Crisis in burundi: days of fear in bujumbura

Protests have not been held for a long time. Shortly before the presidential election, fear of armed confrontation prevails.

Back then they still dared: protesters in Bujumbura, early June. Photo: ap

As the policemen turn the corner, residents cautiously peek out of their courtyard gates. A few men venture into the narrow alley and peek where the uniformed men have disappeared to. "We don’t trust them, they shoot and kidnap people," says a 30-year-old who won’t give his name. Fear is running rampant.

Cibitoke, a neighborhood in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, looks like a battlefield. After weeks of protests and their violent suppression, Bujumbura is still in a state of emergency. Along the otherwise busy main street, stores are barricaded. The remains of burnt tires have stained the gray asphalt black. "No third term," protesters had sprayed in red paint on the street. The letters are barely visible now.

For weeks in April and May, people had demonstrated in Cibitoke, as in many other districts: against President Pierre Nkurunziza, who has been in power for ten years and is running again for the presidential election. According to the constitution, he is not allowed to run again, but the constitutional court has given its OK. The Burundians demonstrated for weeks. In mid-May, temporary intelligence chief General Godefroid Niyombare had declared President Nkurunziza deposed, but the coup attempt was crushed by loyalist units. The police have been brutally cracking down on demonstrators ever since.

In Cibitoke, there are now more police patrolling than residents walking around. But they don’t provide security, on the contrary: "At night they shoot wildly, I don’t dare go out the door in the dark," says the young man. He looks tired: bloodshot eyes, fear written all over his face. He has sent his wife and two children to Rwanda. More than 150,000 Burundians have fled. His neighbors, too." I stayed because I want to guard my house, otherwise they’ll rob us and we won’t have anything," he says.

Defending against his own state

Cibitoke is a poor neighborhood. Owning a house means a lot here. The young man looks around carefully. Stones, tree trunks and barbed wire block the entrance to the narrow alley. "We put up the barricade so the policemen can’t drive their cars through here," he explains. The people are defending themselves against their own state.

President Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD (National Committee/Forces for the Defense of Democracy) party came to power in 2005 after years of civil war and a transitional period marked by violence. The elite of the former Hutu rebel movement has ruled like a mafia clan ever since. Bujumbura is considered a hub for drug, arms and gold trafficking.

From the top of the hills, one can overlook Bujumbura: the freshly paved main roads, one of the most visible achievements of the Nkrurunziza regime. But also new high-rises and gigantic villas with pools – evidence that some people are really pouring money into cement. The clique around Nkurunziza is enormously rich, but Burundi is still one of the poorest countries in the world.

This inequality has drawn people to the streets. They had hopes of finally getting rid of the corrupt power elite now that ten years have come to an end.

But then Nkurunziza sent out his henchmen. The CNDD-FDD youth arm "Imbonerakure" – translated: "the farsighted" – was trained as a militia, put into police uniforms, equipped with weapons. Now they terrorize the population. At the same time, the economy is threatened with collapse, international observers worry. Government employees and soldiers are no longer being paid, they say. Parts of the army have deserted and are threatening to rebel. Last week, there was the first fighting with suspected rebels in the north of the country. A civil war is threatening.

Uganda mediates

This week, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni came to mediate and avert the civil war that threatens after the July 21 elections. The 70-year-old has been in power for nearly 30 years and is considered a grandfather in the politics of the Great Lakes region. This Wednesday, the Ugandan rounded up Burundi’s opposition – at least those who have not fled but want to boycott the elections – at the luxury Bel-Air Hotel. The hotel on the hills above the poor Cibitoke district is now surrounded by hundreds of bodyguards.

In hour-long sessions, Museveni lectures the Burundians like a grandfather: They should lay down their arms, work to rebuild the country. "Sit down already," he lectures. "All sides have agreed to negotiate intensively and find a solution," Museveni assures at the end of his flying visit. He said he would now send Uganda’s defense minister to mediate further. Everyone is silent on whether the elections will actually take place next week.

So the fear continues.