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Deadly Violence Ahead of Burundi's Election Foreshadows Struggle Ahead

As polls are now closing, the country is poised for more of the violent political turmoil that has plagued the African nation for the past months.

by Kayla Ruble
Jul 21 2015, 5:10pm

Photo by Will Swanson/EPA

A police officer and opposition party member died in violence overnight in Burundi just ahead of the start of voting in the country's presidential election Tuesday, and as polls are now about to close, its citizens are poised for more of the violent political turmoil that has plagued the African nation for the past two and a half months.

Gunfire was heard throughout Bujumbura, the African country's capital city in the early hours Tuesday, according to Reuters. Blame is already being placed on both sides for the nighttime deaths, with President Pierre Nkurunziza's adviser Willy Nyamitwe saying the opposition was at fault, while Reuters reported that local residents claimed the government was behind the MSD party member's death.

Tuesday's violence is just the latest in recent months following protests that spread through the streets of Burundi's capital in April when President Pierre Nkurunziza's and his party announced intentions to seek a controversial third term in office as the 2015 presidential elections approached. The unrest sparked political tensions and violent crackdowns against demonstrators carried out by police.

In the months since, more than 160,000 people have fled the country, dozens have been killed, and defectors attempted — and failed — to stage a coup. Meanwhile, regional heavyweights and international organizations alike have called for the former rebel leader to either back down or delay elections until the situation stabilizes and a fair vote could be held.

Despite calls from abroad or a boycott declaration from the opposition, after talks collapsed over the weekend the ruling CNDD-FDD party refused to back down from this week's scheduled vote. The gunfire and violence overnight only added to the current climate of fear, but still the people of Burundi made their way to the polls this morning to cast their vote for president.

While Burundi has made significant progress since the peaceful transition process in 2005, currently 66.9 percent of the population of the land-locked nation lives in poverty, compared to the overall rate in sub-Saharan Africa of 46.8 percent. Life expectancy sits at 54 years, and corruption is entrenched in the country, with Burundi ranking 159 out of 175 world nations in the most recent Corruption Perceptions Index report.

The vote marks the second presidential elections held by popular vote since the country emerged from civil war just a decade ago. With citizens and international monitors alike closely watching the polling, the current crisis will not fade away when election results are announced. Instead, the coming days, weeks, and months will test whether Burundi, which was once seen as a post-conflict success story, risks further unraveling.

"The election is a forgone conclusion, the opposition is boycotting it, so Nkurunziza is going to win," Ken Opalo, a fellow and political science doctoral candidate at Stanford University, said firmly ahead of Tuesday's vote, which sees the 51-year-old former rebel leader face off against contenders from several opposition parties.

"The president is hanging on just one misplaced article in the constitution," he told VICE News, referencing wording in the constitution that validates Nkurunziza's aim to lead Burundi for another five years. "That's all he's hanging on."

Related: 'The President Will Go to the Hague': Protests Escalate in Burundi

Burundi's constitution is largely based off of the Arusha Accords, a peace agreement hammered out in the early 2000s as the Great Lakes nation's decade-long civil war came to a close. A key guideline that was later transferred into the country's constitution sets out a clear two-term limit for each president. Nkurunziza and his supporters, however, maintained the president was eligible to run again, because he was actually appointed to his first term in 2005 by parliament.

The CNDD-FDD announced at the end of April that Nkurunziza would be the party's candidate in the upcoming presidential elections — originally scheduled for the end of June — which triggered major protests throughout Bujumbura.

Demonstrators held their ground in the streets for weeks as police officers waged brutal crackdowns, clashing with crowds and even killing protesters as Nkurunziza refused to back down on his plan. Early on, the African Union and US State Department alike criticized the leader for trying to hold onto power, while countries like Belgium withdrew millions of dollars in election aid. Ultimately, Burundi's constitutional court sided with Nkurunziza and cleared the way for him to run.

Major General Godefroid Niyombare, a former ally to the president and one-time military general, led a coup attempt in May, which resulted in further unrest and government backlash against political opponents. In the face of international pressure, Burundi has delayed polling twice.

