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Threat of Violence Doesn’t Dampen the Campaign Festivities In Burundi

Amid unrest that UN officials fear may escalate into atrocities, President Pierre Nkurunziza held his final rally today in the run-up to next week’s election.
Photo par Eric Fernandez/VICE News

Thousands of jubilant supporters attended a campaign rally for Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and his CNDD-FDD party on Friday in what is expected to be one of his last public appearances ahead of the controversial elections set for next week.

Security stations manned by military, police, and the ruling party's youth wing known as the Imbonerakure dotted the road from the capital of Bujumbura to the rally's location in Cibitoke, located about 50 miles from the site of recent violent clashes in the northwestern part of the country.

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But the atmosphere at the rally was festive, with drummers and singers performing songs mocking the man behind May's failed coup attempt, Nkurunziza's former ally Godefroid Niyombare. Nkurunziza took the stage in the afternoon, telling the crowd that the international community was misled in thinking there couldn't be a presidential election due to the unrest. He also stressed that no opposition party would pose a challenge, in part thanks to the support of the army and police.

Nkurunziza and his entourage bow their heads in prayer at the start of the rally on Friday.

The East African country has been embroiled in political turmoil since April 26, when the CNDD-FDD announced that Nkurunziza planned to run for what many say is an unconstitutional third term as president. The news sparked violent clashes between Nkurunziza supporters and those opposed to his current candidacy, triggering a wave of government-sponsored repression and intimidation that has left many fearing for their lives.

The country's constitution calls for a two-term limit on the presidency. The 51-year-old former rebel leader was appointed to office on a transitional basis by the country's parliament in 2005 following a decade of civil war. Nkurunziza then won re-election for a second term in 2010 elections, which were boycotted by most of his opponents. His supporters claim he is now eligible to seek another term because he was not elected by a popular vote when he first took office. Burundi's constitutional court agreed with this argument and ultimately cleared the way for Nkurunziza to run in the upcoming elections, which were originally scheduled for the end of June.

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The failed coup attempt led by Niyombare in May caused further tension. Following pressure from regional leaders and the international community, the ruling party delayed the elections twice; the polling is now set for July 21.

"There is a misconception that Nkurunziza wants to be president," Ezechiel Nibigira, a CNDD-FDD member of parliament, told VICE News. "It's not him, it's the people who want him to be president. He has been pulled ahead by the people."

Onlookers waved flags and held signs in support of Nkurunziza, a signal that support for the president may still be strong in rural areas of Burundi.

Last week deadly clashes reportedly took place between an unidentified rebel group and the Burundi Defense Force in the northwest of the country. A local activist told VICE News that Nkurunziza sought to send a message by making his final campaign stop relatively close to the recent fighting.

"He's showing that he has no fear, he's telling the people that he still controls the country," said the activist, who declined to give his name out of fear of reprisals.

Though in the midst of turmoil and mounting international pressure, Nkurunziza maintains support in Burundi, particularly in the north. That appears to include both rural and urban areas.

"The president still has strong support inside of Bujumbura itself," Evan Cinq-Mars, a research analyst at the Global Centre for Responsibility to Protect, told VICE News.

While Nkurunziza has maintained support from his base and within CNDD-FDD, Cinq-Mars stressed that the ruling party is not completely unified. Recent unrest has brought the internal differences to light, the highest-profile example being Niyombare's coup attempt.

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Crowds gather for Nkurunziza's speech.

Vital Niyungeko, the president of the Cibitoke Imbonerakure, said that the CNDD-FDD was in high spirits ahead of the election.

"We are feeling happy, we have so many members of the party that have come out to support the government that has worked for the country," he said, pointing out improvements to roads and schools built in the past decade.

There are reports, however, of plans of exiled CNDD-FDD members to establish a transitional government in Burundi. The movement to create the National Council for the Restoration of the Arusha Accord and the Rule of Law in Burundi is reportedly led by Gervais Rufyikiri, the former second vice president who defected to Belgium in June.

Niyungeko scoffed at the rebels and the formation of an outside transitional government, saying "there's no fear, even now when we finish here, we're going to the province of Kayanza [the area where the rebels attacked]."

When questioned about criticisms leveled by the international community concerning the elections, he cited the public turnout at the rally as an indication of popular support for Nkurunziza.

"What you can see is that a lot of the population, perhaps 80 percent, want to elect the president," Niyungeko said. "How can the UN and the east African community enter into the affairs of the country of Burundi?"

On Thursday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement from a panel of UN officials urging action due to the potential for mass atrocities in Burundi. The officials demanded a response from the Security Council about the situation, warning that it could escalate.

"The international community must not simply stand by and wait for mass atrocities to unfold," the statement read, "thereby risking a major conflict of regional proportions before it finally decides to act."

All photos by Eric Fernandez/VICE News

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