You may have heard Burundi is embroiled in political chaos, but chances are you don’t know much else. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. We caught up with interruptor Yolande Bouka to break it down for us.

Yolande is a researcher for the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) in the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division and a lecturer for American University’s study abroad program in Nairobi, Kenya. She completed a doctoral degree in International Relations from American University. As an Africanist, Yolande balances her political analysis work at ISS with various academic projects on micro dynamics of violence, state society relations, and gender and security. Her work includes a book chapter on the challenges of conducting field research in post-genocide Rwanda and policy report on Burundi’s political crisis. 

She frequently provides security analysis on the Great Lakes Region and East Africa to international organizations and diplomats. In 2010, Yolande was awarded a Dissertation Fellowship from the American Association of University Women. In January 2016, she will take up a Fulbright Scholar Grant in Namibia to investigate the role of female combatants in the Namibian liberation struggle.

Fun-fact: Yolande loves hiking and will take on Mount Kenya at the end of this month.


FPI: What the heck is going on in Burundi?

On April 25, following months of speculations about who would be the ruling party’s presidential candidate, President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would run for a third mandate. The next day, protestors took to the streets to oppose his candidacy. Protests that were initially peaceful quickly turned violent as the police were sent to suppress dissent.

At the heart of the problem is a difference of interpretation of the constitution. Article 96 of the constitution states that a president is elected by universal suffrage with the first mandate renewable one, thereby limiting the presidency to two mandates.

Because Burundi’s constitution came about after years of civil war, the drafters saw it fit to include it Article 302, which explains that the first post-transition president should be elected by indirect vote in parliament. Negotiators and drafters believed that after over a decade of civil war, Burundi was too fragile to have a universal suffrage for the presidential elections. Hence article 302, most argue, placed an exception on the mode of elections for the first post-transition president. President Nkurunziza was that president. He was then reelected in 2010 in controversial elections. He now argues that Article 302 exclude his first mandate from the terms limits of Article 96, thereby making him eligible for a third mandate.

His opponents and most of the international community believe he is wrong and that the constitution should be read with the framework of the Arusha Accord, a hard-fought peace agreement that has secured years of peace and political powersharing. The accord which is referred to in the preamble of the constitution clearly states that no president can hold the office more than twice.

That is the reason why protestors decided to mobilize for over two weeks. During those two weeks about 20 people died, hundreds were arrested and tens of thousands fled to neighboring Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On May 13, while the president was heading to Dar es Salaam to meet with other heads of States of the East African Community, a small group of high-ranking officers opposed to Nkurunziza’s third mandate candidacy attempted to take over the country in  a military coup. While protestors celebrated in the streets of Bujumbura, it appears that the coup was poorly organized. Moreover, loyalists to President Nkunrunziza met it with fierce resistance. Within 48 hours, the coup attempt had officially failed and most of the plotters were arrested.

As we speak there is no independent media, civil right activists are in hiding, and the head of one of the most important private radio station has fled to the country for fear of reprisals. Protests are still ongoing and organizers have vowed to stay in the streets until President Nkurunziza withdraws his candidacy.

FPI: What can and needs to be done?

The current crisis can only be solved through dialogue and negotiation. The international community, and particularly regional actors such as the African Union and the East African Community must leverage their influence to push the ruling party and the opposition to reach a consensual way forward.

Additionally, the government must open the political space to allow for peaceful, free, and fair elections. This will also require the government to postpone the elections set to start at the end of this month.

FPI: Many have never even heard of Burundi before. Why should people care?

In the past few weeks, over 105, 000 have fled Burundi and are now refugees in neighboring countries. That number is likely to swell in the days and weeks to come should the situation fail to normalize. While many international organizations had contingency plans to welcome refugees, the large number of these refugees and the rate at which they leave Burundi may overwhelm the capability of those organizations. Refugees at times overwhelm local communities as the increase demand for goods may dramatically increase local costs of living.

Additionally, as refugees cross over, it may become difficult to make sure that armed elements do not take advantage of the situation to travel undetected among the refugees. In a country like the DRC, particularly in the eastern part of the country, large influxes of refuges can further destabilize a highly volatile region that has already experienced decades of violence. Further escalation and entrenchment of this crisis could lead to a humanitarian disaster.

FPI: There’s a problematic tendency to treat Africa as a country, as a monolith, though for the sake of better understanding what’s happening in Burundi, can you draw any helpful regional comparisons?

Many people compare the events of Burundi to what recently happened in Burkina Faso, where crowds took to the streets in various cities after the house of representatives attempted to change the constitution to allow President Blaise Compaoré to run an additional mandate. The army eventually forced Compaoré to step down and he fled the country. This and the events in Burundi have led some observers to label the recent developments the African Spring.

However, while there is a growing trend of popular protests in Africa, they offer varying degrees of success. Before Burkina Faso, people in Senegal protested President Wade’s decision to run for an additional mandate despite a constitutional issue. While the protests failed to yield the desired results and Wade still ran for office, he was defeated in the presidential elections.

Burkina’s civil society and opposition is vibrant and can easily mobilize people from across the country. In Burundi, while there was relative freedom, the opposition and civil society are mostly present in the capital, creating an important political divide between rural and urban communities in Burundi. Hence while the protests in Burundi have lasted much longer than in Burkina, they have failed to reach the popular nature of the Burkina process. As a result, Nkurunziza is still there and does not seem ready to drop his candidacy.

FPI: How does the international community and the western press corps get Burundi, and other sub-Saharan countries, wrong?

Too often political conflicts in Africa are described as ethnically rooted. While it is true that Burundi has had its share of ethnic violence, mostly rooted in inequalities in access to economic and political opportunities, the current crisis in Burundi is mostly political.

FPI: Any reading recommendations for people hoping to learn more?

Sarah Watkins just published the #BurundiSyllabus in the Africa Collective. It provides a list of relevant literature and of people to follow to learn about the current crisis.

FPI: Any advice for upcoming and fellow interrupters?

Make connections. We are seldom the only ones analyzing or conducting research on our areas of expertise. Reaching out to and exchanging with others experts broaden the depth and breath of knowledge and the quality of our analysis.