Elections in Burundi – more unrest to come?

burundi map

Burundi’s presidential election is set to take place on 26th June 2015 but questions remain over whether the incumbent, Pierre Nkurunziza, will run for a third successive term. Although this is forbidden by the country’s constitution and the Arusha Accords – the peace agreement which brought an end to Burundi’s civil war (1993-2005) – it is understood that Nkurunziza will attempt to circumvent this on a technicality. The constitution stipulates that a president may only serve a maximum of two five year terms but Nkurunziza’s supporters argue that, as he was not directly elected for his first term (having been appointed under exceptional circumstances at the end of Burundi’s civil war), he is currently serving his first term as a constitutionally elected president. The possibility of Nkurunziza running for a third term has been criticized by a wide range of actors and has contributed to increasing political tension within the country as the election approaches.

Burundi’s opposition parties, which are broadly divided into two coalitions, the Alliance of Democrats for Change (ADC Ikibiri) and National Rally for Change (RANAC), have been highly critical of the suggestion that Nkurunziza will run again and have alleged that the ruling party has resorted to repression in order to quell dissent in the lead up to the election. A senior figure within RANAC, Agathon Rwasa, even accused the government of attempting to assassinate his wife, who was shot on 15th March 2015. Rwasa alleged that this was part of the government’s “plans to physically annihilate key leaders of the opposition and civil society organisations”. Such a view of the government is increasingly gaining traction in opposition circles in light of the imprisonment of a number of opposition politicians, human rights activists and journalists over the past year.

For example, in March 2014, 21 members of the MSD party, a member of the ADC Ikibiri coalition, were sentenced to life imprisonment for clashes with police. Moreover, in May 2014, a leading human rights activist, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, was arrested and charged with endangering state security for remarks made during a radio broadcast. However, it was the arrest of journalist, Bob Rugurika, which caused the greatest public reaction. In January 2015, Rugurika was arrested and charged with being an accessory to the murder of three Italian nuns in September 2014. This came after his radio station broadcast a supposed confession from a man claiming to be one of the killers who implicated the state intelligence service in the murder. The public reacted by protesting and calling for Rugurika’s release, which it achieved in February 2015. Upon Rugurika’s release, albeit only on bail, thousands took to the streets to celebrate in what was reportedly the largest public demonstration in Burundi in the last twenty years. This type of public action demonstrates that the government’s increasingly dictatorial style of governance is not only drawing criticism from the established opposition but also causing widespread discontent.

Furthermore, rumours have spread that the government and security services has a specific list of opposition figures which they want to remove before this year’s election. These rumours are now gaining coverage from the international press as is demonstrated by this AFP report. Some figures have even referred to it as a “death list”. Both Rwasa and Mbonimpa have stated publicly that this list exists and that their names are on it. Although the Burundian security services have unsurprisingly denied that such a list exists, the reports of extra-judicial killings in December 2014 to January 2015 have provided some credibility for such claims. Human Rights Watch reported in January 2015 that a number of members of an armed rebel group in Cibitoke province suffered extra-judicial executions.  Significantly, witnesses reported that these executions were not only carried out by the armed forces but also local government officials and members of the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure. This indicates the lack of separation between the ruling party and state security, which unsurprisingly increases fear amongst the opposition. Such conditions help to foment political tension and increase the likelihood of political violence and large scale unrest. As the opposition view the established political process as under threat they are more likely to turn to political protest as a means to voice their opinion. When these conditions are combined with the fact that Nkurunziza appears to want to run for an unconstitutional third term, it is highly likely that this year’s election will cause widespread social unrest.

Although at the time of writing Nkurunziza has still not openly declared his candidacy, his apparent intention to extend his rule was revealed in March 2014, when the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, attempted to alter the constitution but failed to acquire parliamentary approval. Since then, the president has remained distinctly quiet on the matter. However, actions taken against those who are critical of this supposed plan appear to indicate Nkurunziza’s intentions. Significantly, this includes senior members of the CNDD-FDD who wrote to Nkurunziza urging him to not run in this year’s election on 23rd March 2015. In reaction to this, the party expelled ten of the initial signatories, including the president’s spokesman, the party’s spokesman, and a provincial governor. Thus, it appears that the president and those around him are removing dissent from within the CNDD-FDD so as to clear Nkurunziza’s path to a third term. However, this dissent from within may be greater than Nkurunziza supposes. This was suggested by the ease with which the former chief of the CNDD-FDD, Hussein Radjabu (who was imprisoned amid a rift with Nkurunziza) escaped prison in early March 2015. It has been suggested that certain senior figures in the party and state security facilitated this escape, and that Radjabu still remains influential within the CNDD-FDD. Thus, if Nkurunziza does run again, it could also spark protests from within his party, causing further unrest.

Although a number of influential figures and organisations including Burundi’s National Council of Roman Catholic Bishops, the EU, the US deputy secretary of state David Gilmour and Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete have all urged Nkurunziza to honour the agreement of term limits outlined in the Arusha Accords, Nkurunziza has shown little sign of following their advice. As a result it is likely that Burundi’s election, and the lead up to it, will be characterised by large scale social unrest and political violence and repression.

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