Tomorrow (14 May), the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, Said Djinnit, will brief the Security Council in consultations from Dar es Salaam via video teleconference on the latest developments in Burundi at the request of France. Council members will be interested in trying to learn more about the current state of affairs in Burundi, whether the coup attempt has succeeded and, if not, what level of control the government maintains over the country.
Violent protests erupted after the ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Defence Forces of Democracy (Cndd-FDD), on 25 April nominated incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza as its candidate to run in the presidential election scheduled for 26 June. Nkurunziza is currently finishing his second term as president, and his opponents maintain that his candidacy for a third term would be a violation of Burundi’s 2005 constitution, which states that the president should be elected by “universal suffrage” for a maximum of two five-year terms. They contend that the Arusha Accord—the peace agreement that is the basis of the constitution—provides no exception to the two-term limit. However, his supporters argue that he was not elected by a popular vote for his first term in 2005, but through a vote of the parliament; therefore, they maintain that he is eligible for another term. This question of eligibility for a third term has been a polarising one within a faction of the Cndd-FDD itself. The Constitutional Court upheld Nkurunziza’s position on 5 May, but the court has been criticised as partial and its vice-president refused to sign the judgment and fled the country.
The protests and the government’s response have resulted in at least 20 people dead and more than 50,000 Burundians fleeing to neighbouring countries—mainly Rwanda—in fear for their lives. Reprisals against the protestors by the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of Burundi’s ruling party, which the government has been accused of arming, have been reported. The situation has urged some to call for the postponement of the elections, including the chairperson of the AU Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Nkurunziza left the country to meet with the leaders of the East African Community (EAC)—made up of Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda as well as Burundi—today (13 May), to discuss the situation in Burundi. In his absence, Burundi’s former head of intelligence Major-General Godefroid Niyombare, sacked in February for his opposition to Nkurunziza’s third term, announced on a private Bujumbura radio station that Nkurunziza had been removed from power. Niyombare ordered the airport and the border closed, and called “on political leaders to come together and rethink how the country can be governed and how elections can be organised soon”. According to media reports, protesters on the street celebrated the announcement, yet it was unclear if the coup attempt had been successful, as the presidential palace and the state-owned radio station seem to be safely secured by soldiers loyal to the president.
Nkurunziza’s whereabouts at press time are not clear, though reports suggest that he is making his way back to Burundi from Dar es Salaam. A statement from the president claims that the coup has been foiled and that its perpetrators will be brought to justice. In the meantime, the AU and EAC have condemned the coup and called for the restoration of the constitutional order.
Council members have been following the situation in Burundi closely in the lead up to the communal and legislative elections scheduled for 26 May and the presidential elections scheduled for 26 June. On 16 April, Council members were briefed in consultations by Tayé-Brook Zerihoun, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, on recent developments in Burundi, at the request of the US. In a press statement issued the following day (SC/11864), Council members stressed the need for the government and the political opposition to refrain from any acts of violence and intimidation before, during, and after elections, and to actively support the conditions for a peaceful, timely, credible and inclusive elections process. They stated their intention to follow the situation closely and “to respond to any actions in Burundi that threaten the peace, security or stability of Burundi by actively facilitating violence, including by reportedly distributing weapons to youth groups”.
On 29 April, Djinnit briefed Council members in consultations via video teleconference from Bujumbura. After the meeting, Deputy Permanent Representative Mahmoud Hmoud (Jordan) read out elements to the press in which Council members expressed their deep concern over the situation, and called on all parties to refrain from violence and for the need to respect the right of assembly. After reading the elements, in response to a question from the press, Hmoud said that there is no consensus in the Council over the issue of a third term. During the consultations, some Council members took the view that the government should abide by the pending constitutional court decision, while other members questioned the court’s impartiality.
Following the meeting, France circulated a draft press statement expressing concern over the ongoing unrest since the announcement of Nkurunziza’s candidacy. It condemned the use of lethal weapons in response to the protests, emphasised that the government’s response must respect human rights and be proportionate, and called for accountability for human rights violations. However, at least two Council members were not amenable to such language and took the view that the constitutional order—as exercised and affirmed by the Burundian institutions—must be upheld and respected by the demonstrators, who must cease violent activity. No consensus on the press statement was reached.
A week later, on 8 May, Djinnit again briefed the Council via video teleconference from Bjumbura. He told Council members that he had been engaging in mediation efforts with the government, opposition parties, civil society and others. The various interlocutors agreed to discuss five issues: calming of the situation; the electoral calendar; the holding of peaceful and inclusive elections; constitutional rights and freedoms; and respect for the Arusha peace accords and the constitution, including the third term issue. However, Djinnit reported that the deep division over the last issue did not allow for progress to be made on any of the issues.
During the 8 May meeting, Council members were unable to agree to the contents of potential elements to the press, in particular regarding the issue of arming the Imbonerakure by the ruling party. One African country took the view that condemning the government for arming the Imbonerakure would further escalate tensions and was overly focused on the government. The US, however, disagreed.
A compromise was eventually reached, and after the meeting, Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite (Lithuania) delivered elements to the press. She said that Council members remained concerned over the influx of refugees into neighbouring states and called for all sides to refrain from violence and for freedom of assembly to be upheld. She added that Council members will continue to be actively seized of the situation, including the facilitation of violence by the distribution of weapons.
Ambassador Samantha Power (US) also addressed the press, saying that the violence is the foreseeable result of Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term, in abrogation of the Arusha peace accord, and condemning his government’s relentless crackdown against the people’s rights to peacefully protest and freely express their views. Power rejected the constitutional court’s decision as partial. She added that it is clear that there are weapons in the hands of people who are not affiliated with the official security establishment, i.e., the Imbonerakure. On future action, she said that the US believes that the Council should impose targeted measures against those who plan or participate in widespread violence.
Several other Council members question the use of such measures at this point. Some members, such as Russia, oppose taking such action over what they currently view as an internal constitutional matter, in which they believe that protestors must respect the constitutional court’s decision and the internal democratic process.
One concern of Council members is the potential escalation of violence, now involving the army (which may have split loyalties), the police, and the armed Imbonerakure members. It seems that at this point—beyond condemning violence, calling for free and inclusive elections and supporting Djinnit—there is no consensus in the Council on possible further action.
Looking ahead, the Peacebuilding Commission’s Burundi Configuration will hold an urgent meeting on Friday (15 May) where members will be briefed by Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman. (The configuration also met to discuss the situation with Djinnit and Burundi Minister of Interior Edouard Nduwimana on 11 May.)