As it has for weeks, violence related to today's presidential election again haunted the streets of Bujumbura, Burundi, last night. Bombings and clashes between security and protestors claimed the lives of two people, one of them a police officer. Burundi has almost 4 million registered voters, but turnout is expected to be low today in this deeply troubled East African state; many fear violence, others are just disgusted that the presidential vote is taking place at all.
Protests and violence have since April accompanied President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term. Critics charge that the move is unconstitutional since the president is limited to two terms in office. A Constitutional Court ruling had backed the president’s argument that his first term in office did not count towards the two-term limit since he was elected by members of parliament, and the government has described the unrest as terrorism aimed at disrupting the election. The protests, which have often been brutally suppressed, have left at least 100 dead.
Violence across the nation in the weeks preceding the election has provoked a widespread humanitarian crisis as refugees have spilled across the country’s borders and fanned throughout the region. According to the United Nations, more than 145,000 people have already fled to neighboring countries.
The result of today’s election seems a foregone conclusion; every major opposition party has boycotted the vote and Nkurunziza’s main challenger, Agathon Rwasa, though on the ballot, has declined to participate in the process. Opposition members have fled the country and much of the independent media has been shut down, their equipment stolen or destroyed and offices looted, by soldiers and mobs of Nkurunziza supporters. Many fear the coming weeks will see a significant destabilization of Burundi’s government and security conditions as the unrest persists.
The U.S. State Department warned today that by going ahead with the election, Burundi's government could lose legitimacy in the eyes of its people and might unravel the Arusha Agreement that ended the country's civil war—a brutal clash between Tutsi and Hutu communities—in 2003. That internationally brokered power-sharing agreement between the Tutsi-dominated government and the Hutu rebels paved the way for a transition process that integrated defense forces and established a new constitution and elected a majority Hutu government in 2005. The spectre of the Rwanda catastrophe no doubt remains a foremost worry among the many urging dialogue and a peaceful conclusion to this latest conflict in the region between Hutu and Tutsi.
Following weeks of unrest, Catholic Church leaders withdrew the permission they had offered a number of priests to serve as observers in the scheduled parliamentary and presidential election. The bishops said in a statement at that time: “After having considered the way in which these elections are organized, and current developments, and taking into account the mission of priests, which is to reconcile people and bring them together in unity ... we have concluded that it would be better for the priests to resign and for the elections to be organized by others.”
The European Union also suspended its election observer mission in Burundi over concerns about restrictions on the independent media, excessive use of force against demonstrators and the intimidation of opposition parties and civic groups. In an indication of its unhappiness with the process so far, the African Union likewise declined to send observers into Burundi for the election today—the first time it has taken such a stance against a member state.
UN officials have also criticized the decision to conduct the July election, but faced with the inevitable UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday called on authorities in Burundi to do all in their power to ensure security and a peaceful atmosphere during polling today. Ban urged “all parties to refrain from any acts of violence that could compromise the stability of Burundi and the region.”
The secretary-general reiterated an appeal for the resumption of a frank dialogue and urged parties to avoid undermining the progress achieved in building democracy since the signing of the Arusha Agreements. An inter-Burundian dialogue, started on July 14 under with the assistance of Uganda diplomats, has been indefinitely suspended.
This week UN Special Rapporteurs staff advised that the situation in Burundi was accumulating “the well-known and visible marks of a society which previously suffered divisions leading to grave violence”; they warned that much worse could come without intervention soon.
“This can escalate into major conflict through the use of outright repression against, and intimidation of, the population at large, the instrumentalization of the police, the closure of independent media, as well as the detention of the opposition and other civic leaders,” the Special Rapporteurs’ statement continued. “We also witness efforts to coerce the judiciary, some of whose highest members have fled the country claiming their lives were at risk.”
At the same time, noted the Special Rapporteurs, armed militias, with the collaboration of authorities, exercised targeted violence against civilians.
“This is a crisis that is eminently preventable—everyone can see the risks. What is lacking is action,” the independent experts warned. “Given the painful history of Burundi and the region, the long engagement of the United Nations in the country to re-build peace, the Security Council must be all the more alerted to the increasing potential of an escalation of massive violence.”