How Burundi's crisis began, and why it matters

Nairobi (AFP) - Small destitute Burundi, a central African nation marked by a troubled ethnic history and a deadly civil war, has been mired for eight months in a deepening political crisis that the African Union fears could trigger a genocide.

HOW DID BURUNDI'S CRISIS BEGIN?

The crisis began on April 25 when President Pierre Nkurunziza, who had been in office since 2005, said he planned to run for a third term. The plan was dubbed anti-constitutional by civil society, the opposition, the Catholic church and even some of his own supporters.

His announcement triggered protests on an almost daily basis, which were then banned by the authorities. In mid-June, the regime stifled the dissent with a bloody crackdown that left an estimated 80 people dead.

In May, the authorities foiled a military coup but some of the putschists got away, fleeing abroad and calling on people "to save and free the country".

Despite the protests, Nkurunziza was re-elected in July in polls boycotted by the opposition.

The political crisis has worsened ever since, with daily clashes under cover of darkness between security forces and dissidents in opposition areas in the capital, Bujumbura, where weapons proliferate. On December 11, assailants attacked three military barracks in Bujumbura and elsewhere. A total of 87 died in the clashes and ensuing crackdown in opposition strongholds.

At least 400 people have been killed since April, the UN says.

WHAT IS AT STAKE FOR BURUNDI?

Nkurunziza's opponents argue that he violated the country's constitution as well as the Arusha accords that ended Burundi's civil war, less than a decade ago in 2006.

During the 1993-2006 civil war, which left an estimated 300,000 people dead, Nkurunziza headed the Hutu rebel army fighting the Tutsi-dominated army. Hutus make up around 85 percent of Burundi's 11 million people, with Tutsis accounting for around 15 percent.

Undermining the Arusha deal, however, imperils the delicate and carefully-designed ethnic balance it set for Burundi's institutions and which have brought the country 10 years of peace after decades of Hutu-Tutsi massacres.

Observers say that over and above any criticism of Nkurunziza for authoritarianism, repression, or for failing to tackle poverty and corruption, what is at stake is the continuing existence of the Arusha accords, which have become the cornerstone of the country's democracy.

IS THERE A RISK OF GENOCIDE?

The international community, which remains traumatised by its inability to prevent the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda -- which the UN says left 800,000 mostly Tutsis dead -- has issued several calls to avert genocide in Burundi, including pleas from the United Nations and African Union.

But while Tutsis are the most vocal critics of Nkurunziza's third-term power grab, the current crisis is above all political in origin, with the anti-Nkurunziza front cutting across ethnic lines.

The main opposition front groups Hutu and Tutsi parties, influential members of the ruling CNDD-FDD party who were opposed to a third term have fled the country and the leader of May's failed coup was General Godefroid Nyombare, a former rebel army companion of Nkurunziza's and his former chief-of-staff.

But in the last weeks, public discourse has increasingly taken on an ethnic undertone. Early this month the UN's advisor against genocide, Adama Dieng, accused both the government and the opposition of manipulating Hutu-Tutsi tensions, saying that the hate speech and rhetoric being used resembled that heard ahead of the Rwanda genocide in 1994.

Fearing an ethnic crisis, the African Union has announced plans to send peacekeeping troops into Burundi.

IS THE REGION AT RISK OF DESTABILISATION?

The Great Lakes region has been one of the most unstable in Africa in the last decades, with two regional wars (1996-1997 and 1998-2003) involving up to seven African nations fighting on Congolese soil, and leaving over a million people dead.

The tension in Burundi has raised fears of further deadly instability, and more than 200,000 people have already fled the country.

The crisis already has hurt ties with Rwanda, which is being increasingly openly accused by Bujumbura of whipping up the tension.

Burundi also borders Democratic Republic of Congo, where dozens of armed militias are at work.