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Crisis in Burundi Rages as President Holds Firm on Third Term

President and his aides discuss a possible delay to the presidential election as Burundi’s electoral commission confirms the ruling party secured 77 percent of the vote in recent parliamentary polls.

by Pierre Longeray
Jul 6 2015, 6:00pm

Photo by DAI KUROKAWA

Burundi has been gripped by a wave of grenade attacks and violent street protests, dozens have died, and thousands have fled. The opposition has called on the president to respect the constitution; the UN has announced the elections were not "free, credible" or "inclusive"; and neighboring East African heads of state have convened to broker a deal and end the political crisis.

But Pierre Nkurunziza, the president of Burundi  — where peace has often been fragile since the end of the civil war in 2005 — has vowed to run for a third term.

Nkurunziza's ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, won a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections held on June 29 — according to Burundi's electoral commission (CENI), 77 of the 100 seats. And despite the opposition's boycott of the elections, an opposition coalition led by Agathon Rwasa and Charles Nditije secured 21 seats.

But the opposition does not recognize the election's results and has announced that it will not occupy the seats it won.

East African heads of state have urged Burundi's government to delay the upcoming presidential election — scheduled for July 15 — by two weeks. The leaders met Monday in Dar es Salaam, in neighboring Tanzania, to work on an end to the crisis in Burundi, sparked in April when Nkurunziza announced his ambitions for a third term.

For his part, Nkurunziza skipped the summit, remaining instead on the campaign trail to try and secure support for his bid for re-election.

According to presidential spokesman Gervais Abayeho, Burundi officials met with members of the electoral commission on Tuesday to discuss the possibility of delaying the election. "We are meeting today [Tuesday] to consider a reaction," Abayeho told Reuters.

On Wednesday morning, officials still hadn't announced any delay to the election.

CNDD-FDD chairman Pascal Nyabenda has said that any delay in polling would have to be in line with the Burundian constitution, which stipulates that presidential elections cannot go beyond July 26. "We will sit down and see what can be done by respecting our constitution," he said.

Monday's summit in Dar es Salaam — the third since the start of the crisis — was attended by Burundi's opposition. On Wednesday that opposition renewed its call to boycott the upcoming presidential election, and rejected the conclusions of the East African Community (EAC) summit, which include a request that the winning party form a government of national unity with the losers.

Watch the VICE News documentary: Radio Silence — Burundi's Independent Journalists Under Threat.

Adding to the crisis, there's also a question of voter turnout.

On Monday, SOS Médias Burundi — a collective of independent journalists formed at the start of the crisis — noted that the turnout in the parliamentary polls had been low outside Bujumbura, the capital and Burundi's largest city. According to the group, only 34.81 percent of registered voters turned out to vote.

Meanwhile CENI, the electoral commission, told the BBC that the ruling CNDD-FDD party came out ahead in every single one of the country's provinces and that voter turnout was as high as 98 percent. A spokesman for CENI did admit that in some opposition strongholds of Bujumbura the turnout was quite low.

And the rebels who were involved in a coup on May 13 — led by a former ally of the president when he was out of the country — made a comeback on Kenyan television. In an interview with Kenya's KTN news channel, Burundian rebel general Leonard Ngendakumana claimed responsibility for the wave of grenade attacks that started at the end of June. He vowed further attacks until the government was successfully toppled and threatened to use "military force" to oust Nkurunziza.

On Saturday, Pie Ntavyohanyuma, the head of Burundi's parliament, and Gervais Rufyikiri, the country's second vice-president, called on Nkurunziza to withdraw his "unconstitutional" candidacy, saying it violates the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, which limits the number of consecutive presidential terms to two. Speaking from Belgium, where they have sought refuge, Ntavyohanyuma and Rufyikiri also urged East African heads of state to intervene in the crisis and to disregard results from the June 29 elections, which they said were "neither credible, free, nor inclusive."

On July 2, the UN echoed that sentiment. And the plot thickened even further.

On Sunday, the ruling party told a United Nations mediator to resign, just two weeks after he arrived in the country to help resolve the political crisis. The ruling CNDD-FDD party accused Abdoulaye Bathily of lacking "respect for the country's sovereignty."

On Monday, EAC leaders nominated Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to be the new mediator. The news was welcomed by the Nkurunziza camp, with CNDD-FDD chairman Nyabenda calling Museveni "a wise man who knows very well what is happening in Burundi."  

The opposition, however, had it doubts about Museveni. "We are not against him, but he needs to work in his mediation with the African Union, the UN and the International Conference on Great Lakes Region," said opposition spokesman Aimé Magera.

Meanwhile, violence has flared up again in Bujumbura following last week's vote, after a brief respite over the election.

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

On June 30, a deputy police chief was shot in the opposition stronghold of Citiboke district, triggering a police operation the following day, in which six people were killed. SOS Médias Burundi announced Wednesday that a member of the opposition had been killed by a policeman in Cibitoke.

Despite the ongoing crisis, Nkurunziza has continued to show that he has no intention of withdrawing his candidacy, and voting ballots for the upcoming presidential election have been printed to show eight candidates are running.

— Sonia Rolley (@soniarolley) July 4, 2015

"Delivery of the voting ballots for the Presidential [election]. 8 candidates still in the race, according to CENI."

According to RFI, the president has been holding 30-minute meetings in towns across the country, touching on such themes as democracy, peace and developement.

On Saturday, the president's communications and press office released a campaign video called "Nkurunziza, a Man of Peace."

Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray