Burundi Votes, and Violence Looms

Residents are scrambling to leave Burundi as voting in parliamentary and local elections threatens to turn ugly fast.


BUJUMBURA, Burundi — The central immigration office in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, was starting to close early on the afternoon of June 26, and Cedric Abizeba still didn’t have the official papers he needed to flee his country for Rwanda. The 20-year-old was getting desperate. He wanted to be clear of Burundi ahead of Monday’s parliamentary election.

For three consecutive days, he’d come to the immigration headquarters in hopes of receiving his documents. He had yet to make it past the entrance hall. By the time he arrived each morning, dozens of people were already crammed into the unventilated waiting room, lined up under an unsmiling photo of President Pierre Nkurunziza.

“The problem is that we are so many,” Abizeba said. “There are so many of us who want to leave. They told me it will be hard to get this paper today.”

Slideshow: Bujumbura Votes

For days, messages had been circulating in the local WhatsApp and Facebook groups he follows, warning that violence would accompany the election. Grenades would be lobbed into polling stations, some horrifying messages warned. He wasn’t sure who was responsible for them. Opposition parties trying to destabilize the polls? Government supporters looking to frame the opposition? Abizeba, who described himself as non-political, didn’t care to wait around and see.

“It’s better to leave and find out what will happen from outside,” he said, before ducking into a side office. In his pocket was all the money he had. He was going to try to bribe the administrator for a travel document before the office closed, and was officially stuck in Burundi for the election.

Abizeba is one of the many Burundians who believe this vote is the worst possible outcome for their country, and not just because of the immediate concerns surrounding the threatened violence. There are also wide-ranging fears about the election’s long-term implications for Burundi, from concerns that the ruling party will use its all-but-guaranteed victory to further restrict the political space, to the terror the vote will nudge the country further along a path toward civil war.

“All we know is we don’t trust what will be coming from these elections,” he said.

Monday’s vote represents the culmination of weeks of political instability that began in late April, when the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy Party (CNDD-FDD) nominated Nkurunziza to run for a third presidential term. The constitution includes a two-term cap, but Nkurunziza, who took over in 2005 following more than a decade of civil war, claimed his first term didn’t count toward the limit because he was appointed by parliament, instead of elected directly by voters. The constitutional court validated this interpretation, but only after one of its judges fled the country, claiming he had been pressured to rule in the president’s favor.

What followed was more than a month of increasingly violent protests by citizens opposed to the third term. More than 120,000, many afraid of being targeted by members of the ruling party, have fled the country. In mid-May, the recently sacked intelligence chief launched a coup, which sputtered out in less than 48 hours. But violence has escalated. Even as the president officially launched his campaign last week, grenades were being lobbed into crowds in Bujumbura, and automatic gunfire could be heard through the weekend leading up to the vote. Both sides accused each other of being responsible for the attacks. At least three people were killed.

Nkurunziza was also forced to delay both the parliamentary election and the presidential vote, which has been pushed to July 15. But despite ongoing violence, a boycott by civil society groups, religious leaders, and every major opposition group, the objections of the regional and international community, and the African Union’s last-minute decision to rescind its observer mission, Nkurunziza refused to delay today’s vote any further.

As the sun broke over polling stations scheduled to open at 6 a.m., it was clear that turnout would be low. In the Bujumbura neighborhood of Bwiza, election officials were nearly two hours late in opening voting. It hardly mattered: Only 18 people arrived to cast a ballot. By midday, voting totals at stations set up on the University of Burundi campus were in the single digits.

Several factors influenced the low turnout. In opposition-heavy Bujumbura, anti-government voters followed instructions from their parties to reject the polls. At the same time, the threat of attacks kept CNDD-FDD supporters away.

The Bujumbura neighborhood of Cibitoke, its streets still covered in graffiti denouncing Nkurunziza, has seen some of the largest protests. Dozens of security officials ringed the primary school where voting took place Monday morning, protecting the few who showed up. One voter who declined to give his name acknowledged, “I may get in some trouble from this vote. The opposition may chop off my finger now that I have voted.” Once he finished marking his ballot, he joined a group of young men scraping their index fingers with rocks, trying to remove the indelible ink marking them as voters.

Low turnout in Bujumbura aside, a victory for CNDD-FDD and its allied parties in the parliamentary vote is all but inevitable when results are released later this week. The ruling party enjoys broader popularity — and control — in areas outside of Burundi’s few large cities. Even if it didn’t, the names of the boycotting opposition parties were struck from the ballots.

And that victory, even if it comes absent the opposition’s participation and accompanied by the scorn of the international community, is still vital to the ruling party, said Davy Rubangisha, a Burundian political commentator. “These will be elections that truly don’t mean anything for anyone but the president and his people,” he explained — an opportunity for them to consolidate their power.

