Last month Burundi was plunged in the worst political crisis since the end of the civil war. Elections were held in 2005 and 2010 and whilst the latter were marred by accusations of corruption, they nonetheless went ahead relatively peacefully. This year’s polls have been a different story.
The government of Burundi and the political opposition have failed to agree on the electoral process with the opposition stating that the government is violating the constitution and the Arusha Agreement (which brought an end to the civil war). Crucially, the agreement stipulated a two term limit for the highest office, which the opposition argues President Nkurunziza is violating by running for a third term. The president counters this with the argument that constitutionally this will be his second term as his first was elected by “˜indirect suffrage’ (National Assembly and Senate) rather than by a general election. The opposition disagree and say that they will boycott any election in which Nkurunziza attempts to run.
The presidential election was planned for June 26 with the legislative polls scheduled earlier in month. Since then, more than 40 people have been killed and over 300 injured during protests against the President’s decision to run for a third term. During protests, Imbonerakure – youth members of the ruling party – and police (some are Imbonerakure dressed as police) have been accused of shooting and killing protesters. One protestor in Cibitoke – a part of the capital Bujumbura that has seen heavy protests – stated that “police in collaboration with Imbonerakure do not hesitate to shoot at us. Imbonerakure are armed and put on police uniforms. They work for Nkurunziza.” The unrest has forced over 100,000 people to flee into neighbouring countries.
As protests have continued, support for the elections has unravelled. One week before legislative elections were due to take place, the Catholic Church decided to withdraw from the process. Bishop Gervais Banshimiyubusa, the president of Burundi’s “˜Council of Bishops’, declared that “after considering the way elections are prepared for and evolution of the current situation, we estimate that our priests (who acts as members of Provincial Electoral Commission) should resign from the National Electoral Commission.”
The European Union has suspended its election observer mission in Burundi over concerns about restrictions on the independent media, excessive use of force against demonstrators and intimidation of opposition parties and civil rights groups. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini stated that “In these circumstances, the EU Election Observation Mission cannot fulfil its role.”
During the East African heads of states summit held on May 31 regional leaders urged Burundi to postpone the elections for at least 45 days, during which time the country should enter into a meaningful dialogue among all stakeholders, and commit to disarming youths affiliated with political parties.
The proposed dialogue started on May 5, with political parties, civil society organizations, religious groups and the media all participating. However, it suffered a major blow when UN envoy, the Algerian diplomat and Special Envoy to the Great Lakes region Said Djinnit, stepped down as a mediator on June 11. Pacifique Nininahazwe, the president of FOCODE Forum for Conscience and Development (a civil society organization and one of organizers of the campaign against the Nkurunziza’s third term) welcomed the resignation of Djinnit, arguing that the talks under his mediation were not focusing on the root cause of the crisis, which he says is Nkurunziza’s third-term bid.
Nkurunziza issued a decree on 9 June postponing the presidential vote to July 15 – barely a fortnight later than initially planned and leaving little time for credible talks. Parliamentary elections have been pushed back about a month and are now scheduled to be held on June 29.
In another presidential decree issued on the same day, the organization and functioning of the election commission was amended. The decree concerns articles 10 and 11 which concern the required quorum for the commission meetings to make valid decisions. While the old text prescribed that four out five members should agree on any decision made by the commission, the new version reduces the required quorum to 3 out of 5.
The amendment of the decree is controversial as it comes at a crucial time for the commission soon after two of its members – Spí¨s Caritas Ndironkeye (CENI vice-president) and Illuminata Ndabahagamye (in charge of administration and finance) – fled the country on 1st June, leaving behind resignation letters. Both stated that they had resigned because they felt that the security situation remains unsuitable for elections to take place. With both dissenting commissioners no longer in place it would appear far easier for CENI to “˜rubber stamp’ any electoral action in favour of the president. The three remaining commissioners (and two more newly appointed) are widely believed to side with the President.
Opposition boycott elections
A group of 17 political parties has agreed to boycott the elections on the justification that under present conditions they will not be free and fair. Agathon Rwasa, the leader of Burundi’s main opposition National Liberation Forces (FNL) says that “the current political crisis is not favourable to peaceful elections. Burundians are not ready to participate in fake elections like the one which is the preoccupation of Pierre Nkurunziza and his CENI (Election Commission).” He adds that there is a need to form a new and independent electoral commission.
Political scientist Salatiel Muntunutwiwe – a lecturer at the University of Burundi – says that “all stakeholders should agree on the election process. The new electoral timeline is practically impossible as the opposition decided to boycott.” He worries that the government will push through with the elections, but the results will not be accepted by Burundians or the International Community.
During the African Union Summit held on 13 June in Johannesburg, the AU Peace and Security Council called for a dialogue to reach consensus on the electoral process. Nkrurunziza was not present at the Summit (Burundi was represented by the Foreign Minister Alain Nyamitwe) and it seems unlikely that this suggestion will be taken seriously.
It remains to be seen whether elections will continue as planned and the extent to which domestic and international concerns have fatally damaged their legitimacy.
Lorraine Nkengurutse is a Burundian journalist.