Burundi's main opposition alliance in exile, the National Council for Compliance with the Arusha Agreement (CNARED), says it plans to participate in the 2020 national elections.
A recent announcement, at a news conference with CNARED press officer Mames Bansubiyeko, took many politicians by surprise. On Wednesday, the alliance's executive secretary, Anicet Niyonkuru, arrived in the capital, Bujumbura, from Brussels, Belgium, along with 15 other opposition politicians who have lived in exile the past four years.
Niyonkuru said elections were the only way to improve conditions in Burundi, which has been stuck in political turmoil since President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for and won a controversial third term in 2015.
Niyonkuru also said that his party, CDP, and his alliance CNARED would not repeat the same mistakes made in 2010 and in 2015 when they boycotted the elections, paving the way for an easy win by the ruling CNDD-FDD party.
"We will participate in elections slated for 2020 whether the political situation improves or not," he said.
The decision has triggered both criticism and praise from other political organizations. Some politicians argue that the decision is a capitulation from the alliance's initial tough stance on the president's third term, which critics still consider unconstitutional.
Professor Liberat Ntibashirakandi of the Universite Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium contends that politicians who fled the country after the 2015 crisis should not return until thousands of Burundian refugees now living in camps can also come home, safely.
"I personally believe that CNARED members have the right to go back to Burundi, but the only thing I fear are the consequences of such a decision and the impact it may have on Burundian refugees who will feel betrayed by the decision to go back to a country they fled and still fear to go back to," he told VOA's Central Africa service. He said opposition politicians in exile have heeded the call by President Nkurunziza for all Burundians to come home and build their nation.
"The return of Burundian refugees in exile -- specifically that of Anicet Nionkuru and a dozen other opposition politicians -- is in line with the response many politicians and Burundians are giving to the call urging of them to go back," he said.
Ildephonse Rugema, a political analyst based in London, said that it is too early to judge the choice made by leaders of the CNARED alliance. Rugema said he would be observing to see if the government upholds democratic principles and freedom for all politicians.
"The announced return of politicians could be a good thing for the future of Burundi only if the Burundi government is going to provide freedom and political space to all Burundians wishing to participate in the coming elections, including refugees," he said.
Since 2015, CNARED has changed its political stance several times. At the beginning of the crisis, CNARED announced it would not hold talks with Nkurunziza's government until he resigns and accepts a transitional government.
Later, CNARED agreed to participate in the inter-Burundian dialogue under the auspices of regional mediator Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda, and international facilitator and former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa.
The inter-Burundian dialogue ended in failure three years later when Mkapa announced that he was resigning from his role as a facilitator on February 9, 2019.
During the two past months, CNARED leaders have been between Belgium and Uganda for peace consultations aimed at exploring possibilities of returning to Burundi.
To some extent, the alliance is bending to the hard facts of the political situation. The East African Court of Justice recently issued a ruling that President Nkurunziza did not violate Burundi's constitution or the East African community's laws.
The decision is in line with that taken by the Burundi Constitutional Court, right after Nkurunziza's "third term" was challenged by the opposition.