Volatile Burundi Seeks A New Politics
“There are politics and politics, different kinds of politics.” So goes the chorus to one of the Burundian protesters’ favourite songs.
They say it was invented on the first day of demonstrations against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in office, and quickly spread to various parts of the capital.
“There is a kind of politics that involves killing, and dividing the people: the kind of politics we don’t want anymore. And then there is another kind of politics, the good kind,” one protester explained.
Burundians know a good deal about the politics of dividing and killing.
The country only emerged 10 years ago from an ethnic conflict in which 300,000 people were killed.
The war pitted the majority Hutus against minority Tutsis, with each side appealing to ethnic identity to rally its followers.
The protesters’ song is their paean to a different form of struggle: a struggle for principles, not for power.
“There are Hutus and Tutsis in the movement,” goes one of the song’s verses. “This is not about political parties,” goes another.
The protesters say they want to defend their constitution and the Arusha peace agreement, which ended the country’s conflict.
They say both texts bar the president from running again.
The song means: we can fight for democracy, without descending into war.
But can they, really?
After two weeks of mostly peaceful demonstrations, a military putsch initially celebrated by many protesters quickly led to clashes between rival factions of the army, in which at least nine soldiers died.
Some were killed in a reprisal attack at a hospital.
At least 20 people have died and more than 400 have been arrested during the demonstrations.
More than 100,000 people have fled Burundi since mid-April, fearing that the unrest caused by the president’s bid for office could turn into a civil conflict.
There has been violence from all sides: policemen, soldiers and, perhaps more worryingly, armed civilians both for and against the president’s bid for office.
There are persistent and specific reports suggesting some members of the Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth wing, are armed and have carried out attacks in neighbourhoods where there were protests.
Several protesters have been seen with hand grenades.
The situation is volatile at best and the government has remained uncompromising.
Political leaders have once again found use in stoking ethnic tensions.
Several members of the ruling party have been repeating to whoever will listen that those protesting are “mainly of Tutsi ethnicity”, adding they are “people who want to bring us back to the dark days of war”.
The party’s vice-president accused the popular private radio RPA, ordered to shut by the government, of broadcasting messages of hate, like the infamous Radio Mille Collines during the Rwandan genocide.
There is fear on both sides and rumours are spreading fast.
“They are reshuffling the army, arresting ethnic Tutsi officers,” one protester said, “we are worried about mass killings.”
Some supporters of the president believe an “extermination plan” is being drawn up in neighbouring Kigali, where a Tutsi is president, targeting Burundi’s Hutus.
So far, protesters are still holding the line against the intrusion of ethnic hatred, but the line is fraying.
Clamour for democracy
It’s not only in Burundi that a sitting president is accused of bending the rules to stay in office.
Young people across the continent have been raising their voices to ask for rulers to renounce the idea of a lifetime in power.
They say that time is over.
Burundi today is seen as something of a test for Sub-Saharan Africa’s democratic credentials.
As hundreds are still chanting on the streets of the country’s capital, raising their arms in surrender when the security forces approach, the struggle isn’t over.
But in a country so marked by its violent past, achieving a different kind of politics is easier said than done.
How coup attempt unfolded
25 April: President Pierre Nkurunziza is nominated for a third term in office, a move his opponents say is unconstitutional
26 April: Protesters take to the streets of the capital Bujumbura, clashing with police over the decision, and more demonstrations follow in the coming days
6 May: President Nkurunziza praises the constitutional court’s approval of his candidacy, and says his third term will be his last
9 May: Seven other hopefuls file their candidacies
13 May: With President Nkurunziza in neighbouring Tanzania discussing the crisis, General Godefroid Niyombare announces the dismissal of the president and his entire cabinet; thousands celebrate – but the coup attempt fails