation, it becomes legitimate to wonder about the state of health of democracy in Burundi, born of the Arusha accords[4] and consecrated by the putting in place of the consociational model of ethnic power-sharing.

Donors at the deathbed of democracy

In 2010, Stef Vandeginste, a specialist on the consociationalist model, said: “Unfortunately, it must be noted that at the national political level, another tradition is firmly estalished: to resolve conflicts touching on political power by arms and by massive violations of human rights.”[5] This observation has never been more true than today: while the party in power pulls the strings of the political game, Burundian democracy seems only a pale shadow of what it was after the 2005 elections.

The next electoral process has started—as the adoption of a new electoral code and a code of conduct, as well as the undisguised desire of the president to stand for a third term, would indicate. Burundi is the first country in the Great Lakes region to begin its electoral race, before the Republic of the Congo (2016), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2016) and Rwanda (2017). And the international community is at the rendezvous: the donors will give their support to the Burundian electoral process and should normally finance up to 80 percent of the cost of the coming elections.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), through its PACE 2015 (Project to Support the Electoral Cycle) programme dedicated to Burundi, aims to reinforce the organisational, technical, financial and operational capacities of the main actors in the electoral process. Particular attention is paid to the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) but also to political parties and organisations of civil society, with the aim of promoting a national dialogue. The European Union supports the UNDP in this undertaking, as do the traditional bilateral donors to Burundi, with Belgium in the lead. Although the EU finances more holistic programmes,[6] through its programme of support to the Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC) in regard to peace and security (PAPS II) it intervenes fully in the electoral cycle. Via work on training, prevention of electoral violence and co-operation among stakeholders involved in the organisation of the elections, the EU engages in the same dynamic as the UNDP.

While these programmes certainly have a positive effect on the country, they remain distant from the specific context in which they are inserted. The external actors too often commit the mistake of seeing democracy as a single and unique reality, to which they alone hold the key. A poor political-cum-security analysis of a country can lead to implementing biased and potentially disruptive programmes.[7]

A hybrid regime

Preoccupied by the implementation of these programmes, donors seem much less concerned about the impacts such support could have a posteriori on the country. Yet, given the political climate prevailing in Bujumbura, it is important to address the possible effects on the Burundian political scene. For example, how can one institute an open dialogue between the ruling party and opposition parties, when the latter are oppressed and their activists imprisoned? If President Nkurunziza stands again, thereby openly bypassing article of the constitution which constrains the renewal of his mandate,[8] the international community will finance what will be controversial elections, which probably will endanger national cohesion.

The programmes to support the electoral process today carry limitations that become difficult to ignore. Often remote from the specific security and political context, they are based first and foremost on the search for results. They can push states to stick to a predetermined model of democracy, thus giving birth to facade democracies. Elections may indeed serve to legitimise regimes which are far from respecting, even imperfectly, the basic rules of democracy. Isn't this the case with Burundi? Can we still speak of freedom of expression, human rights and political pluralism there? The implementation of such programmes in a context of political disarray may thus give rise to “electoral authoritarianisms”, hybrid regimes combining authoritarian and democratic elements.[9] If for the moment nothing is certain about the future of the Burundian electoral cycle, it is certain that if the international community finances the elections while the constitution is deliberately bypassed and the democracy weakened, the legitimacy of its action and these programmes will again be put in question.

Instead of recycling programmes which have already shown their limitations in the past, donors should consider a more pluralistic approach. For Oliver Richmond, director of the Centre for Peace and the Study of Conflicts, based in Britain, it is necessary to rethink programmes conceived as neutral and acultural.[10] Consequently, developing programmes in direct partnership with political parties and Burundian civil-society organisations is clearly the sine qua non of their proper functioning. Indeed, the local dynamics, be they societal, religious, ethnic, political or conflictual, must be understood by donors and integrated into the development of programmes.[11] In Burundi, donors should give as much importance to  local as to national elections—links to family and vicinity are more respected than those to the national level, considered too distant and abstract. In the short term, political participation would thus be enhanced if the focus was on the local; in the medium term this could enlarge a Burundian "political consciousness".

Donors should also ask the question of the impact of their programmes on the political scene. Indeed, it is possible that the programmes they propose may unintentionally contribute to a change in the nature of regimes or in the political goals of the elites. The chronic insecurity in Burundi thus highlights the shortcomings of the programmes of democratisation and of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) advocated by the international community and their impact on the stability of the country.The attempt to implement a DDR programme after the signing of the Arusha accords had mixed results. Its failure, exemplified by the absence of effective measures of lasting reintegration after disarmament of former combatants in professional and civil life, explains in large part the reassumption of arms from 2011 and the current political instability. To counter this dynamic of escalation of violence, real vocational reintegration must accompany DDR programmes— labour-intensive construction projects must be proposed and rethought.


Burundi is plunging back irretrievably into a political crisis. The efforts made during the brief years of peace seem to be falling foul of the weight of the past. Ethnic cleavages are reappearing, creating fear of a return to violence. Poverty is more acute than ever and democracy seems to bend to the CNDD-FDD’s will for power. To prevent the resurgence of violence in Burundi, donors should stop just thinking in terms of short-term results, rethink their approach within a long-term strategy and reconsider the relevance of some of their programmes.

[1] This term is borrowed from the Frodebu-Nyakuri, the first major political party shaken by an internal crisis inner following the arrival of the CNDD-FDD in power in 2005. It refers to the manipulation of politicians by the party in power to cause a division within a part of the opposition.

[2] "The Burundian government responds to the warning from the United Nations", RFI, 4 June 2014

[3] "Burundi: National Assembly rejects the draft constitutional revision of Nkurunziza", Jeune Afrique, 21 March 2014

[4] The signing of the Arusha accords marked the beginning of the democratic transition in Burundi. If the years following the signing of the agreement remain marked by sporadic armed conflicts, their intensity and the number of victims declines.

[5] Stef Vandeginste, "Consociational theory and the sharing of power in Burundi", Institute of Policy and Management, University of Antwerp, February 2006, Antwerp, p8

[6] The support of the international community manifests itself notably through the Strategic Framework for Growth and the Struggle Against Poverty II (PRSP II) and the National Strategy for Good Governance and the Struggle against Corruption (SNBGLC). These programmes intervene in the areas of support for good governance, decentralisation, the struggle against corruption and transitional justice, as well as the process of SSR (security sector reform) and DDR (demobilisation, disarmament, reintegration). In other words, these programmes aim to maintain peace and democracy in Burundi.

[7] Center for Security Studies “Post-conflict democratisation: the pitfalls of external influence", Security Policy: CSS analysis 79, Zürich, September 2010

[8] Pierre Nkurunziza was elected first indirectly by the parliament (2005) and a second time by direct suffrage (2010). He can stand again if he declares that he was directly elected only once out of the two mandates (article 96) or through amending the constitution, using the provision that a revision which does not harm national cohesion can be legal (article 299).

[9] Patrick Quantin, “Democracy in Africa looking for a model", Democracy in AfricaPouvoirs 129, 2009/2, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, p74

[10] Oliver P. Richmond, "Liberal peace transitions: a rethink is urgent", openDemocracy, 19 November 2009: "Indeed, what has become known as 'statebuilding' around the conflict-affected parts of the world today is nothing more than a large experiment drawing on several hundred years of western political and economic experience, interests, and culture, affecting millions of people's lives often carelessly and in a way that makes little sense to them."

[11] To maximise the positive effects of these programmes, democracy must be addressed as an experience more than a political regime. A profound study is therefore necessary of the context, the local or regional dynamics and the balance of forces to put in place adapted programmes of support to the electoral process or of good governance.

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