Burundi crisis threatens to awaken dormant ethnic tensions

Aymeric Vincenot, Esdras Ndikumana
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Army soldiers stand on the main road in the Cibitoke neighbourhood as protestors try to prevent authorities from removing barricades in the streets of Bujumbura, on May 9, 2015

Army soldiers stand on the main road in the Cibitoke neighbourhood as protestors try to prevent authorities from removing barricades in the streets of Bujumbura, on May 9, 2015 (AFP Photo/Phil Moore)

Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - Fears are growing that political protests in Burundi could turn ethnic, threatening to plunge the country into another deadly Hutu-Tutsi conflagration.

Ethnicity is rarely discussed openly in Burundi, whose history is punctuated by ethnic massacres and where long-standing antagonisms between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi have been suppressed rather than addressed, analysts say.

Beyond the street protests challenging the third term candidacy of President Pierre Nkurunziza, the bigger worry is that the current crisis could jeopardise the Arusha Agreement, which brought peace to Burundi after years of civil war.

The deal included an ethnic power-sharing formula that helped end fighting that raged from 1993 to 2006 between the mostly Tutsi army and predominately Hutu rebel groups.

The Arusha Agreement "was an institutional arrangement that created a power sharing agreement between the elites of the two ethnic groups," said Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group think tank.

"The challenge of the current crisis is to decide whether or not to maintain this institutional agreement," he said.

By sidestepping the two term limit mandated by the peace deal Nkurunziza and his allies risk undermining the foundation of Burundi's tentative peace. The move also confirms the suspicions of opponents, who believe Nkurunziza's ambition is to revise the constitution to erase Arusha's legacy of ethnic power-sharing.

Both the peace deal and the constitution "perpetuate ethnic quotas" in government institutions in order to "defuse" the ethnic question, said Christian Thibon, a Burundi specialist at the University of Pau and Pays de l'Adour.

Both are based "on a compromise, on the spirit of Arusha," that hardliners in Nkurunziza's CNDD-FDD - a Hutu rebel group turned ruling party - are now questioning.

Burundi is still haunted by memories of the civil war, which began when Tutsi officers launched a coup against Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu and the country's first democratically elected president.

- Not just Hutu vs. Tutsi -

The current crisis is, for now, political rather than ethnic. Nkurunziza's challengers, on the streets, in civil society and in political circles, come from across society and are made up both of Hutus and Tutsis.

Nevertheless, Vircoulon said, "the current crisis, and the propaganda that preceded it, strongly reflects these antagonisms" of Hutu versus Tutsi.

Last year, a coalition between CNDD-FDD and UPRONA, the main Tutsi party, fell apart following a failed attempt to rewrite the constitution.

Using allusions and turns of speech understood by all Burundians but obscure to outsiders, propaganda from the presidential camp has talked of Tutsi domination and accused the other main Hutu party, the FNL, of planning a "pact with the enemy" when it attempted to reconcile with UPRONA.

Those close to the president emphasise the heavy Tutsi presence within civil society and the independent media, both of which are often very critical of the CNDD-FDD, and they note that the protest hotspots in Bujumbura in recent weeks are predominately Tutsi districts.

Father Adrien Ntabona, an ethnologist at the University of Burundi, is concerned that a "phenomenon of ethnicisation" may re-emerge if the crisis continues.

"The attempts at ethnicisation that we are seeing now could take hold because certain conditioned reflexes [inherited from the civil war] are still there," he said.

"As the crisis escalates, fears will grow and ethnic resentment will reappear," said Thibon, who predicted Nkurunziza would benefit most from such a change.

Distrust stemming from the civil war still remains between the leaders of the opposition parties

"The ethnic issue continues to be the background of Burundian politicians because the past of the civil war was not dealt with in the public sphere and responsibilities were not established so that everyone could know who did what in Burundi," said Vircoulon.

Meanwhile, in the countryside, far from the corridors of power, a controversial land reform programme has exacerbated tensions between Hutus and Tutsis in the small, poor, mostly rural country, which is among the most densely populated on earth.

The land reform policy "is seen as a war, with victor and vanquished, a rematch," said Thibon.

The worst case scenario, analysts say, would be the splitting of the army along ethnic lines, casting Burundi back to the days of the civil war.