It’s now nine days since protests began in Bujumbura, Burundi after it was confirmed that the country’s ruling party has chosen the current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, to vie for a third term in the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for the 26th of June, 2015. Opposing parties argue that it is unconstitutional as the constitution only allows for two terms in office, a maximum of 10 years, which for the current president ends in August of this year. President Nkurunziza argues that he is eligible because his first term was not won through the vote of the people but rather that of legislators.
Since Sunday, the 26th of April, young people who oppose the president vying for a third term have taken to the streets in different neighborhoods in the city to protest calling for the president to reverse his decision. What were supposed to be peaceful demonstrations degenerated into clashes between the police and protesters when the police responded with tear gas. Protesters threw stones at the police and barricaded streets and avenues with burning tires and wood.
The police attempted to put out the fires using fire trucks and water cannons and dispersed the masses of protesters with tear gas and in some cases, live bullets and grenades. As things escalated last weekend, the military was called in on the second day to prevent bloodshed and stop the police from killing protesters.
As the crisis unfolds, it’s evident that the police are preventing people from exercising their right to protest. In the weeks leading up to the protests, the police blocked the opposition party’s efforts to rally. Opposition supporters have been arrested while the police guarantee the protection of and allow the leading party’s followers to gather and march and show their support for the president.
The police also seem to be working together with the ruling party’s militant youths, known as the Imbonerakure, who have threatened to kill those who protest. There are reports of some of them dressing in similar attire as the police to harass people. The Imbonerakure are also suspected of attacking individuals in neighborhoods in the evening following the days’ protests.
Privately owned radio stations have been shut down, so as not to cover live events, by police and government officials who have used warrants as justification for their actions. Freedom of expression has been restricted resulting in fears that the ruling party can conduct violent acts uninhibited.
There are also fears that those who seek to incite violence could ignite conflict between the two main ethnicities, the Hutu and Tutsi. Especially given the fact that a majority of the neighborhoods where protests are occurring are mostly Tutsi occupied territories and the CNDD-FDD, the ruling party, is mostly a Hutu party. Many fear this could lead to a return to civil war a decade after the end of a twelve-year civil war erupted following conflict between the two ethnicities. Amidst these fears, opposing leaders have been quick to reject such claims stating that it is simply a protest against what they consider to be unconstitutional.
Communication has also become difficult due to the scarcity of airtime and censorship of social media platforms by the government. People rely on information gathered via the internet, the news, and social media to stay informed.
On Friday last week, President Nkurunziza labelled the protests an “insurrection” and warned that protesters would face “severe sanctions”. The question of whether or not the president’s bid for a third term was legitimate was brought up to the constitutional court last week, but with reports coming out on Monday evening that the vice-president of the constitutional court has fled the country because of the pressure, it leaves some to wonder what will happen next.
The clashes have seen some casualties - at least nine according to civil rights groups - and scores have been imprisoned thus far as tensions continue to rise. This past weekend, protest organisers called for a two-day truce to bury the dead and rest up.
Protests continued on Monday and resulted in the worst day of violence so far as at least three people lost their lives amid clashes with the police who used live rounds and grenades. The number of protesters also grew from the previous week as a reported 1000 people took to the streets. Other neighboring towns and rural areas have begun protesting as well.
Photos are of European Commission DG ECHO via Flickr CC