/ 13 May 2020

High-stakes election threatens Burundi’s stability

Burundi Health Virus Politics Election
Supporters of the ruling party the National Council for the Defense of Democracy - Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) react during the opening of the campaign in Gitega, central Burundi, on April 27, 2020, ahead of the Presidential and General election scheduled for May 20, 2020 despite the Covid-19 pandemic. (Tchandrou Nitanga/AFP)


In the early hours of May 4, just two weeks away from elections, Burundi’s ruling party tweeted an image of a large crowd at a political rally. The image was meant to illustrate the party’s ability to mobilise. But the post was soon deleted.

The reason? The image was that of people out in support of the main opposition candidate, Agathon Rwasa.

Rwasa’s National Congress for Freedom (CNL) party pounced on the photo blunder and claimed the “stolen” picture proved that the ruling party — the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) — is in desperate straits, struggling to mobilise its own crowds.

The photo and the exchange that followed revealed something that few thought possible a couple of weeks ago: the ongoing presidential campaign in Burundi is highly competitive. 

Both the ruling CNDD-FDD and opposition CNL are attracting thousands to their campaign events, despite the closed political space in a country that has struggled in the shadow of violence. Unfortunately, this contest for power carries a high risk of degenerating into electoral violence which could go beyond just election-day. 

The stakes couldn’t be any higher.

Agathon Rwasa (CNL) and Evariste Ndayishimiye (CNDD-FDD) are the main competitors in this seven-candidate presidential contest. Both from the majority Hutu ethnic group, they began their political carriers as senior commanders in predominantly Hutu rebel groups — Rwasa in the Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People (Palipehutu) and Ndayishimiye in FDD, the armed wing of the CNDD-FDD. 

Rwasa’s rebel movement and subsequent political parties have been bitter rivals since the civil war (Rwasa joined Palipehutu in 1988; FDD was formed six years later.) 

When CNDD-FDD came to power in 2005 as a result of a protracted peace process, the early victims of its regime’s extrajudicial killings were Rwasa supporters in Muyinga in 2006. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documented these killings.  

In the 14 years that followed, Rwasa would sign a ceasefire with the CNDD-FDD regime, join government institutions, go back into exile fleeing death threats, return home, be stripped of his party, run as an independent candidate, re-join government institutions and, in February 2019, form a new political party — CNL. 

One thing that remained constant throughout the years, despite the ceasefire, was that the CNDD-FDD regime kidnapped, detained, tortured, disappeared and killed Rwasa supporters by the hundreds. The worst of these killings might have been in the 2011-2012 period, during which a human rights body documented at least 125 extrajudicial killings — of mostly Rwasa supporters — between just May and August of 2011.

This year, in the lead-up to the elections, things have not been any easier either: CNL offices were demolished throughout the country and its members persecuted, thus it is no surprise that releasing all political prisoners ranks top on Rwasa’s agenda. 

It is against this backdrop that a fierce presidential campaign has emerged. Few had expected this turn of events. But now editorials, such as one in Iwacu, a prominent Burundian paper, openly compare the contest to the historic 1993 elections that ushered in Burundi’s first democratically elected president, ending nearly four decades of military dictatorships. Rwasa is being portrayed as the embodiment of change — similar to the charismatic candidate, Melchior Ndadaye, who ended up winning the 1993 polls.

In the aftermath of the violent political crisis triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial third term in 2015, the outcome of the 2020 election risks derailing Burundi further if not carefully managed by national and international stakeholders. The 2018 Constitution, which heightened the zero-sum game of Burundian politics, will complicate these stakeholders’ tasks because the losing party will have little incentive to accept the verdict. A recent policy brief by Stef Vandeginste, one of the foremost constitutional scholars on Burundi at the University of Antwerp, explains why. 

First, Burundi’s new Constitution, which is the brainchild of the ruling party and was promulgated by outgoing Nkurunziza in June 2018, is set to fully replace the 2005 Constitution that was built on the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement and was the beginning of the end to a decade-long civil war that killed an estimated 300 000 people.

