Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza

Burundi’s downward spiral

  • Burundi is divided over President Nkurunziza’s grip on power
  • The conflict has become violent, and has hit the economy hard
  • The opposition is fragmented, and the president holds some powerful cards
  • The crisis will probably get worse, though ethnic violence is unlikely

Burundi has been mired in political crisis ever since 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would run for a third term. The conflict between those who support the regime and those who oppose it has led to economic decay, disruption of peoples’ daily lives, internal displacements and an increase in refugee flows to neighboring countries. At the regional level, the crisis has revealed that despite its economic potential, the East African Community lacks the cohesion, power and will to act as a crisis mediator. At a global level, Burundi is the latest example of how the imposition of a Western-inspired democratic model can often do more harm than good.

Burundi is a small, landlocked, densely populated country, where a Hutu majority and a Tutsi minority coexist. It is also poor and dependent on aid. It ranks 184th out of 188 countries in the United Nations’ 2016 Human Development Index.

An estimated 64.9 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, while less than 5 percent have access to electricity. Aid accounts for almost half of the state budget, according to the World Bank. Burundi is also among the most corrupt states in the world.

Perverse effects

In his defense, President Nkurunziza, who has been in power since 2005, can claim that he has always formally followed the country’s democratic rules. Though based on a controversial interpretation of the constitution, Mr. Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in office was validated by the Constitutional Court of Burundi.

However, his ambitions were met with violent street protests staged by opposition parties and civil society groups. In May 2015, while President Nkurunziza was in Tanzania, a group of political opponents and senior military leaders staged a coup that eventually failed. Key opposition figures were forced into exile, the army leadership was restructured and repression dramatically increased. But President Nkurunziza was “democratically” elected in July 2015: he faced little competition, as the opposition was either in exile or had boycotted the elections.

The regime now labels the opposition ‘rebels’ and ‘enemies of the state’

Highlighting the perverse effects of this democratic formalism, the regime now labels the opposition – both within the country and in exile – “rebels” and “enemies of the state.” President Nkurunziza refuses to hold a dialogue with the opposition coalition and insists that Burundi is at peace.

Following the legalist route, he created the National Commission for Inter-Burundian Dialogue, charged with proposing a draft amendment to the constitution. It concluded that most Burundians favored the removal of term limits. Whether or not this conclusion is justified, it has become clear that President Nkurunziza is preparing to run for a fourth term in 2020.

Political fragmentation

Burundi now suffers from violence against civilians, a rampant economic crisis and divisions within the opposition and the regime – including the ruling CNDD-FDD party and the military (the hardline faction, which supports President Nkurunziza, has the upper hand). Within this context, a negotiated solution to the crisis is unlikely.

Burundi conflict is not primarily ethnic. The opposition is composed of both Hutus and Tutsis, and one of the main accusations against President Nkurunziza is that he is violating the spirit of the Arusha Accords, which have been crucial in neutralizing ethnic tensions between the two groups. The main fight is between those who support the president and those who oppose him. Within opposition groups, there are those who want negotiations and those who favor an armed solution.

A boy watches a protest against Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza in Bujumbura
Bujumbura, May 29, 2015: A boy looks on during a demonstration against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term (source: dpa)

Although all of Burundi’s opposition groups share the goal of removing President Nkurunziza, they make up a patchwork of diverse political personalities, parties, civil society organizations and rebel movements with different, and not always reconciled, strategies. The opposition politicians in exile, the Council for the Observance of the Constitution, Human Rights and the Arusha Peace Accord, call for regional and international intervention through mediation and the imposition of economic sanctions against the regime. Social movements like Halte au troisieme mandat (“Stop the third term”) played an important role in the 2015 street protests. Opposition parties include the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, the historically Hutu Front for Democracy in Burundi and the predominantly Tutsi Union for National Progress. The last two groups both have factions which are loyal to President Nkurunziza.

Armed movements are taking on an increasingly decisive role in the crisis. This is both a reflection of the country’s history, where hard power has often prevailed, and a consequence of the regime’s suppression of political competition.

Security crisis

The political crisis in Burundi has led to a low-intensity conflict between the regime’s security forces and several armed groups. Among these groups are the Resistance for the Rule of Law in Burundi, allegedly the oppositions’ armed wing; the Burundi Popular Forces, which were initially led by General Godefroid Niyombare, responsible for the coup against President Nkurunziza in 2015; the Union of Patriots for the Revolution; the Movement for Popular Resistance, and the Burundi Democracy Liberation Force. These groups are all led by former officers of the Burundian army, the police or the Rapid Mobile Intervention Group (a special police unit).

Armed movements are taking on an increasingly decisive role in the crisis

Divisions within the army have contributed to the increasing importance of the Burundian Police and the National Intelligence Services, as well as the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party. It displays disturbing similarities to Rwanda’s Interahamwe, the youth militia that played a central role in the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda. The Imbonerakure, allegedly linked to Hutu extremists, was crucial in containing popular protests against the regime.

