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Burundi vice-president defects to Belgium, claims conspiracy to jail him

Burundi police arrest an anti-Nkurunziza protester in Bujumbura in early June Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

Burundi's constitutional crisis is set to take a turn for the worse with a vice-president’s defection to Belgium. Gervais Rufyikiri says he was personally threatened for speaking out against President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term. His departure has sparked debate in Burundi and raised questions about the president’s support within the ranks of his own party.

“I had to find an excuse to leave the country because I could tell threats were on the cards,” Rufyikiri told RFI in an interview. “They were cooking up a plan to have me jailed.”

Like many other Burundians, including some within the ranks of the ruling CNDD-FDD, the country’s second vice-president publicly stated his opposition to a presidential third term, a controversial candidacy that has triggered protests in the capital, Bujumbura, leading to the arrest of more than 1,000 people.

Rukyikiri, a prominent figure within the ruling party, said he found himself cast out of the president’s inner circle after he advised him to refrain from standing again.

“No one was communicating with me,” Rufyikiri recounted. “People were afraid of paying me a visit, of talking to me over the phone.”

Fearing for his own safety, the vice-president designed a scheme that would allow him to board a plane for Brussels.

“I made up this story, saying that I needed medical attention abroad, when in actual fact I was leaving for good,” he said. “I will go back home when things have changed.”

His departure is described by opposition supporters as a political setback for the president.

“It’s a big blow to the whole system, to both the government and the party in power,” said exiled blogger Kris Nsabiyumva. “It shows that they’re not as strong as they pretend. Obviously they have lots of problems inside the government and inside the party.”

In the Burundian media diehard presidential supporters have lashed out at the vice-president’s defection.

“Those who are more or less in support of Nkurunziza are calling [Rufyikiri] a traitor, saying that his flight to Belgium was typical of someone who also has Belgian nationality and saying that he’s no longer a true Burundian,” explained Pádraic MacOireachtaigh, an independent filmmaker who lives in Bujumbura.

Presidential spokesperson Willy Nyamitwe countered on his Twitter account that the vice-president had three reasons for leaving: the end of his vice-presidential term, his absence from electoral lists and his Belgian citizenship.

Rufyikiri’s departure is set to aggravate the country’s constitutional crisis because it seriously curtails the president’s executive powers, according to lawyer and political activist Pacelli Ndikumana.

Under Burundi’s constitution, the second vice-president must countersign legislation in the social and economic realm, meaning that Nkurunziza may be hard pressed to adopt key items like the budget.

“He’s got to urgently appoint a second vice-president because unless he’s appointed the president will not be able to exercise his executive power,” noted Ndikumana, explaining that the president first has to obtain the support of both houses of parliament on one candidate.

 “It’s not as easy as it sounds,” Ndkimuna remarked.

Rufyikiri is not the first high-ranking Burundian official to have defected, the vice-president of the country’s national electoral commission and a senior judge fled in May.

Anti-Nkurunziza protests erupted on 26 April, a day after he announced his plans for constitutional reform.

Calm has returned to the capital, although a grenade attack reportedly wounded some civilians in Bujumbura on Thursday.

The unrest has led to the postponement of the presidential vote, now scheduled for 15 July, and the legislative elections, now set for 29 June.

Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011