The Army in Crisis

Executive Summary

Two years in, the Burundi crisis shows little sign of resolution. Following the July 2015 re-election of President Nkurunziza, whose April decision to run again sparked the troubles, and with no progress made in the mediation, the crisis has turned into a low intensity conflict. Almost 400,000 Burundians have fled the country. Since the attempted coup of May 2015, political polarisation has had violent repercussions in the army. A series of attacks have targeted numerous officers, both those favourable to the president’s political ambitions and those suspected of sympathy with the coup plotters. Assassination attempts have also taken place abroad. Following over ten years of foreign support for the army’s transformation, its reputation has suffered greatly. International training has ended, and the army’s lucrative participation in peacekeeping operations is in doubt. This divided and demoralised army is a major threat to the country’s stability. Only a real dialogue, more urgent now than ever, between the government and the opposition could offer assurances to those officers concerned at the politicisation of their institution.

Long seen as the primary achievement of the Arusha peace agreement which ended the civil war in 2000, the army today is a microcosm of the country’s crisis. Through its multi-ethnic makeup, foreign training, and its role in international peacekeeping, the Burundian army had acquired a good reputation outside the country and a privileged position at home. But fragilities remained under the surface, and the 2015 crisis easily broke the key consensus on which the stability of the regime was based: between the army and civilian power, and within the army between the former rebels, most of whom come from the ruling party, and the old guard. Ever since, the regime has tried to regain its hold on the military through purging or killing real or suspected opponents within its ranks – starting with officers from the pre-war army and Tutsi officers, but also targeting former Hutu rebels, including high ranking officers.

The current crisis, in the form of tit-for-tat assassinations of soldiers and officers, is a violent reminder of the limits of the Arusha agreement within the army, and of the efforts made over ten years to depoliticise and professionalise it. It also reveals political and ethnic tensions that have continued to undermine it despite the reforms. The crisis has led to numerous defections and has compromised its future prospects. The European Union and the UN are reluctant to increase Burundi’s participation in peacekeeping missions and have taken steps to limit it. This participation used to be a source of revenue for an otherwise impoverished army, and a way of integrating its different parts. The current challenge to it and to associated external support could eventually weaken the economic and social advantages associated with the military career, and is a further risk for the stability of the country.

Impoverished and ethnically and politically polarised, the army is reforming around a loyalist hard core and open confrontations between army factions have been avoided since May 2015. But this apparent and only relative calm is based mainly on fear and should not mislead outside observers. The army that has been built since 2004 is now in ruins, and cannot be reconstituted short of an inclusive political agreement. This appears ever further off with the continued hardening of the regime and consequent difficulties encountered by the mediation of former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa. Without such a political agreement, the army faces two scenarios: a new confrontation, which could take the form of a new coup d’Etat, or a quiet but certain decline.

The relative success of army integration since 2004 has flowed from the Arusha Agreement. In this context, only guarantees concerning its continued application, or its consensual updating, could reassure officers that their future and that of their institution is secure. The UN, the African Union, the East African Community and the European Union should continue to push for an inclusive dialogue between the government and the exiled opposition, despite the government’s intransigence, which has hindered mediation attempts, and international partners who have supported the army since 2004 should not reinvest in an institution now deeply politicised as long as it remains under the control of an authoritarian and violent regime. The involvement of the Burundian army in peacekeeping operations should continue only under strict vetting conditions of the individuals taking part. The crisis in the army, reflecting that of the country, underlines the continued risk that the situation could deteriorate further.

Nairobi/Brussels, 5 April 201


The Burundian crisis, which erupted in April 2015 over disagreement about the legitimacy of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s candidacy for a third term, continues. Since his re-election in July 2015, the government and its opponents have been involved in a low-intensity armed struggle. While demonstrators protested against a third term (April-July 2015), the army made sure it stayed out of the political crisis, observing developments but not taking part in the repression. Unlike the police, the army avoided the use of force. Some soldiers even stepped in to prevent confrontation between demonstrators and police officers, which sometimes led to violence between police or intelligence service officers, and soldiers.