The 2005 Constitution instituted power-sharing mechanisms that would underpin the country’s democracy. For example, it stated that any party that secured at least 5% of the vote in an election would be guaranteed a proportional number of seats in government. In the case of a Cabinet reshuffle, the executive would only be able to replace those ministers with members of that same party. In effect, a de facto unity government was enshrined in the Constitution. 

Vandeginste observed that this arrangement allowed Rwasa to secure ministerial positions for his colleagues, even though he had run as a leader of an independent coalition during the 2015 elections (the result of which Rwasa described as “not that realistic”). This provision, which could have helped convince a losing party to accept poll results in exchange of ministerial positions in 2020, assuming they secured at least 5% of the vote, has been removed from the new 2018 Constitution. 

Second, the 2018 Constitution states that a presidential term will now last seven years instead of five and the president will have the power to dissolve the National Assembly. The legislature can no longer remove a sitting president, contrary to provisions in the 2005 Constitution. The president will be empowered to veto any legislation that comes from the National Assembly without having to explain his actions. Simply waiting for 30 days from the date of passage will suffice for Bills to die at the presidential desk. 

The head of state will, as Vandeginste noted, also have “more freedom to appoint and dismiss government ministers”. The intelligence services under his direct command no longer have to submit to legislative oversight, another departure from the 2005 constitutional requirements. These are just a few examples of enhanced presidential powers that fully kick in after this month’s polls. 

Burundi’s first vice-president of the National Assembly Agathon Rwasa (L) greets people during the opposition’s campaign against the referendum for the constitutional amendment in 2018. (Photo by STR/AFP)

For the ruling CNDD-FDD, which is under International Criminal Court investigations and stands accused of human rights violations by a United Nations’ commission of inquiry, accepting defeat at the hands of its archnemesis, Rwasa, could be perceived as political suicide. Conversely, after being targets of atrocities for 15 years under Nkurunziza, Rwasa supporters have no reason to trust the CNDD-FDD. 

Complicating matters further, national mechanisms that could peacefully resolve an electoral dispute lack requisite confidence. The electoral commission is stacked with Nkurunziza-appointed, CNDD-FDD loyalists. Members of the Constitutional Court who accorded Nkurunziza his controversial third term were rewarded with an extension of their own term until after this year’s elections ( Nkurunziza further graced the president of the court with a chairmanship of the board of directors of Brarudi, a Heineken affiliate and Burundi’s most lucrative beer company).

Rwasa or opposition supporters generally will not acquiesce to these institutions’ verdicts should they differ from opposition’s own tallies. Will they then turn to protests that may turn violent and deadly? 

While much of the world is confined or socially distanced, Burundi’s tense presidential campaign that will end Nkurunziza’s controversial third term should awake regional, continental, and international stakeholders who proclaim to be invested in Burundi’s and regional stability. 

The African Union should put mechanisms in place that could allow independent verification of vote tallies from polling units to provincial and national collation centres. These mechanisms could, for example, facilitate the transmission of political party poll watchers’ signed polling units’ tally sheets to an AU-supported independent collation and verification centre. 

The AU should ready a high-level delegation to travel to Burundi (in a Covid-19-restrictions-compliant manner) at the time of the elections to have discussions with key stakeholders as soon as the continental body has reliable electoral results. While the East African Community — Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda — has announced plans to send observers it is run by a Nkurunziza appointee, who many could find biased, leaving the AU as the continental institution likely to be perceived as impartial. 

Elections are in two weeks. The window to prevent another disastrous political competition is quickly narrowing. Burundi’s neighboring countries still host hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled the unresolved 2015 crisis. If widespread violence were to erupt, it is questionable whether they will re-open their borders for a new wave of refugees in this Covid-19 era, particularly since Burundi is one of the few countries that did not enact serious measures to contain the novel coronavirus.

Thierry Uwamahoro is a member of the Burundian diaspora in the United States, with a background in elections-related projects for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute