Burundi president pledges to expand teen death squads

2015 Burundian Constitutional Crisis

Agence France-Presse: “Groups threatening Burundi security must be destroyed: president”

Burundi’s president on Wednesday called for groups that threaten national security to be “destroyed”, setting a combative and hardline tone as he begins a controversial third term in office.

In a speech read out on state media, Pierre Nkurunziza said young people would be given “patriotic, theoretical and practical training” to work alongside the central African nation’s security forces.

“These mixed security committees will be asked to work day and night so that groups which seek to only kill and upset security, especially inside Bujumbura, will be destroyed and so that we won’t be talking about them two months from now,” he said.

He urged “all people to rise up as one, and to work with security forces so that this promise can be kept”.

Burundi has a very low median age — half the population is aged 17 or younger, according to the CIA World Factbook — although a number of other sub-Saharan African countries actually have even younger populations. Just shy of 1 in 10 people in Burundi is a young man or boy in the 15-24 age bracket.

Well before the violent election cycle the President had essentially created paramilitary teen death squads by arming teenage members of his political party’s “youth wing,” known as the Imbonerakure. This was particularly troubling to many in light of its similarities with the Interahamwe Hutu militias in neighboring Rwanda during its 1994 genocide. (Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party is the political arm of a Hutu rebel force from its own civil war period.) The new announcement from President Nkurunziza can be interpreted as a call to expand these Burundian youth militias significantly.

In early July, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid Raad al-Hussein specifically condemned the Imbonerakure’s role in the political violence surrounding the election:

He said his office has documented dozens of killings in the past two months, most of them shootings of demonstrators and human rights defenders by the youth wing and security forces. Zeid urged the government to disarm the Imbonerakure youth wing of the ruling CNDD-FDD party immediately.

Earlier, at the end of May, leaders of the other four East African Community member countries (that is, not including Burundi) met in Tanzania to discuss the crisis and issued a statement also spotlighting the Imbonerakure:

“The summit, concerned at the impasse in Burundi, strongly calls for a long postponement of the elections not less than a month and a half,” said the statement on Sunday.

The leaders also called for the “disarmament of all armed youth groups” and for the “creation of conditions for the return of refugees”.

The United States suspended one of its largest security training programs in Africa in response to widespread violence by Burundian security forces.

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Lessons from Burundi’s post-Civil War constitution

The following is an installment in my ongoing series on the 2015 Burundian constitutional crisis.

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Flag of Burundi

After reading the 2005 French-language Burundian constitution myself, I have tentatively come to the conclusion that the current President, Pierre Nkurunziza, is technically constitutionally allowed to seek another term — but only by deliberately misconstruing some poor word choices in the text. First, I present my textual analysis to develop this finding. Second, are my recommendations on what lessons can be drawn from this crisis, in terms of future drafting of documents to guide political transitions and post-transition foundations.

Basically, there are two conflicting elements in the text. Article 302 stipulated that the first “post-transition” president — which ended up being Mr. Nkurunziza — specifically had to be elected by both chambers of parliament, rather than the voters directly, “on a purely exceptional basis”:

A titre exceptionnel, le premier Président de la République de la période post-transition est élu par l’Assemblée Nationale et le Sénat élus réunis en Congrès, à la majorité des deux tiers des membres.

(My direct translation: “On a purely exceptional basis, the first President of the Republic of the post-transition period is chosen by the elected National Assembly and Senate assembled in Congress, with a two-thirds majority of the members.”)

But at the same time, Article 96 states that (in general, presumably): “The President of the Republic” is to be “elected by direct universal suffrage for a five-year term renewable once”:

Le Président de la République est élu au suffrage universel direct pour un mandat de cinq ans renouvelable une fois.

So President Nkurunziza’s argument is that because he was indirectly elected under Article 302 in 2005 and then elected directly to a five-year term in 2010 that means he is eligible to renew his term one more time by direct election. Which is pretty sketchy — but a literally acceptable interpretation of the text, since Article 96 failed to take the lingering effects of Article 302 (which falls under the “Special Provisions” Title XV) explicitly into account.

Lessons: The wording of Article 96 is grammatically and syntactically stitched together for elegant efficiency rather than explicit clarity, which now seems to have been a mistaken decision. I believe one of the former Burundian Supreme Court members labeled it against the “spirit” of the document and the Arusha Accords that preceded it, even if it was perhaps a textually permitted interpretation.

Of course, there’s little likelihood that preventing this loophole could have avoided the current situation entirely, given that the President was determined to amend the constitution anyway, until he discovered he could use the loophole instead and avoid the hassle. Clearly he had an agenda, with or without this language error. Still, it has needlessly provided him a very convenient shield for his actions. And that, at least, could indeed have been avoided.

