ATTACKERS in Burundi’s capital hurled a grenade Monday without wounding anyone, the latest act in a spree of violence coming on the eve of controversial presidential elections.
The grenade exploded on a street close to the symbolic Independence Square in central Bujumbura. More than two months of protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third consecutive term have left at least 100 dead in a tough government crackdown.
Independent media has been shut down and many opponents have fled—joining an exodus of over 150,000 ordinary Burundians who fear their country may again be engulfed by widespread violence.
Earlier Monday, aid organisation Doctors Without Borders said in a statement around 1,000 people have been flocking from Burundi into Tanzania daily to flee violence arising from the polling. “Each day up to 1,000 people cross the border, through the forest between Burundi and Tanzania, (with) many travelling in the dark on foot, and without belongings,” MSF said.
Small, landlocked and one of the world’s poorest nations, former Belgian colony Burundi is situated in the heart of central Africa’s troubled Great Lakes region.
Polls officially open at dawn at 06:00 am (0400 GMT) on Tuesday, and close at 1300 GMT.
Nkurunziza is set to stand for re-election, pushing ahead despite violent protests and the opposition and civil society agitating against a decision they insist breaches an agreement not to seek a third term.
The African Union (AU) and the U.S. have criticised Burundi for allowing the polls to go ahead. Government forces have been attacked in the north of the country in raids the military says were carried out by suspected rebels.
“With the insurgency now ongoing in the country, a victory for president Nkurunziza may result in continued violence and insecurity in Burundi for the foreseeable future,” Yolande Bouka, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
The unrest in Burundi has the potential to destabilise the Great Lakes region that includes the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Africa’s top copper and tin producer, and Rwanda.
More than 150,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries in the past three months. Civil wars in the early 1990s in Burundi and Rwanda helped lay the ground for conflict in neighbouring Congo, the deadliest war in the continent’s modern history.
Opponents say Nkurunziza’s attempt to extend his tenure violates a two-term limit set out in deals that in 2005 brought an end to a civil war in which 300,000 people died. The United Nations said parliamentary elections held on June 29 weren’t free or fair.
The presidential vote is likely to cause “major instability and confrontations” that may spread across the region, the UN human-rights agency said last week.
A pro-government militia known as the Imbonerakure has committed human-rights violations with people who fled the violence giving accounts of executions and torture, according to the UN.
Nkurunziza, 51, will compete with at least three other contenders, including Gerard Nduwayo from Uprona, the former ruling party, and Jacques Bigirimana from a faction of the National Forces of Liberation.
While the election board said eight candidates will stand, three of those named—Jean Minani from the Frodebu Nyakuri party, and former presidents Sylvestre Ntibantunganya and Domitien Ndayizeye—said they were withdrawing their candidacy because the government wasn’t letting them campaign freely, according to a joint statement shown to Bloomberg by Minani.
Agathon Rwasa, who had been set to run for an opposition coalition, said on Monday he wouldn’t participate because the elections had been “poorly organized.” Last week, Rwasa’s spokesman said his coalition wasn’t ready to join parliament even after it won 30 seats in the legislative elections.
“If the government persists in holding presidential elections under the current circumstances -– something even the former first vice president objected to after also having fled the country -– they will in no way confer any legitimacy on the to-be-elected authorities,” UN human-rights special rapporteurs said on July 16.
Burundi has a $2.7 billion economy and is home to 10.2 million people. It’s the continent’s seventh-biggest coffee exporter.
About 11,500 polling stations nationwide will open between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m Tuesday, Prosper Ntahorwamiye, an electoral board official, said in a July 18 interview in the capital, Bujumbura.
-Bloomberg & additional reporting by AFP.