The results of the election in Burundi could have a massive effect on the whole region

The two main candidates are former rebel leaders. Each side is convinced they are going to win – I compare them to two military camps ready to fight – and the results could be disputed

William Foursquare
Bujumbura
Wednesday 20 May 2020 13:38
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Protest in Burundi after UN decides to send police

Today is election day in Burundi, in spite of Covid-19, of which the country has recorded 42 cases so far. Change is on the cards, whoever wins.

Pierre Nkurunziza, who has led the country since 2005, is not standing again. After surviving a coup attempt when he announced he was running for a third term in 2015, he will receive the title of “supreme guide to patriotism” and keep a role in some ceremonies and chairing a committee of elders of the ruling party. He's leaving but staying, and the election victors will have to contend with this.

The ruling party candidate is army man and party General Secretary Evariste Ndayishimiye. Six candidates are running against him, including his principal rival, Agathon Rwasa of the National Freedom Council.

The two main candidates are former rebel leaders. Each side is convinced they are going to win – I compare them to two military camps ready to fight – and the results could be disputed.

The government is continuing a pattern by harassing the opposition. During the election campaign, so many people have been jailed, kidnapped or killed in clashes between the ruling party Imbonerakure youth league and rival groups that I fear the effects on the electoral process.

Justice for political violence is inconsistent. Opposition candidates seem to be brought to book as quickly as possible, while the Catholic Church and civil society organisations warn that those from the ruling party who are found guilty aren’t seriously punished. UN investigators who have been looking into injustices since 2016 aren’t allowed to come to Burundi. The Independent National Electoral Commission lacks credibility since it isn’t always there when it’s needed.

But there are positive aspects to this election too. The opportunity to choose the first new leader for 15 years means Burundians feel energised to take part. Talking to some voters, they told me they don't fear Covid-19, and some would be willing to die if that meant a wider change. And in a country known for its ethnic problems, both the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups are heavily involved in campaigning, which is an important sign of unity.

From my journalism work, I know many officials around the country have tried hard to be neutral between the ruling and opposition party youth movements. More than 300,000 people have been in political exile until now. Both leading presidential candidates say that they will welcome exiles and refugees back home, which is a boost to stability as people outside the country can be targeted for recruitment by armed groups.

The majority of National Assembly candidates aren’t known in politics. The ruling party wants to distance itself from past actions and bring in fresh blood, partly out of fear of International Criminal Court investigations.

This will be the first election that Burundians born after 2000 can vote in. The ruling party’s talk about saving the country from the EU’s attempts at regime change in 2015 won’t work with this age group. They are about to finish their studies and look at their immediate elders who don’t have jobs. They just want practical solutions to their problems, rather than a history lesson in heroic freedom struggles.

In Burundi people don’t advertise who they vote for, out of fear. Privately, so many people have shifted their support from the government to the National Freedom Council. If this election is managed properly and no one is denied a vote, it might end up evenly split between the parties, or even victory for Agathon Rwasa, according to civil society leader Pacifique Nininahazwe, who is in exile in Europe.

There’s a huge gap between the two main parties and it would be a good thing if they sit together in a government of national unity. Under the constitution, there must be a percentage of opposition legislators in government if an election result is close enough, and women and minority ethnic groups must have sufficient representation. In Nkurunziza’s first two terms, for example, members of a Tutsi party, the Union for National Progress, sat in government, and from 2015 National Freedom Council members did so.

There was condemnation online when it was announced on 8 May that international observers would need to undergo 14 days’ quarantine when they arrived, meaning they couldn’t observe on election day. But it’s hard to talk about an international community of any kind in Burundi. Since the coup attempt, the government has focused on achieving independence from international aid donors and most foreigners haven’t been allowed in. Western governments and international organisations will have very little influence on the election, although some embassies have said they will perform observations.

The next president needs to deliver a radical agenda. The economy has shown anaemic growth since 2015, not exceeding 2 per cent a year. A country with Burundi’s low levels of development and rich resources should aim for double digit growth. There’s so much to be done to achieve this, including transport infrastructure, transparency in the mineral industry and more food growing since people are still starving in Burundi.

Then there are major concerns around the impact of Covid-19. There’s been no lockdown or encouragement of social distancing, with the president’s spokesperson saying that God will protect Burundians against the virus. There have been mass rallies with no strong protections for people attending. The government tried to give masks to party officials but I haven’t seen people using them. Burundi’s healthcare system does not have the capacity to cope if there is a surge in cases.

It is extremely difficult for journalists to report freely in Burundi, and it is also rare for Western media to put Burundi in the headlines. It is important the world pays attention to this election – to show support for democracy in the time of Covid-19, and because what happens could rebound on the whole region.

William Foursquare is a journalist in Burundi. They have written under a pen name.

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