By Patrick Nduwimana and Edmund Blair
BUJUMBURA/NAIROBI – Any move by Burundi’s president to run for a third five-year term risks undermining a peace deal that has kept the African nation calm since civil war ended a decade ago and could stoke tensions in a region blighted by ethnic conflict.
Pierre Nkurunziza has yet to say if he will stand in the June 26 vote, but diplomats and opponents expect him to run even though they say it would violate the constitution and the Arusha peace deal, credited with helping heal Burundi’s ethnic rifts.
The ruling party argues his first term does not count because he was chosen by lawmakers and not voted in. It could nominate Nkurunziza, a 51-year-old whose voting strongholds are in the countryside, at a party congress on Saturday.
“If Nkurunziza decides to run for a third term, he will be opening doors for another war,” said prominent rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, who has often found himself in jail for his activism against the government. “This will be a coup d’état against the constitution, against the Arusha peace agreement.”
The Arusha pact ended a civil war that killed 300,000 people, halting a cycle of massacres lasting decades. In the scarred nation of just 10 million people, also one of the world’s poorest, almost everyone counts a victim in their family.
Any flare-up in Burundi also threatens broader repercussions. It could draw in next door Rwanda, victim of a 1994 genocide, and create turmoil in an area where term limits approach other presidents, such as Joseph Kabila in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. His second term ends next year.
“Arusha created the preconditions for Burundi to be peaceful. Take it away and anything might happen,” said one senior Western diplomat, who added that Nkurunziza seemed determined to ignore international pressure to step down.
The Arusha pact set power-sharing quotas between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority, which once ruled the nation and dominated the army. The deal gave Hutus the biggest say, but ensured Tutsis still had a strong voice and so felt safe.