Any move by Burundi’s president to run for a third five year term risks undermining a peace deal that has kept the African nation calm since civil war ended a decade ago and could stoke tensions in a region blighted by ethnic conflict.
Pierre Nkurunziza has yet to say if he will stand in the June 26 vote, but diplomats and opponents expect him to run even though they say it would violate the constitution and the Arusha peace deal, credited with helping heal Burundi’s ethnic rifts.
The ruling party argues his first term does not count because he was chosen by lawmakers and not voted in. It could nominate Nkurunziza, a 51-year-old whose voting strongholds are in the countryside, at a party congress on Saturday.
“If Nkurunziza decides to run for a third term, he will be opening doors for another war,” said prominent rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, who has often found himself in jail for his activism against the government. “This will be a coup d’état against the constitution, against the Arusha peace agreement.”
The Arusha pact ended a civil war that killed 300,000 people, halting a cycle of massacres lasting decades. In the scarred nation of just 10 million people, also one of the world’s poorest, almost everyone counts a victim in their family.
Any flare-up in Burundi also threatens broader repercussions. It could draw in next door Rwanda, victim of the 1994 genocide, and create turmoil in an area where term limits approach other presidents, such as Joseph Kabila in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. His second term ends next year.
“Arusha created the preconditions for Burundi to be peaceful. Take it away and anything might happen,” said one senior Western diplomat, who added Nkurunziza seemed determined to ignore international pressure to step down.
The Arusha pact set power-sharing quotas between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority, which once ruled the nation and dominated the army. The deal gave Hutus the biggest say, but ensured Tutsis still had a strong voice and so felt safe.
That balance could now be put to the test if Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel leader, stands again.
Diplomats say the president speaks privately about how Burundi has “moved on” from Arusha, an alarming idea to many, particularly Tutsis, who see it as the guarantee of peace.
“The presidency is well aware unity is key for stability of this country,” said presidential spokesman Gervais Abayeho. “Minority groups should not be worried.”
Despite struggling to develop its poor agrarian economy, Burundi has been praised for healing deep ethnic rifts, largely by openly acknowledging differences rather than papering over them. Opposition coalitions often group Hutus and Tutsis.
But mounting tension or clashes could split the army, transformed from a Tutsi-led force to one that absorbed rival ethnic militias. Some soldiers might find loyalties strained if ordered by the government to intervene.
Opposition politician Agathon Rwasa, who also once led a Hutu rebel force, said the army could “divide itself into blocks” in that situation. He said he would call for protests if Nkurunziza runs again.
Thousands of Burundians are voting with their feet. About 10,000 people, many of them Tutsis, have fled in recent weeks to Rwanda, where 800,000 mainly Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered in 1994.
“When you oppose the third term for Nkurunziza, you’d better leave for fear of being killed,” said Gerard Macumi, a Tutsi at a refugee camp in Rwanda, where hundreds more arrive each few days. “It seems like war will erupt very soon.”
Refugees and the opposition say the ruling party’s youth wing Imbonerakure are being armed. The ruling party denies this, saying opponents want violence because they cannot win a vote.
Nkurunziza has his main power base in rural areas, spending much of his time there in trademark tracksuit and rubber boots, helping in fields. Analysts say the urban-focused opposition has often neglected villages.
The senior diplomat said Imbonerakure was being used to deny the opposition political space in Nkurunziza strongholds that risked igniting ethnic tensions.
“The old hatreds are still there,” he said. “So if you give weapons to the youth of course they will go for the Tutsis.”
If ethnic killings flare, it could drag in Rwanda. Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president and himself a Tutsi, has long accused the world of acting too late to halt the 1994 genocide and repeatedly promised it would not happen again in his region.
Kagame, who faces a constitutional two-term limit in 2017, held talks with Nkurunziza this month to discuss the pre-election tension although few details were released.
“They don’t want to get involved,” said a Western diplomat in Kigali. “But they couldn’t stand by in the same way they accuse the international community of standing by in 1994.”