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'Stock up on Food for Your Children': Burundi Votes Amid Continued Unrest

VICE News is in Bujumbura, Burundi, where the first election of the season passed off relatively peacefully on Monday. Yet people here continue to fear the worst, just one month after a failed coup.
June 30, 2015, 5:30pm
Photo by Pádraic MacOireachtaigh

A group of young men crowded around a small TV in a quiet neighborhood bar in Bujumbura as Burundi took to the polls on Monday.

This parliamentary and local vote is the first in a controversial election season in the East African country, marked by opposition boycotts, the threat of violence, and demonstrations over President Pierre Nkurunziza's contentious bid for a third term.

Grenade attacks have rocked Bujumbura for weeks following a failed coup d'état in May, while hearing shooting after dark has become a nightly occurrence. Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere in Burundi's capital on Monday was tense.


Yet as the men watched TV and updates from the state broadcaster crackled on a radio in the background, it was the women's soccer World Cup on the screen that fully held their attention.

"We prefer to watch the football," the bartender told VICE News. "It's more interesting to us than following these elections." Another spectator chimed in: "At least this way we can be surprised by the result."

A protester in Bujumbura, his face smothered in soot, adorns his head with flowers in celebration of a coup d'etat which was then quashed within two days. Photo by Pádraic MacOireachtaigh.

It's a sentiment shared by others here. The results of Monday's election have been, for many, a foregone conclusion. Indeed, unofficial counts are already suggesting a significant win for Nkurunziza's ruling CNDD-FDD party.

Nkurunziza came to power in 2005 following a civil war that killed around 300,000 people. On April 25, he announced that he had been nominated by his party to run as presidential candidate for a third term, following months of debate about its constitutional legality.

The Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, which brought an end to the war and upon which Burundi's Constitution is based, is clear about the presidential two-term limit. Nkurunziza's supporters, however, argue his first term should not count as he was appointed by parliament rather than universal suffrage. The Constitutional Court ruled in favor of his eligibility, but critics have rejected the ruling after its deputy president fled the country citing intimidation.

'Do not mistake our disinterest with apathy. These elections are a fraud.'

The dispute is ongoing. Burundi's opposition parties announced on Friday they would boycott the elections in protest at Nkurunziza's bid and over concerns that the political process would not be fair.

"Do not mistake our disinterest with apathy," a young blogger told VICE News on Monday. "As Burundians, we are upset with the way things are going. These elections are a fraud."


US State Department spokesman Mark Toner expressed disappointment that the elections went ahead "despite woefully inadequate conditions for them to be credible," and called on Nkurunziza "to place the welfare of his country and people ahead of his wish to serve a third term."

The UN was the only international observer present on Monday, following the European Union's withdrawal of support and the African Union's decision a day earlier not to observe the polls.

Related: In Photos: Masked Protesters Face Off with Burundi Police

"Not being there means they are playing the game of the radical opposition who have boycotted the process," presidential spokesman Gervais Abayeho told Reuters.

So these elections, already delayed by some weeks, continue to be marred by controversy, protest, and the possibility of violence — including the flight of high-profile government officials to Belgium and attacks on polling stations ahead of the vote. While the central point of contention has been the constitutionality of Nkurunziza's third term, other complaints include a crackdown on independent media and the intimidation of opposition supporters.

Some voters were searched by police as they entered polling stations on Monday while vehicles armed with powerful weaponry patrolled Bujumbura throughout the day. At times, they were the only cars on the streets as those who were not obliged to work chose to stay indoors. Most shops were shut up and the city was quiet.

The streets of Bujumbura were largely empty throughout Monday's elections, which saw low voter turnout in many areas. Photo by Pádraic MacOireachtaigh.

Sitting on a crate by the side of the road, a street vendor in the center of town captured the mood: "Everything is closed today. It's because people are scared. They have reason to be."

An old man selling household items warned VICE News against a visit to the market on Monday morning: "Visiting crowded places could be a bad idea."


Opening his kiosk was a risk given the mood of uncertainty on election day. "But what choice do I have? I have to earn something," he said. "At the end of the day, I still need to eat. Even today."

'We have no idea what tomorrow will bring.'

Asking not to be photographed, voters told VICE News of their fear of violent consequences for exercising their democratic rights. At a number of polling stations, people desperately tried to wash or scrape the ink used to vote from their fingers before leaving. People on all sides of the political divide reported threats to stay away from the polls.

In the early hours of voting on Monday morning, a grenade exploded a few hundred yards from a polling station in the Musaga neighborhood of Bujumbura. No casualties were reported. On Monday night, isolated gunshots punctuated the night in Bujumbura, but no heavy fighting was reported.

Despite a relatively calm election day, however, people in Burundi continue to fear the worst.

Pacifique Nininahazwe, a Burundian activist credited with coordinating much of the protest movement, warned on Monday evening: "Burundi is at risk of humanitarian catastrophe. For [Nkurunziza], any opposition to his third term is insurrection."

On a faded couch in her living room in Bujumbura, a long-term Greek expatriate recalls the overriding sense of daily uncertainty during Burundi's civil war.

"Make sure you stock up on food for your children," she warns. "During these interesting times, it's important to be prepared. We have no idea what tomorrow will bring."


While the capital has seen the greatest unrest over recent weeks, isolated attacks outside of Bujumbura have also contributed to widespread displacement. Almost 127,000 people have registered as refugees in neighboring countries since protests against the president's third term ambitions began in late April. The total number of Burundians who have left the country in recent weeks is believed to be much higher.

Of the country's 10 million people, 3.8 million are registered to vote in the elections. The presidential vote remains scheduled for 15 July.

Related: Stones Vs. Guns: A Night on Burundi's Streets with Elvis and His Protesters

Pierre Claver Ndayicariye, president of Burundi's electoral commission, estimated that about 70 percent of the electorate had voted by the early afternoon, but acknowledged lower numbers in the capital. "In Bujumbura, participation was much less strong, notably in the urban neighborhoods of Nyakabiga, Musaga, Cibitoke and even Ngagara," he said.

These areas have seen some of the most intense violence in recent weeks. At least three people were killed in clashes during the weekend before the election, including a four-year old girl hit by a stray bullet in the Bujumbura neighborhood of Kamenge during a police raid.

Electoral commission spokesman, Prosper Ntahorwamiye, claimed that by the close of voting participation in rural areas was nearer 100 percent. Others have called into question the neutrality of the commission after its vice president fled the country in May.

Relying on this largely rural powerbase, however, a significant majority could allow the CNDD-FDD to extend its control over state institutions and again attempt a constitutional amendment removing the two-term presidential limit.

Follow Pádraic MacOireachtaigh on Twitter: @kudupadraic