April 20, 2015 / 9:52 AM / 5 years ago

Opponent sees protests if Burundi president seeks re-election

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Burundi’s president will provoke more protests if he announces plans this month to seek a third five-year term and the poor African nation risks being dragged back into a cycle of unrest, a rebel-turned-politician said.

Agathon Rwasa, a presidential hopeful who in 2009 was the last rebel commander to lay down weapons, told Reuters he would call for peaceful protests if Pierre Nkurunziza chose to run, a move opponents say would violate the constitution and the Arusha deal that ended a 12-year civil war in 2005.

Nkurunziza has yet to state his intentions, but supporters argue he can and should run in the June presidential vote. Diplomats expect him to declare this month before a May deadline to register. Some opponents have already held small protests.

“The constitution gives us the right to protest,” Rwasa, now a leading opposition voice, said on Sunday from Burundi.

He pledged to battle the president and his CNDD-FDD party at the ballot box and not by taking up arms.

“We don’t want any struggle any more in this country.”

But he added the Imbonerakure youth wing of the ruling party was stashing weapons and “terrorizing the people” in some areas, driving thousands of people to flee in fear to next door Rwanda.

“What is it (the weaponry) aimed for if not violence?” he said.

CNDD-FDD party president Pascal Nyabenda denied such charges to Reuters, blaming the “weak” opposition for stoking fears and seeking to use violence itself because they could not win.

The president’s office says it will be up to the constitutional court to decide on eligibility of the ruling party’s candidate, whoever it is.

The constitution and the peace deal that ended that war both stipulate no one should be president for longer than 10 years. But Nkurunziza’s backers argue that his first term should not count since he was picked by lawmakers rather than voted in.

Nkurunziza is one of several African leaders approaching term limits. In Burkina Faso, mass protests last year ousted long-time ruler Blaise Compaore when he tried to stay on.

Regional leaders have urged Nkurunziza to stick to the limit. The United States and the European Union have indicated they could take steps against those causing any violence.

Diplomats say the president seems to be ignoring pressure.

“I am afraid that the international community ... may isolate Burundi,” Rwasa said. One of the world’s poorest countries, Burundi depends on donors to fund almost half its budget.

Rwasa and the opposition boycotted the 2010 elections, complaining of rigging. But Rwasa said the opposition could not stand aside this time in May local and parliamentary elections, a June presidential race and the senate vote in July.

“We must ... confront all the obstacles that they are placing in front of us,” said Rwasa, who will run as an independent as his party is not recognized, with the backing of a coalition of several parties and groups.

The government denies obstructing opponents and promises a fair race.

Some opposition parties have talked of fielding a single candidate to challenge Nkurunziza, whose powerbase is in the countryside where he spends much of his time. But agreement is difficult in a nation with dozens of registered parties.

Rwasa said one candidate would be the best scenario, although he said a deal might only emerge once parties or coalitions see how they fare in voting in May.

The president’s office said the ruling party expects to hold a congress to pick its presidential candidate before the end of April to meet the May 1-9 window to register.

Burundi’s civil war broadly pitted the army, then dominated by the ethnic Tutsi minority, against rebel groups of mostly majority Hutus, such as Rwasa’s FNL. The army is now divided between both ethnic groups and has absorbed rival factions.

Rwasa, a Hutu, said there was a risk the army could fracture if the political crisis deepened and some politicians or groups could try to play on ethnic tensions, although he said ethnicity had no role in the nation of 10 million’s problems.

“Hutu and Tutsi are suffering alike under mismanagement of the government of President Nkurunziza,” he said.

Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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