The crisis in Burundi cannot be understood without considering the country’s involvement in African peacekeeping missions. Since 2007, Burundian soldiers have participated in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Currently, more than 5,000 Burundian troops are serving there. There are also 767 Burundian troops taking part in UN peacekeeping missions, most in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). Participation in peacekeeping missions has greatly contributed to the professionalization and training of the Burundian armed forces. Also, while the European Union has imposed pay cuts on AMISOM soldiers (reducing soldiers’ monthly wages from $1,032 to $822), the salary is still far higher than the average soldier’s salary in Burundi, where troops receive less than $100 per month.

Participation in AMISOM (Burundi is the second largest contributor, after Uganda) also increases President Nkurunziza’s regional and international bargaining power. When his government threatened to pull its troops out of AMISOM following Brussels’ decision to suspend payment to Burundian soldiers (a measure intended to sanction the Nkurunziza government for human rights violations and avoid fund-diversion mechanisms that benefited the regime), a compromise was quickly found.

Humanitarian and economic crisis

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that at least a quarter of Burundi’s 12 million people need humanitarian assistance. In 2017 alone, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated Burundi’s financial requirements at $250 million. According to UNHCR data, the crisis has resulted in 202,000 internally displaced persons and 421,800 Burundians seeking refuge in neighboring countries. While most flee to Tanzania (around 250,000), Rwanda (which is increasingly critical of the Nkurunziza regime) is the second-most popular destination, with over 84,000 Burundians fleeing there. These include many middle-class and highly skilled Burundians.

Burundi’s location in Africa
Burundian refugees are fleeing to neighboring countries such as Tanzania and Rwanda, which are becoming increasingly critical of the Nkurunziza regime (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Besides the political, security and humanitarian dimensions of the Burundian crisis, the country’s economy is also under huge strain. In 2016, the European Union, the United States, Germany, Belgium and the International Organisation of La Francophonie suspended some of their aid to Burundi, a critical source of income to the national budget. The situation has been further aggravated by the government’s decision to ban sales of foodstuffs to neighboring countries – and these represented 17 percent of the country’s exports, according to African Economic Outlook.

The economic downturn has led to a further deterioration of living conditions, particularly in urban areas. The scarcity of foreign currency has resulted in fuel shortages, which compromise commercial activities and push up food prices. According to the World Food Programme, 4.6 million Burundians face food insecurity.


Burundi’s political crisis and its effects are expected to continue in the short to medium term. Two aspects could determine the course of events: the opposition’s ability to defeat the Nkurunziza regime while providing a sustainable alternative, and the mediation – or intervention if necessary – of regional and international powers. Both are unlikely, however.

President Nkurunziza will not resign. On the contrary, he is expected to try to extend his grip on power beyond 2020 by amending the constitution, a process which proved successful in neighboring Rwanda. However, President Nkurunziza is far less popular than Rwandan President Paul Kagame, though he and the CNDD-FDD still enjoy significant support in Burundi’s rural areas. His ambitions will likely be challenged by popular, political and armed resistance. However, a broad, united coalition against the regime is unlikely to emerge, which means there is no easy way out of this crisis. The combination of widespread food shortages, violence and land scarcity may lead to an escalation of armed conflict in some regions.

Hardliners, including President Nkurunziza himself, may try to transform the ongoing political crisis into an ethnic conflict as a last resort. However, because the opposition is a mixture of Hutus and Tutsis, and since their main goal is political (i.e., defeating President Nkurunziza) widespread ethnic violence is unlikely.

The Burundian Army is now divided along political and ethnic lines

The security situation will probably deteriorate in the upcoming months, as “parallel” and hardline security forces (the Imbonerakure, the information services and the police special units) take a leading role in defending the regime, while the opposition will remain fragmented and increasingly represented by rebel armed groups. The Burundian Army, once an example for post-conflict and ethnically divided countries, is now divided along political and ethnic lines. Desertions have been on the rise since 2015, and many high-ranking officials have joined or created armed rebel groups.

The economic situation will further deteriorate, as perceptions of risk and instability persist. Tourism and construction have been hit hard; the country’s mining industry will also suffer, as insecurity and lack of investment will delay major mining projects – Burundi has 6 percent of the world’s nickel reserves. Internal displacements and refugee flows will also take a toll on the economy, with long-lasting consequences, as most skilled Burundians are abandoning the country.

A regional or international intervention in Burundi remains highly unlikely. In fact, the Burundian crisis is also a reflection of the changing global context. Constrained by scarce resources and their own leadership crises, Western powers are less willing to devote political capital and money to building and maintaining peace in remote African countries. Support of the Nkurunziza regime from Beijing and Moscow makes an international intervention even less probable. The African Union, in turn, cannot afford to aggravate a regime that contributes more than 5,000 troops to AMISOM.

At the regional level, the East African Community (where third-termism is a highly sensitive subject) lacks what it takes to mediate the crisis. Nevertheless, there are strong incentives to act. Most of the community’s ambitious projects, including roads, railways and a pipeline, could be compromised by Burundi’s crisis.

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