Several checks on the government are already gone. The administration shut down private radio broadcasts to areas outside the capital in April. Then, in the midst of the failed coup, armed men attacked four of the main private radio stations in Bujumbura, destroying their computers and other equipment. It is unclear who was behind the attacks, but reporters at the stations say police officials investigating the episode have blocked them from reentering their facilities. At the same time, most opposition and civil society leaders have fled. Even critics within CNDD-FDD, including the second vice president, have opted for exile before publicly deviating from the party line.

With this election, the party will likely tighten its grip on the legislature. CNDD-FDD took 80 of 100 parliamentary seats in 2010, and either the ruling party or its allies should win all of the positions this time around. Nkurunziza’s government has show little hesitation about tinkering with legislation it deems inconvenient. Last year, his administration proposed a constitutional revision that would, among other things, have allowed for a third presidential term and changed the parliamentary total needed to pass laws from two-thirds of legislators — designed to protect minority interests — to a simple majority. Parliament rejected the draft by one vote.

Rubangisha said these are the moves of a government that has slowly lost favor over the past decade as it has failed to deliver on one promise after another to improve the economy and social services. The country, which has a per capita GDP of $267 according to the World Bank, is consistently ranked among the five poorest in the world.

The president and his administration have tried to shore up their popularity by showing up in far-flung communities and spending time with normal Burundians, farming in the fields or playing soccer with them. On Monday, Nkurunziza arrived to vote in his home community on a bicycle. But Rubangisha said the act is wearing thin.

“You can’t really say people are loving this guy because he was there one day and he played soccer with them or something, but in the meantime, the situation just degraded,” he said. “So these people know that they are losing control.” With today’s election, they are struggling to retain it.

In the process, they have created a combustible situation in Bujumbura.

“The violent option is there,” said Jean-Marie Ngendahayo, a former minister of foreign affairs. “And sooner or later — in my view, before the end of July — this will happen.”

He sees two possible scenarios. In the first, ongoing domestic unrest will continue, fueled by international condemnation. Demonstrations have largely fallen silent after nearly a month of daily protests. Some of the participants blame increasing police violence. Others say they were left rudderless after the leadership fled in the wake of the aborted coup. But the reservoir of anti-government feeling is deep and could be drawn on to encourage people to go back to the streets, they say.

Eventually, Ngendahayo said, “all of these people” in Burundi who are opposed to a third term, including security officials involved in the previous coup attempt in May, young demonstrators, and members of opposition parties, “will organize and will do something.” And as violence ratchets up, Nkurunziza will concede to the will of his people and the weight of international sanctions.

Or the situation could explode into a civil war, an outcome everyone desperately wants to avoid, but admits is a distinct possibility.

Ngendahayo acknowledges that Nkurunziza “is an animal in the fight. He and his people surrounding him. We can’t take it lightly. It can draw a high scale of death into this country.” In humid Bujumbura, where people trade rumors over social networks and dinner tables alike, there are constant tales of militia groups waiting to descend on the capital.

And any internal conflict could spread rapidly across the border. “While we respect Burundi’s sovereignty in addressing internal matters, Rwanda considers the safety of innocent population as a regional and international responsibility,” the country’s foreign affairs minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, publicly warned in May.

There is still an out. Opposition parties remain willing to engage with Nkurunziza, who actually earned a reputation for his willingness to compromise during his days as a militia leader during Burundi’s last civil war. But his government showed up for only one day of talks organized by the United Nations last week and underscored its contempt for those conversations by proceeding with today’s election.

Yet some in the opposition remain willing to throw the government a sop. The constitution requires that a new president be sworn in by August 26. But Agathon Rwasa, the head of the National Liberation Forces, the main opposition party, told Foreign Policy he would be willing to consider extending that deadline if it would bring the government back to the table.

“We can accept that the government goes beyond August for the sake of a good election,” he said. “But this is not something that would take years. Just some months are enough.” He hopes this would give them enough time to install an independent electoral commission that could rule on whether Nkurunziza should be allowed to stand for a third term, and have that ruling respected. It would also give the opposition time to organize campaigns so their candidates could fully participate in the vote.

On the streets of Bujumbura, the government’s previous intransigence has left little hope that a negotiated settlement will arrive soon. Solomon Nzibara, an unemployed 25-year-old, didn’t vote on Monday but sat near the entrance to his neighborhood’s polling center, watching as people came and went.

He has been kept awake two nights in a row by the sound of automatic gunfire and doesn’t expect to get much sleep anytime soon.

“I’m not afraid of what is going to happen,” he said. “If I was afraid, I would have escaped the country as so many have.”

Photo credit: Will Boase

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