THINGS ARE not looking good for the small East African country of Burundi. Protests have roiled the nation since the country’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced in late April that he would run for a third term, in violation of the constitution as well as the peace agreement that helped to end Burundi’s bloody civil war. On May 13, while Mr. Nkurunziza was in Tanzania attending an emergency summit of the East African Community, an Army general and former intelligence chief announced an apparent coup. But with the military divided, the rebellion fizzled; after three days, 18 of those suspected of being involved were arrested. Coup leader Godefroid Niyombare escaped.
Since returning to Burundi after the failed coup, Mr. Nkurunziza has tried in various ways to distract the public from his actions. He played the we-are-fighting-terrorism card, claiming that Burundi is battling a threat from al-Shabab, al-Qaeda’s East Africa affiliate. An al-Shabab spokesman made short work of that statement, calling Mr. Nkurunziza’s remarks “dumbfounding” and said it was an attempt “to divert the world’s attention from him.”
In fact, Mr. Nkurunziza is fooling no one. Unquestionably, it is his determination to baldly violate his country’s constitution and flout the Arusha peace agreement of 2000 that has plunged his country, and the Great Lakes region around it, into crisis. His reckless attempt to stay in power must peacefully come to an end, and soon.
The escalating unrest is spilling over into neighboring countries. The United Nations estimates that up to 200,000 Burundians who have fled into Rwanda, Tanzania and Congo will need humanitarian assistance. On Friday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees appealed for $207 million for people escaping the crisis.
In Burundi, meanwhile, violent clashes continue in the capital of Bujumbura. At least 15 people have died. On Saturday, Zedi Feruzi, an opposition leader critical of Nkurunziza’s third-term bid, was gunned down. As a result, opposition activists have suspended talks with the government. The crisis is the worst that the landlocked country of 10 million has faced in the decade since the end of its war between the Hutus and Tutsis, which left 300,000 dead.
While the country has been haunted by ethnic rivalry, the current crisis is largely political. Despite calls from neighboring African leaders to step down at the end of his term and Belgium’s suspension of election aid, Mr. Nkurunziza has remained recalcitrant, refusing to delay the presidential elections set for June 26. Reports said he elected to play soccer while protests continued in the capital — and he looks perfectly content to play games with the lives of his citizens in his unconstitutional quest for power.
The United States rightfully issued a strong statement condemning the attempted ouster of Mr. Nkurunziza while reiterating that his decision “to disregard the [peace] agreement to run for a third term also has created instability and violence.” Usefully, the Obama administration has threatened to withhold aid for Burundi’s defense forces if they engage in violence or abuses, and on Friday announced that it had temporarily suspended peacekeeping training, a step that could endanger the country’s role in the African Union Mission in Somalia, a regional peacekeeping force. If Mr. Nkurunziza does not change course in the coming days, the Obama administration must follow through with full sanctions.