However, an attempted coup on 13 May 2015 highlighted dissent within the army. The Arusha Agreement of 2000, which enshrined the principle of ethnic parity in the security forces, and later agreements between the National Council for the Defence of Democracy/Forces for the Defence of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD) and the National Liberation Forces (Forces nationales de libération, FNL), a rebel Hutu group dating from the civil war and the FDD’s great rival, provided for the integration of the rebels into the army, with the support of guarantors of the Arusha Agreement, including the UN and South Africa. In 2004, the rebel groups and an army mainly composed of and led by Tutsis merged to form the National Defence Force (Force de défense nationale, FDN). The former Burundian Armed Forces (ex-FAB) form the old guard of the army, mainly Tutsi, while the former Armed Political Parties and Movements (ex-Partis et mouvements politiques armés, ex-PMPA) are former combatants of mainly Hutu armed groups, including the FDD, which is now in power, and which were integrated into the army after the peace agreements.

The attempted overthrow of the government, when President Nkurunziza was in Tanzania for an East African Community (EAC) summit, was led by Godefroid Niyombare, former armed forces chief of staff and a very popular and historic figure in the governing party, and Cyrille Ndayirukiye, former defence minister and member of the former Burundian Armed Forces. It revealed opposition to a third term among some officers and dragged the army right into the middle of the political maelstrom. Ndayirukiye and three other generals were sentenced to life imprisonment and Niyombare went into exile. Political violence then erupted in the army: the government moved against suspects in an attempt to eradicate every pocket of resistance.

The army and its dissident factions are far from being the only perpetrators of the violence that has shaken Burundi since 2015. While the army has been reformed in line with the Arusha Agreement, the agreed quotas were not implemented in the police force, where many officers today are ex-PMPA, and were not applied strictly to the National Intelligence Service (Service national de renseignement, SNR). The government has therefore been able to place former civil war allies in these two institutions. They are now largely loyal to the government and their leadership is very politicised. The SNR, very close to the PMPA, and formerly led by a radical member of the government, Adolphe Nshimirimana, has long been the most feared institution in Burundi.

The FNL was the last armed group to join the peace talks and the government only started to integrate its combatants into the FDN in 2009. After their political party boycotted the 2010 elections, they suffered fierce repression from the government and some of them who had joined the FDN fled. Some went back to the bush led by Aloys Nzabempema in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The crisis has accelerated these desertions and intensified the repression of FNL militants. However, their historic leader, Agathon Rwasa, remains in Burundi and has sat in parliament since the 2015 elections.

II.From a Political to a Military Crisis

A.Purges and Reprisals

The 2015 campaign against the third term continued into 2016 within the military. A series of tit-for-tat assassinations has created a climate of paranoia and major tensions within the army.

Since August 2015, killings of soldiers have continued. The victims’ identity, often officers, indicates that these are mainly targeted killings in reprisal for either support of or opposition to a third term. The assassination of General Adolphe Nshimirimana, former head of the National Intelligence Service, on 2 August 2015 was followed on 15 August by the assassination of Colonel Jean Bikomagu, from the former Burundian Armed Forces (ex-FAB), armed forces chief of staff at the time of the coup against the Hutu President Ndadaye in 1993 and a symbol of the Tutsi military old guard and the rejection of a Hutu government.

On 22 March 2016, Lieutenant Colonel Darius Ikurakure, from the former Armed Political Parties and Movements and in charge of repression in the northern neighbourhoods of Bujumbura, and, a few hours later, Major Didier Muhimpundu (ex-FAB), were killed. The armed forces chief of staff, ex-FDD, General Prime Niyongabo, escaped an assassination attempt in September 2015, while General Athanase Kararuza (ex-FAB and military adviser to the first vice president) was killed in an ambush in front of the Saint-Esprit College in Bujumbura on 25 April 2016.

Although the ex-FAB (on active service and retired) were the first to come under suspicion from the regime, its violence has not spared the former Armed Political Parties and Movements opposed to the third term, such as Colonel Emmanuel Buzubona, former number two