Recommendation to future transitional/foundational document drafters: Break up your sentences. And account for deliberate misinterpretations of conflicting provisions. If it had said “The President of the Republic is elected by direct universal suffrage. A presidential term is five years in length and renewable once” there would likely be no way to misread it intentionally. By joining those three thoughts (direct election AND term length AND term limit) into one sentence, it made the term limit contingent upon the election method, which itself had been exceptionally overridden in the other article for the purposes of the first post-transition term only.

While this subject may seem excessively narrow to which to devote a detailed analysis, I bring up these observations about the importance of precise drafting because I found it to be similar to Burkina Faso’s incredibly messy constitutional revisions that (apparently inadvertently!) left literally no one in line to succeed the presidency upon a vacancy, forcing — or at least facilitating and quasi-legitimizing — a military coup when the president resigned unilaterally. These decisions on wording can have far-reaching implications years later.

Burundi: Major military coup attempt in progress

Update May 15, 2015: The coup has failed.

A military coup attempt is in progress after weeks of demonstrations against the president’s unconstitutional re-election bid for a third term and against his violent security forces or youth paramilitaries. BBC Africa covered the blow-by-blow events of the day on its live feed.

President Pierre Nkurunziza was in Tanzania for a regional leaders meeting when General Godefroid Niyombare — a former intelligence chief fired in February for advising the president against seeking a third term — took to the airwaves to announce he was closing the airport and borders to keep the president from returning and would be taking power. Protesters began leaving the streets, after initial celebrations alongside the supportive troops, on the orders of pro-coup forces who began arriving in tanks and armored vehicles. Police fell back.

President Nkurunziza’s team said its loyal security forces remained in control of key government and broadcast functions as well as the presidential palace. They dubbed the coup attempt a failure:

“It is with regret that we have learned that a group of soldiers rebelled this morning and made a fake declaration about a coup. The Presidency of the Republic wants the public opinion both in Burundi and abroad to know that this coup attempt has been stopped and that the people who read that statement on private local radio are being sought by the defence and security forces so that they are brought to justice. The Presidency of the Republic is asking the people of Burundi as well as foreigners to keep calm. Everything is being done to maintain security across the national territory.”

However, I fear we might be looking at a South Sudan situation in Burundi. The coup attempt may only partially succeed but it will likely not completely fail either (given the large presence of participating tanks and troops already). The military is multi-ethnic and comprises multiple factions from the country’s civil war. Some of them will back the president, some will back the coup, and some will back neither. It will also likely be a more violent split than in Lesotho last summer. And it will certainly not be as clean a break as the Burkina Faso military coup last October, which also involved an unconstitutional re-election bid.

As another complication, Nkurunziza had indeed been elected democratically but was now attempting to violate the constitution and has been widely accused of deploying death squads against his political enemies. Thus the coup is (if successful) removing a democratic leader but one who had become about as undemocratic as possible over the course of his tenure.

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Violent clashes in Burundi as the president clings to power

After Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his long-anticipated plans to seek a third term as president in violation of the post-civil war constitution’s term limits, deadly protests erupted this weekend. They have escalated rapidly after initial fatalities:

Gunfire was heard and streets were barricaded in parts of the capital, Bujumbura, in the third day of protests, witnesses told the BBC. Police are blocking about students in the second city, Gitega, from joining the demonstrations, residents said.

The protests are the biggest in Burundi since the civil war ended in 2005. The army and police have been deployed to quell the protests, which have been described by government officials as an insurrection.
BBC Burundi analyst Prime Ndikumagenge says the phone lines of private radio stations have been cut, a decision apparently taken by the authorities to prevent news of protests from spreading.

This may be the contagion some observers speculated might unfold after the uprising in Burkina Faso last October, when President Blaise Compaoré tried to extend his presidency in a similar fashion.

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Flag of Burundi

Burundi’s Army has been accused repeatedly of conducting extrajudicial mass executions of “rebels” and political opponents. Already, thousands of people have fled political persecution to neighboring countries in just a matter of months. Burundi also has a very low median age — half the population is younger than 17, according to the CIA World Factbook — and the President has essentially created child death squads by arming teenage members of his political party’s “youth wing.”

Burundi, which has the same colonially-fostered Hutu/Tutsi split as neighboring Rwanda, experienced a 12-year civil war beginning shortly before the Rwandan Genocide and continuing until 2005, despite repeated attempts to share power. The presidents of both countries were killed in a surface-to-air missile strike on their plane in 1994, in the incident which was widely seen as the trigger signal to initiate the genocide in Rwanda. However, the war in Burundi was already in progress at that point. Hundreds of thousands died before the 2005 peace deal.

It is interesting, however, to note that so far the armed forces have continued to respond to orders from President Nkurunziza. He is Hutu, and the armed forces are a mix of ex-rebel Hutus and the Tutsi regular troops from before the peace deal. In South Sudan, a merger of various ex-rebels from competing ethnic groups, which had been secured around the same time as the Burundi deal, basically broke down completely in December 2013 as certain factions obeyed the president and others the former vice-president, who had been sacked.