As Nkurunziza and his allies pushed forward with the election to secure another five years of power, various opposition parties and politicians are planning to boycott today's vote. Burundi has essentially found itself in more or less of a political face-off, according to Evan Cinq-Mars, a research analyst at Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect.

"As it stands, the situation is locked into this political showdown, between an increasingly entrenched president and his party… and an opposition that feels it doesn't have the space to contest elections in a free, inclusive manner," he told VICE News.

While opponents and protesters hit their breaking point this spring, unrest had been simmering in Burundi for years, visibly enough for the United Nations to address on multiple occasions. The UN office in Burundi (BNUB) has registered extrajudicial killings in the country since 2011, and in a January 2015 report the Security Council highlighted the high number of physical threats, assaults, arbitrary arrests, and judicial harassment experienced by journalists and human rights defenders. These observations came as the UN prepared to draw down its mission in the country, largely based on strife with the government related in part to ongoing human rights reporting. By the end of 2014 BNUB was turned into an electoral office.

Observers have pointed to the 2010 election, which was also boycotted by the opposition, as an indicator that 2015 elections could spark unrest and unraveling in Burundi. The years after the vote that secured Nkurunziza's second term in office also marked an upward trend in political violence, according to Cara Jones, a political science professor at Mary Baldwin College.

"There's been violence and repression since 2005, but [it has] definitely been ramping up since 2010," she told VICE News. "The politics have always been messy."

Over the last five years, analysts have debated whether Burundi risked falling back into armed conflict, with many pinpointing the 2015 elections as the breaking point. A non-unified opposition, however, has made armed rebellion seem like less of a possibility, Jones explained. Meanwhile, she pointed out, the CNDD-FDD, which is by no means monolithic, has members who could drive development and political change.

Furthermore, the complete transformation of the Burundian army as part of the peace process, has potentially limited higher levels of violence, according to Jones. As she pointed out, the forces have become very professional, exemplified in the way they stayed relatively neutral during the protests this spring. Unlike the police force who carried out repression against civilians, particularly during recent moments of unrest, Jones said the army showed it was not going to kill people.

"If the army was going to go down on one side or the other you would see a lot more violence," she said.

While pointing out that the current crisis could have been, and was predicted to be, much worse, Cinq-Mars stressed that it's crucial to pay attention to what comes next.

"In general there's still a situation where you hope for the best, but you prepare for the worst," he said, noting that the country's past experience with mass atrocities, combined with current events on the ground create a potential for future mass atrocities. Other concerning factors, Cinq-Mars explained, include the increasing crackdown on political opponents, civil society groups, human rights defenders, and journalists.

In terms of how to handle the post-electoral period, Opalo stressed the need for international engagement in order to avoid a worsening situation. Opalo conceded that allowing Nkurunziza to take office and avoiding isolating him further might be the key in maintaining stability. In other words, international and regional leaders may need to cut their losses, and instead focus on ensuring he calls it quits by 2020.

As Opalo pointed out, the global community was not active enough in the last year in pressuring CNDD-FDD to nominate a candidate other than Nkurunziza.

"The international community should have engaged last year when he lost the parliamentary vote and tried to force the ruling party to get its act together and nominate someone else," he explained. "Instead of hoping that Nkurunziza would step aside and respect the constitution."

Cinq-Mars also stressed help from around the world as a key step moving forward, despite recent government demonstrations that it's unwilling or ineffective to listen to mediators.

"The international community must stay engaged in this," he said.

But while political ramifications have been the main focus of the political crisis, Jones pushed the need to follow the effects this situation will have on everyday families. One of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world, with more than 50 percent of its budget coming from foreign aid, the economic effects could be devastating. Meanwhile, Jones estimated that thousands more could flee the country after the polls come to close.

"The bottom line is that there are 10.4 million Burundians and 60 percent are under the age of 14," she said, noting the effects the current crisis could have on disease, child hunger, and other issues.

"After the journalists leave and whatever happens with the international community, these guys have to wake up and farm seven hours a day," she said. "And hopefully they can do it without a 22-year-old shooting a rocket propelled grenade."

Related: In the Shadow of War, Burundi Is on a Knife's Edge

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB