- - Wednesday, May 20, 2015

BUJUMBURA, Burundi — Circling vultures monitor the shaky efforts to restore peace in the streets — a week after a failed coup against President Pierre Nkurunziza, clashes between police and demonstrators continue, and many of those who returned home are forced to find shelter once again.

Tension and insecurity are running high here in this small, landlocked nation, which many see as a symbolic test of the region’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law in a country that has known brutal political violence in the past.

Amid fierce criticism, Mr. Nkurunziza is running for a third term — a violation, many argue, of Burundi’s constitution and of a peace deal calling for a two-term presidential limit following the country’s civil war, which claimed 300,000 lives before ending in 2005. That war tragically resembled the far more well-known 1994 genocidal conflict in neighboring Rwanda, which pitted a Hutu majority against a Tutsi minority.

Like Rwanda, Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world, has a large Hutu majority, with ethnic Tutsis and other minorities making up about 15 percent of the population.

Mass demonstrations against Mr. Nkurunziza last week climaxed when General Godefroid Niyombare, a former head of the country’s intelligence service until he was dismissed by the president in February, and other military leaders tried to oust the president while he was visiting nearby Tanzania. The coup failed, and the generals, except Gen. Niyombare, were arrested. On Monday, in one of his first acts since suppressing the coup, Mr. Nkurunziza replaced his defense and foreign ministers in a purge. On Wednesday the government took a step many expected and said it was postponing a parliamentary election set for Tuesday until early June at the earliest.

Several regional leaders, including South African President Jacob Zuma and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, this week have called for the postponement of the June 26 presidential vote as well until political stability returns.

Since the latest demonstrations began, at least 20 people have died and hundreds have been arrested. Around 105,000 refugees have spilled into Rwanda, Congo, Tanzania and other neighboring countries out of fears of renewed ethnic bloodshed, the United Nations reported.

Burundi police fired live bullets, tear gas and even tossed a grenade Wednesday to disperse hundreds of protesters still angry over the president’s bid for a third term in office, The Associated Press reported. One soldier died while trying to stop the police barrage, a captain said.

Joyce Mugisha’s husband was among the protesters killed last week.

“The end of our suffering will depend on the president’s decision,” said the 28-year-old mother of two. “If he decides to step aside, then there will be peace and we will go back to our homes. We’ve lost our beloved ones, and we don’t want to continue going through pain.”

Youth militias deployed

Many refugees live in fear of pro-Nkurunziza youth militias called “Imbonerakure,” or “Those Who See Far” in a local dialect. The militants have been finding and punishing anti-government demonstrators.

Threats like the Imbonerakure lead Burundians to worry about what the president plans to do now that he has suppressed the coup that many supported.

“We know the president is a dictator, but we’ll not allow him to violate the constitution — he has ordered his police to fire at protesters,” said Antoine Ndayikeza, an activist who has been leading protests in the capital. “There will be peace only if the president comes out and assure Burundians that he will not run for another term.”

Mr. Nkurunziza claims he is eligible for a third term because technically he was appointed to his first term by parliament, not through a popular vote. A court ruled he was correct, and at least some voters agree.

“The people calling the president to step aside are hungry for power, and some are basing their claims on ethnic balance,” said Patrick Tuyisenge, a civil servant in the transportation ministry. “Nkurunziza is allowed to run again, and we will support him. The president was not elected by the people during his first term.”

The president himself insisted the opposition is largely limited to the capital and has been vastly overstated.

Some “99.9 percent of the country’s citizens are leaving in peace and going on with their business,” he said Wednesday.

Earlier this week, in his first appearance since the coup, the president avoided questions about the political strife and instead talked of the threat to Burundi from al-Shabab, the Islamic militant group active in Somalia and Kenya.

Invoking Islamic terrorism was a potential avenue to cracking down on opponents, said Mutahi Ngunyi, a political scientist based in Kenya. “He used the coup to re-elect himself, like President Salva Kiir of South Sudan,” Mr. Ngunyi said. “I believe the president staged a coup against himself to avoid election and consolidate power.”

Critics say Mr. Nkurunziza is already squelching free speech in the aftermath of the failed challenge to his power.

Private radio stations and newspapers were shuttered during the coup last week. Only pro-government national radio continues to broadcast. Journalists are reportedly facing violence and intimidation from the government and Imbonerakure groups. Prominent human rights activists have been arrested for leading protests.

“We’ve been denied access to news to limit our quest to freedom,” said Mr. Ndayikeza, the activist. “The government’s national radio is spreading lies, telling civilians not to engage in protests because the country is peaceful and praising the president.”

But life in Bujumbura and other parts of the country has not improved since the coup. Bank and business closures have further eroded the country’s fragile economy.

“I have avoided opening my business for fear of insecurity and victimization,” said Erick Nijimbere, 45, a hotel owner in the capital. “Protesters have been looting and burning businesses that operate during demonstration.”

Elie Negereyimana, 27, a student, said there is likely more civil disturbances in Bujumbura to come soon.

“We hope President Nkurunziza will not run for the third term,” said Ms. Negereyimana. “If he insists to run for another term, then we will go to the street and protest. It will now be a civilian coup.”

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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