What’s going on in Burundi? A view from the lakeside

Burundi is in a fragile and crucial position, not only as a sovereign state, but for stability in the region as a whole. Violence connected to electoral activities spans beyond Burundi, spilling over into neighboring countries – the consequences of which would be devastating from a transboundary perspective. This is particularly important in the Ruzizi Plain in the border region of Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), as well as the southern part of South Kivu, since Uvira looks to Bujumbura as a main driver of stability (security-related and economic). Pressures on Burundi to reach a peaceful solution are now enormous, and how the international community as well as regional actors engage will be crucial to long term stability.


Burundi is located on the northeast shores of Lake Tanganyika, bordered by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the east and south, and the DRC to the west. Burundi’s over 10 million citizens have lived in relative peace since the end of civil war in 2005, and the country has been considered a success in its ability to diffuse ethnic tension and share political power. However, Burundi’s position as one of the poorest nations in the world (ranked 180th out of 187 countries in the 2014 Human Development Index) as well as its central position in complex regional politics leaves it extremely vulnerable to instability. As a result, there are serious fears about what will result from the current political crisis. 

What has happened so far?

  • 25 April: Ruling CNDD-FDD party officially announces that Pierre Nkurunziza will run, as their candidate, for a third term (During Burundi’s civil war, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) was the most significant rebel group active in the country. They are now Burundi’s ruling political party.)
  • 26 AprilProtests begin, sparked by perceived illegality of Nkurunziza’s potential third term. (The Burundi constitution only allows for a two-term president. However, President Nkurunziza has argued that he has only been directly elected by the people once; for his first term, beginning in 2005, Nkurunziza was selected by parliament as outlined in the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement in Burundi.)
  • 8 MayUNHCR reports that some 50,000 refugees are fleeing Burundi in anticipation of escalating violence.
  • 11 May: Belgium suspends aid to Burundi, and holds back half of €4 million in funding for the polls themselves.
  • 13 May: While Nkurunziza is in Tanzania at a summit meeting to discuss the crisis, Major General Godefroid Niyombare declares a coup d’état, announcing that the military has removed the President from office.
  • Massive refugee flows begin to Tanzania and to a lesser extent to South Kivu (DRC), with the northerly route to Rwanda largely abandoned.
  • 15 May: After two days of confusion, the Burundi government officially announces that the overthrow attempt has been defeated. Nkurunziza returns to Bujumbura and makes it clear that he remains in charge.
  • 17 May: A cholera outbreak, due to poor sanitation and overcrowding caused by the recent influx of thousands of refugees from Burundi, is confirmed in the Kigoma region on Lake Tanganyika in the border village of Kagunga (where up to 50,000 refugees were gathered at one point) and in the Nyarugusu refugee camp inland.  Almost 4,500 cases have been reported, with around 30 deaths.
  • 23 May: Zedi Feruzi, leader of the opposition party Union for Peace and Development, is shot dead by gunmen in Bujumbura.
  • 26 May: The UN reports that the cholera situation has slowed, with the daily number of new cases falling from a peak of 915 to under 100.
  • 28 May: The EU withdraws its election monitors, citing restrictions on the media, excessive force against demonstrators and the climate of intimidation.
  • 1 June: UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) releases $15 million to support up to 200,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda and Tanzania.
  • 4 June: The electoral commission postpones the parliamentary and presidential elections.

Where things stand now
UNHCR has reported that a total of 112,000 refugees have fled to the DRC, Rwanda, and Tanzania to date. It has come to our attention that Burundi police and border guards are using force to prevent Burundians from leaving their country as refugees, in violation of international law.  As a consequence, only small groups of refugees are able to get through, while there is a buildup of people stuck on the Burundi side of the border.  Those able to get out arrive at Kagunga in small groups of 10-20 people daily. The cut-off number to trigger UNHCR’s coordinated response is 60 persons at one time– we consequently see a material gap in the UN’s response to these refugees, whose needs are not being met, with some on the verge of starving. 
Over the past three weeks, we have supported international organizations like the World Health Organization and Plan International, as well as other NGOs, in traveling to and from Kagunga. We have also helped to bridge the local information gap and are currently hosting Médecins Sans Frontières Switzerland on our compound in Kigoma.

We have monitored this political devolution for the past 18 months, and in fact prepared a special report in March for distribution to stakeholders regarding the impending Burundian elections (if you are interested in reading the special report, please email info@floatingclinic.org). During the drafting of this paper, we heard a common viewpoint from Burundian expats, civil society organizations, and government officials posted in Washington DC that Burundians are tired of war and therefore will put more effort into finding resolutions and compromise, rather than fight.  However, that sentiment could evaporate if definitive political and humanitarian solutions are not found.

We will continue to have eyes and ears on the ground as the situation evolves. Key points to track will be the return to political dialogue and how (and whether) the East African Community and African Union will engage positively, when the United States will appoint a new Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region and the DRC to replace Russ Feingold (this vacancy is deeply damaging at a time like this), as well as Pierre Nkurunziza’s next steps: whether he might invoke ethnicity, and/or be forced to stand down if the pressure becomes too great for him.

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