The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Political crisis raises fears of widespread bloodshed in Burundi

A growing political crisis is threatening to plunge Burundi into renewed bloodshed a decade after it emerged from civil war, with over 40,000 people already fleeing the country, officials say.

Protests have erupted almost daily since April 25, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would run for a third term in elections scheduled for next month. The peace accord that ended the civil war mandated a two-term presidential limit.

Three demonstrators were killed on Thursday, and two were injured when police lobbed a grenade into a crowd of protesters in Bujumbura, witnesses said. Another demonstrator was killed in a different part of the capital; after he died, witnesses said, the crowd pursued a man suspected of being a member of the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, and beat him severely.

With the latest violence, at least nine people have died in clashes between protesters and the police linked to the political crisis, according to witnesses and the Burundian Red Cross.

“Many people have died; many people will keep dying,” said Gerard Naikuriyo, 25, a protester who said he narrowly missed being injured in the grenade explosion on Thursday.

The U.S. government has expressed alarm over the growing violence. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said this week that the Burundian president’s decision to seek reelection “flies directly in the face of the constitution.”

Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its 12-year-long civil war, which ended in 2005, resulted in the deaths of 300,000 people, primarily members of the country's Tutsi minority. Like neighboring Rwanda, Burundi is composed mainly of two ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis.

Nkurunziza’s supporters argue that his first term in office, which began in 2005, does not count against the term limits because he was elected that year by parliament, rather than the people. On Monday, Burundi’s constitutional court upheld his decision. That led to intensified protests in the capital, where many people thought the ruling violated the Arusha Accords, which ended the civil war.

“If we violate those texts there is risk of Burundi returning to civil war. Every Burundian must respect those two texts: they are fundamental; they are the foundation of Burundi,” said Spageon Ngabo, 23, a medical student .

Analysts say that Burundi's unrest could have serious implications for regional stability, especially in Rwanda, where an estimated 800,000 people died in a genocide in 1994. Most of the Burundians fleeing the country in recent days have streamed into the neighboring nation.

“It’s not only a humanitarian issue, but some of the neighboring countries have also concerns for their internal security, especially Rwanda,” said Willy Nindorera, an independent Burundi analyst. “Even if Rwanda has accomplished remarkable progress, it has still problems of food security, of poverty and of land issues. They don’t have the capacity to receive thousands and thousands of refugees.”

With elections due in the next few years in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, analysts are also concerned that Nkurunziza's decision to seek an extra term despite the constitutional restrictions could pave the way for other East African presidents to extend their rule. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has been in power for almost three decades, and the Uganda Parliament eliminated the presidential two-term limit several years ago. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has expressed ambivalence about whether he will run again at the end of his second term in 2017. Rwandan presidents are constitutionally limited to two terms.

Parts of Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, have been nearly shut down by the protests. On Thursday, demonstrators had erected barriers in some neighborhoods using metal ripped from storefronts and the smoldering shells of torched vehicles. Tree trunks were piled high and set alight, sending plumes of smoke into the air. On the other side of these barriers, blue-uniformed police officers stood tensely in riot gear, clutching Kalashnikov rifles.

In one part of the city, a traffic circle was filled with Burundian police guarding the headquarters of the CNDD-FDD, the ruling party. A banner in front of the office, hung after the antigovernment protests started, bore a threatening message: “When you cut it, it cuts you.” A loudspeaker blared a song recorded in the local Kirundi language: “The activities organized by the president are making us friends, the activities organized by the president are giving us development.”

Neither the protesters nor the government show signs of backing down.

“I don’t want the Burundian constitution to be violated. This agreement brought many things to our country, and it came from a lot of deaths and a lot of blood in the roads. I don’t want that to come back again,” said Hakizimana Blaise, a 17-year-old high school student who was among the protesters.

“I’m not afraid, even if I may lose my life here in the road. What is important is for my children to be safe in the future,” said Desire Niyonsaba, a 24-year-old university student.