/ 19 May 2020

Election preview: Burundi braces for divisive vote

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)


Worldwide the coronavirus pandemic dominates the news, but in Burundi the government has been more concerned with the elections tomorrow, 20 May.

The vote takes place against a background of sustained human rights violations by the government against political opponents, and in an environment where voices critical of the government in both the media and civil society have been muzzled. 

“Violence and repression have been the hallmark of politics in Burundi since 2015, and as elections approach and the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds, tensions are rising,” said Lewis Mudge, the Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “There is little doubt that these elections will be accompanied by more abuses, as Burundian officials and members of the Imbonerakure are using violence with near-total impunity to allow the ruling party to entrench its hold on power.”

The Imbonerakure are the youth wing of the ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). This de facto militia group has allegedly been at the heart of human rights abuses.

The abuses began in earnest in 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza began agitating to extend his term in office. By 2018, he had forced through controversial constitutional amendments that would allow him to do so by several decades. But Nkurunziza will not be benefiting from these amendments. According to sources, Nkurunziza’s desire for a fourth term as president precipitated an internal crisis in the ruling party.

Top CNDD-FDD leaders thought the president had become so unpopular that he would not be able to win an election for the party, and agitated for him to step down. Fearing a popular uprising led by army generals in the party, Nkurunziza threw in the towel.

Instead, the ruling party’s presidential candidate will be Evariste Ndayishimiye, a close ally of the president, chosen, most believe, to ensure Nkurunziza does not face prosecution after leaving office.  Ndayishimiye, a former rebel fighter, heads the department of military affairs in the presidency. 

Although there are seven candidates on the ballot, the main opposition contender,  Agathon Rwasa, is another former rebel fighter – although he fought on a different side to Nkurunziza and Ndayishimiye during Burundi’s long civil war. Rwasa now leads the National Congress for Freedom. He has been a major figure in Burundian politics for decades, and has spent time both in government and in exile.

Although Rwasa and his party appear to be drawing considerable support, judging from their campaign rallies, the odds of electoral success are stacked against them.

“There are so many vices which paint black the ruling party and its candidate. But as long as the ruling party is in charge of appointing electoral commission and constitutional council members, there is no hope of a breakthrough by the opposition,” said Bob Rugurika, a Burundian journalist in exile.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) has resisted calls by the civil society to make the voters’ roll public. This opens room for the possibility of manipulation on election day, say critics.

Voting during the pandemic

Burundi’s government has not taken any stringent measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last week, it declared four World Health Organisation officials to be “persona non grata” and ordered them to leave the country. They had been helping to coordinate the country’s coronavirus response and include the WHO’s top country official, the coronavirus coordinator, the head of communicable diseases and a laboratory expert focusing on Covid-19 testing, according to Associated Press. 

No explanation has been provided for their expulsion, but it is not without precedent. Under Nkurunziza, the government has had no qualms about kicking out representatives of international organisations critical of its actions, including a United Nations team investigating human rights abuses committed in 2018. 

The response of the government to the pandemic has been lackadaisical at best. Instead of taking the measures seen elsewhere, it has asked people to pray

It has also insisted that presidential elections go ahead. First Vice-president Gaston Sindimwo said those calling for a postponement because of the coronavirus are “enemies of democracy”.

Official government figures this week put the number of coronavirus cases in the country at just 42, with one death. But reports say medical personnel in Bujumbura have been treating many more Covid-19 patients.

“The government wants the election to be held at all costs. So, it doesn’t want to show the true picture of the coronavirus in order not to scare people from turning up at campaign rallies and at the polls,” said one Burundian activist, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution.

Both major parties have been holding jam-packed rallies with little thought for social distancing.

The electoral commission has nonetheless cited the coronavirus as a reason to stop Burundians outside of the country from voting. This effectively disenfranchises Burundian peacekeepers on mission in Somalia and Central African Republic, Burundians in the diaspora and the several hundred thousand refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries in the past few years.

The government also told electoral observers from the East African Community last week that they would have to quarantine for 14 days on arrival in Bujumbura, meaning they would only emerge from quarantine after the elections were over.

“Burundi will be less peaceful and far less developed after the election. I see the country far more divided,” said Désiré Nzisabira, a Burundian working for an international organisation in Johannesburg.