The East African nation of Burundi heads to the polls today. The choice is between two political parties: the ruling CNDD-FDD (Conseil Nationale de la Défense de la Démocratie) and the opposition FNL (Forces Nationales de la Libération) – both former rebel groups that were integrated into the political system after a civil war from 1993-2005. The brutal war between the minority Tutsis and majority Hutus left close to 300,000 dead, and neither the CNDD-FDD or the FNL were signatories of the original peace agreement from 2000, rather, they signed subsequent agreements in 2003 and 2009, respectively.
In the last election, the CNDD-FDD won by 70% of the vote, and it may not get as much this time around. The FNL will likely get more votes in the economic capital of Bujumbura, whereas the CNDD-FDD has support in the countryside. Five additional parties are running, these parties are marginal and likely will not affect the results. Some observers say that it might even be that the FNL wins. I doubt this will be the case.
In either case, the President is stepping aside, with a catch. In 2015, President Nkurunziza plunged the country into renewed violence, some of the worse since 2005, when he sought a third term, banned under the 2000 peace agreement and the constitution. This time, he bargained up: in exchange for stepping down after 15 years of rule, he will receive a 540,000 USD payout, and a luxury villa in his hometown in the north of the country. He will also be afforded the title “Supreme Guide to Patriotism” – whoever wins the election will be required to consult with him on national unity and security.
This should won’t be a problem for the likely winner, Evariste Ndayishimiye, who was Nkurunziza’s right-hand man during the war and currently runs the department of military affairs in the President’s office.
This election has been marred with controversy. Until recently Burundi, which is largely isolated from the world and even it’s immediate neighbors of Rwanda and Tanzania, had only reported 15 cases of coronavirus. However, this week that number jumped to 42. Much of that spike can be attributed to the candidates, Ndayishimiye and the FNL’s Agathon Rwasa, continuing to hold large rallies throughout the outbreak. On May 14, the government expelled the WHO from the country. Further, allegations of electoral violence abound: on May 11, a grenade explosion killed two people in the Kamenge district of Bujumbura; there have been other reports of attacks on opposition party members and the government has also indicated that it will not take the grenade attack lightly. Election observers are few and far between – indeed, on May 8 the government announced that all election observers would have to quarantine for 14 days because of the coronavirus. The quarantine period thus ends two days after the election.
For the most part, it is hard to get news out of the country today. The government confirmed that it has blocked WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook. Though there are no reports of violence at the polls for the moment, according to one Burundian – voting in his first election, and the first one without Nkurunziza on the ballot – “people are scared of what might happen after the results – Burundi doesn’t have a good history of elections. All we do is manage to stay inside our houses after coming back from the voting booth. Things are a bit unknown. You can only tell that the atmosphere will just erupt.”
The pre-election violence does not bode well for a peaceful transition of power. If the FNL wins, or even does better than expected, the CNDD-FDD likely will not accept the results.
Though Burundi is a small country – surrounded by the East African giants of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, and Rwanda – this election has the potential to have a dramatic impact on the region. It’s history of violence is not isolated. The civil war of the 1990s between Hutus and Tutsis played out against the backdrop of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Both conflicts led to massive numbers of refugees in the DRC and Tanzania. Any electoral violence in the country could spark enough fear throughout the population to return to exile – and the regional consequences could have political and economic implications throughout the region for decades to come.