Between militias and a third term: Growing alarm as Burundi at 'crossroads' over election

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Country faces a crucial poll in June that could strengthen regional gains, or push it back in a horror past, as president digs in.

BURUNDI is at “crossroads” ahead of key elections, the UN rights chief said Wednesday—between a fair vote that would boost the country and a route back to its “horrendously violent past”.

“I will put it bluntly: as I prepared for this mission, I talked to many knowledgeable people, within and outside the UN, in Geneva and New York,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told reporters in Bujumbura.

“They were all, without exception, alarmed about the direction the country appears to be taking.”

Zeid warned that the pro-government militia Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, was threatening the smooth running of the “pivotal elections”.

“The root of many people’s fears—and many people in Burundi are very afraid—is the militia of the Imbonerakure,” he said.

“This militia, which openly supports the government, appears to be operating increasingly aggressively and with total impunity.”

Burundi, a small landlocked nation in central Africa’s Great Lakes region, which emerged in 2006 from a brutal 13-year civil war, holds general elections in May to elect lawmakers before a presidential poll in June.

Tensions have risen over incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid to seek a third term in office, despite the constitution stating a president can only be elected twice.

With the opposition and civil society groups mobilising, and the international community increasingly taking tough stances, there are worries the landlocked country is on the brink of trouble once again.

“The country is at a crossroads,” Zeid said, saying that “free and fair elections which would strengthen and mature Burundi’s still fragile democracy.”

‘Troubled past’
But he also warned of fears that leaders would take “the path of violence and intimidation aimed at subverting democracy for the sake of gaining or maintaining political power, the path that could potentially lead back to Burundi’s deeply troubled, tragic and horrendously violent past.”

Opposition politicians and critics say the government is doing all it can to sideline political challengers ahead of the elections, including arrests, harassment and a clampdown on free speech.

The third term debate for Nkurunziza has increasingly drawn in regional leaders, the most significant being Tanzania president Jakaya Kikwete who in March urged the respect of a peace agreement that limits presidents to two terms in office.

“Anyone who wants to be elected must respect Arusha Accords, Burundi’s constitution and election law,” Kikwete told reporters at the conclusion of a visit to Bujumbura.

Under pressure: Burundi president Pierre Nkurunziza.

African countries tend to invoke sovereignty when questions of term limits are raised, therefore Kikwete’s foray into Burundi’s hot potato issue raised a different prospect altogether for Nkurunzinza.

At the weekend the under-pressure president met Rwanda leader Paul Kagame at a Rwanda border town where the political question was said to have been discussed. Kagame, more careful, would only say that Burundi was capable of solving its internal issues.

Refugee warning
But he would be concerned by reports from the UN that nearly 6,000 Burundian refugees have crossed into Rwanda so far this month amid fears of violence before the elections.

The accords, named after a city in northern Tanzania, were the result of talks initially facilitated by Tanzania’s former President Julius Nyerere and brought an end to Burundi’s decade-long civil war.

Nkurunziza, 51, came to power in Burundi in 2005 after leading a faction of the rebel National Council for the Defence of Democracy–Forces for the Defence of Democracy during the civil war that killed 300,000 people.

The US later last year also urged the Burundi government to ensure that upcoming presidential elections are “consistent with the Arusha accords, including its provisions regarding term limits.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon last month weighed in, urging the president to consider his decision carefully.

Nkurunziza has kept his cards close to his chest, only saying that the election would be peaceful. He has however visibly fought back a growing internal revolt, recently sacking his powerful intelligence chief and two deputies after sources said the general wrote to the president asking him not to run again.

Church opposition
But he will also have noted criticism from the influential Catholic Church. Archbishop Simon Ntamwana late last month essentially accused Nkurunziza of behaving like Zedekiah, the last king of Judah who rebelled against God and brought destruction on his kingdom.

The message was clear, with analysts noting the church usually tends to keep its distance from politics, having paid painful prices in past clashes with rulers.

Days before, leaders of the influential Catholic Church penned a newspaper commentary criticising the president’s desire for what opponents say would be an unconstitutional third five-year term.

The leaders warned that the country must not “fall back into divisions, clashes or war” and recalled that the peace deal that ended the civil war and put Nkurunziza in office only allowed for two terms. 

Officials from Burundi’s ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, admit the statement has caused “immense damage” to the presidential camp, given Catholics represent between 75 and 80% of the population. 

In addition to religion,social divisions including ethnic sectarianism, and unemployment and food prices will also have a role to bear on the election.

Nkurunziza, a born-again Christian, once claimed a “gift from God” to govern. Will he crumble under the growing pressure?

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