BURUNDI’s crisis this week snowballed into a major regional concern after a constitutional court backed president Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a controversial third term, even as one of the judges fled saying the decision had been made under duress.
Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete on Tuesday pressed foreign ministers from the East African Community states to investigate the political situation in Burundi, where protests that erupted a week ago over the president’s plan to seek a third term turned deadly.
Kikwete, who is the current chairman of the five-nation bloc, asked the ministers from Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi to “talk to key stakeholders and send us a report to guide the way we can asssist Burundi,” according to a statement e-mailed from the presidency in the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam.
Solutions to the current crisis in Burundi lie in the country’s constitution and electoral law, Kikwete said. The Tanzanian leader, who leaves office later in the year, has in the past urged Nkurunziza to reconsider his bid.
Opponents say Nkurunziza’s candidacy violates a peace accord signed 15 years ago in Arusha, Tanzania, that stipulates a two- term presidential limit, but his supporters say his first term was not elected but by appointment by parliament.
Neighbour Rwanda also weighed in, signalling that foreign countries may have to intervene to restore order.
“While we respect Burundi’s sovereignty in addressing internal matters, Rwanda considers the safety of innocent population as a regional and international responsibility,” Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said in a statement e-mailed Tuesday, according to Bloomberg news agency.
Rwanda has “serious concern” about the deteriorating situation in the East African country, she said.
Return to conflict
The unrest in Burundi is stoking regional fears of a return to conflict if rebel groups abandon the agreements that ended a 12- year civil war in which 300,000 people were killed.
On its own, Burundi is a minor regional player of sorts, but sustained unrest there has the potential to destabilise the Great Lakes region that includes the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a top resource exporter and a playground for global multinationals.
It also plays a critical role in a theatre where America is highly vested – it is one of the main contributors to the peacekeeping forces in Somalia, where the Al-Shabaab militant group has been reported to be recruiting Somalis in the American diaspora.
These concerns may have alarmed the United States enough to take a tougher stance. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Monday that Nkurunziza’s bid goes against the constitution, calling for calm after days of protests.
We are deeply concerned about President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision, which flies directly in the face of the constitution of this country,” Kerry told reporters in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
“It is my understanding that an Africa Union delegation will go there soon to meet with him to try to underscore the importance… of the constitution of the country,” Kerry said.
“And it is our hope in the United States that ultimately that is what will happen and the people of Burundi will be given the choice that their constitution promises them.”
Burundi’s constitutional court Tuesday ruled that the president’s bid to stand for another term “by direct universal suffrage for five years is not contrary to the constitution of Burundi,” the judgement signed by six out of seven judges read.
But the vice-president of the court detailed how the court’s judges had come under major duress including death threats from senior figures, whom he refused to name, to rubberstamp the disputed candidature of the president.
Sylvere Nimpagaritse claimed that a majority of the court’s seven judges believed it would be unconstitutional for Nkurunziza to stand again, but had faced “enormous pressure and even death threats” to force them to change their mind.
“In my soul and conscience I decided not to put my signature to a ruling, a decision which is clearly not lawful that would be imposed from the outside, and which has nothing legal about it,” Nimpagaritse emotionally told AFP before leaving the country.
Regional economic powerhouse Kenya, which has its companies trading in Burundi, this week said it would support free and fair elections but would not interfere with its sovereignty.
Tens of thousands of Burundian refugees have already fled to neighbouring countries ahead of the election scheduled for next month.
The situation could be a test of the African Union’s resolve in clamping down on unconstitutional changes, given the Burundi case does not quite fall into the mould of a coup. But with leaders in several African countries bidding to extend their office, and Burundi’s role in AMISOM, the AU might just not want to open a can of worms by banging the table on Nkurunziza. — Mail & Guardian Africa.