Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza, ignoring objections to an ill-advised third term, now faces a growing popular movement to oust him after his term ends this coming June.
Sunday, thousands of angry Burundians filled the streets in the capital, Bujumbura, to protest a maneuver by the ruling party to put Nkurunziza back in office for one more five-year term. The constitution allows just two terms, back to back.
News reporters at the scene said the protestors were attacked by police, who fired tear gas and water cannons. Nine people were reported killed in the Sunday melee.
Nkurunziza came to power in 2005, when a 12-year-long civil war officially ended. Presidential elections are scheduled for June 26.
In an effort to control the widely disseminated images of tear-gassed protestors and other abuses, the Nkurunziza government banned demonstrations, deployed the army and shut down the main independent radio station, saying it was disrupting the peace.
A prominent human rights activist, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, was arrested and reportedly brutalized during a police raid at the headquarters of a media association.
Another activist, Vital Nshimirimana, head of an NGO forum and leader of the campaign to block a third presidential term, is reportedly being sought by police.
The ruling party is attempting to use a loophole, saying the president’s installation in 2005 came about through a vote by parliament to lead a transitional government and not by popular vote.
Those who oppose Nkurunziza running for a third term include members of his own party, lawmakers, the clergy, student groups and civil society. Washington has also expressed its displeasure, saying that with the decision to allow an additional term, the country was “losing an historic opportunity to strengthen its democracy by establishing a tradition of peaceful democratic transition.”
Many Burundians are still traumatized by an armed conflict that lasted from 1993 to 2005, in which more than 300,000 people died. The conflict was between the minority Tutsi-dominated army and mainly Hutu rebel groups, such as Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD.
With memories of that conflict still fresh, more than 10,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring Rwanda, citing pressure to support Nkurunziza’s party. The ruling party’s youth wing, known as Imbonerakure, is also striking fear in the population, according to the UN refugee agency.
Not all leaders who refuse to relinquish power are successful, however. A similar bid by the president of Burkina Faso was defeated in a recent popular uprising that sent the disgraced leader into exile.