On March 20, Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, suspended the activities of a controversial commission tasked with adjudicating land conflicts in the country. For those following current developments in Burundi, this event likely did not beg much notice. However, it should.
The suspension of the land commission is just one more in a series of developments that make the last few months of Burundian politics read more like a telenovela than affairs of state. Since January, Burundi has seen sackings of key government officials, attempted assassinations, the rise of a popular opposition triggered by the imprisonment of a journalist who was investigating alleged government complicity in the murder of three Italian nuns, accusations of summary executions, and, yes, a high-level prison break to boot. This is all in the context of upcoming national elections scheduled for May and June in which Nkurunziza is considering running for a third term. This so called ‘third mandate’ for Nkurunziza is potentially unconstitutional and certainly a break with the two-term limit for the presidency mandated in the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement that ended Burundi’s most recent civil war in 2003.
The growing instability has many policy makers worried about the potential for the coming elections to trigger renewed violence in Burundi. Both the European Union and the United States have come out against the third mandate. And most recently even some members of his own ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, have urged Nkurunziza not to run.
Most experts following Burundi’s national politics are cautiously optimistic, if not confident, that despite these events, Burundi will muddle through the elections without falling back into full-scale civil war. At the same time, the current peace in Burundi is precarious, and the country’s 2010 elections included their fair share of political violence and human rights violations.
However, as I was walking in some of Burundi’s hillside villages in February, the primary security issue that people cited as most impacting their daily lives was land – not the election. And given Stathis Kalyvas’s edict this makes a lot of sense. According to Kalyvas, and many others political scientists like Severine Autesserre, patterns of violence committed amid civil war often center on very localized issues, such as village- or community-level power struggles, competition over land or control over local economic resources. These issues are markedly different from those prominent at the national level – such as political battles or sectarian, religious and ethnic divisions.
Burundi appears to be no exception to this rule.
Land conflict is a highly sensitive issue in Burundi. The country is only around 28,000 sq km (roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts) for over 10 million people – and subsistence farming is the primary occupation. Therefore for many Burundians land is essentially equivalent to one’s livelihood.
While fighting over land is not new to Burundi, what is new in the lead up to 2015 elections is the role of the national land commission, known by its French acronym the CNTB. Created out of the Arusha peace accords, the CNTB is the primary government body mandated to resolve the many land disputes that have developed as the result of the mass return of populations previously displaced by Burundi’s decades of cyclical civil war.
The land commission has been undertaking a drive to implement a revised policy that returns contested land in full to returnees. However, those who are currently on the land, the so-called “residents,” believe they are the rightful owners, having bought the land or been given it by the government, and made it their home for over 30 years. Many do not have another place to call home and greatly fear what might happen to their family if they are kicked out of their land, their one source of food and income.
This is creating direct conflict at the local level between “repatriates” and “residents” – threats and intimidation, prevention of access or destruction of farmland, and violence are all exceedingly common. At the same time, the commission’s drive to implement its new policy at times recalls ethnic divides that were the backdrop to Burundi’s previous crises.
Specific conflicts over land in Burundi do not neatly fall along ethnic lines: While the majority of repatriates who fled the conflict in 1972 are Hutu, the population of “residents” is split among Burundians of various ethnicities, Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. Nor are these conflicts about ethnicity – they are about ownership of and access to land, property and livelihoods. However, many Burundians consider the term “resident” as a backhanded way to refer to Tutsis because of a legacy of land grabbing amid Burundi’s crises promoted by the then Tutsi-dominated government.
In this way, the rhetoric around land conflict presents a potential tool for stoking fear and dividing the country in ways that many experts thought were receding from the forefront of Burundian politics.
In the past several weeks, many communities have put up a resistance to the CNTB coming into their villages. They have blocked roads, thrown rocks, and sometimes wielded machetes to prevent the commission from conducting their investigations or making decisions.
The move by Nkurunziza to suspend the CNTB’s activities may be a positive sign of trying to avoid further instability before the elections. It may also be as a strategic political move not to alienate non-returnee voters. Certainly it represents an intersection between the simmering local land conflicts and the national elections. As the international community focuses on encouraging Nkurunziza not to run for a third term, in their effort to promote peaceful elections they might also be wise to consider how local land conflicts play in Burundi’s precarious peace.
Stephanie Schwartz is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University.