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Political violence and Covid-19 cast shadow over Burundi polls

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Voters go to the polls in Burundi this week to elect a new president, MPs and local councillors, in the midst of concerns about reports of increasing political violence, alleged irregularities in election preparations and spread of the coronavirus.

The runup to the 20 May polls has been characterized by targeted killings, clashes between party supporters, and vandalism of party headquarters, according to Carina Tertsakian, from the Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI), an independent group of three researchers. 

Burundi’s 2020 elections bring to an end the controversial third term of President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose decision to stand for re-election sparked protests in 2015, an attempted coup and government crackdown on dissent. 

“The situation has not fundamentally changed since 2015, but some of the patterns have changed,” BHRI’s Tertsakian told RFI, describing how violence took place five years ago in a more overt fashion, but has since moved underground. 

The flagbearer for Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party, Evariste Ndayishimiye, is widely seen as a shoo-in to succeed Nkurunziza. He faces six candidates, including Agathon Rwasa of the opposition CNL party, considered the main contender. 

Increasing political violence 

Local media reports in Burundi described murders, kidnappings and detentions across the country as election campaigns unfolded. 

Twelve people were injured in a grenade attack last week targeting a bar in the Kamenge district of the capital Bujumbura, according to Burundi news website Iwacu. The area is widely considered a stronghold of the ruling CNDD-FDD party. 

The head of a local CNL party chapter in Mwaro province, Richard Havyarimana, was found dead on 7 May, according to reports. He had allegedly been abducted by the Imbonerakure, members of the ruling party’s youth wing, days before and was discovered dumped in a river, his body mutilated. 

In killings reportedly carried out by police in mid-April, former soldier Pascal Ninganza and two other men were shot dead in Matana, Bururi province, according to the Forum for the Strengthening of Civil Society (FORSC Burundi), a civil society group, who described the attack as politically motivated. 

Opposition CNL party supporters were seriously injured by members of the Imbonerakure at the start of April in the Bujumbura province. Members of the ruling party’s youth wing were accused of attacking the homes of CNL supporters with the complicity of the authorities, Iwacu reported. 

The majority of violence is carried out by the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD, as well as local officials, the police, and to a lesser degree, opposition CNL supporters, according to human rights researcher Tertsakian. The security forces frequently arrest CNL supporters in the aftermath of violence, even if they are the victims, she added. 

“Since the beginning of the crisis, since 2015-2016, international interest and action have waned which is unfortunate because the situation in Burundi has continued to be extremely worrying,” said Tertsakian. “The political repression, if anything, has intensified.” 

International response 

Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in 2015 deeply divided the country over interpretations of the Arusha peace agreement that ended Burundi’s civil war. 

More than one thousand people were killed during the crisis, according to some estimates. And almost 400,000 people were displaced, a UN report outlined. 

Mediation led by the East African Community following the coup attempt failed to find a compromise between the authorities in Bujumbura and those opposed to Nkurunziza. Talks led by Tanzania’s former President Benjamin Mkapa were seen as a failure with some viewing mediation efforts as helping to prop up Nkurunziza. 

“With this latest increase in political violence, politically motivated arrests for the elections, we would very much like those governments, those international actors, to speak out about it,” said Tertsakian, in a telephone interview, referring to countries who still engage with Burundi’s government. “So far very few of them have, and the few statements that have come out, have been pretty mild, or tepid.” 

A joint statement on Sunday by the African Union bloc and the UN said they were “concerned about reports of intimidation and violent clashes between supporters of opposing sides”. 

“They urge all political actors to refrain from all acts of violence and hate speech, and resort to dialogue, to enable the holding of consensual and peaceful elections,” according to the statement. 

A statement by Jim Risch, the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last week that “it becomes more apparent every day that the upcoming polls will not afford the people of Burundi the credible process they deserve”. 

“I strongly condemn violence by all parties. In particular, the systematic violence against the opposition by the Imbonerakure and elements within the police and military directly undermines any democratic process,” Risch added. 

Alleged irregularities 

The opposition has also cast doubt on the credibility of the electoral process. The CNL party complained that the country’s electoral commission makes decisions outside of the framework of the law, for example refusing to accept party agents into polling stations. 

Opposition candidate Rwasa told RFI’s Service Afrique that there have been flagrant violations of the electoral code and “many, many irregularities because the CNDD-FDD wants to hold on to power at all costs”. He said the electoral commission refuses to display the electoral roll at polling stations. 

Few foreign elections observers will be in place to monitor the 20 May polls. Burundi’s authorities had said that any observers from the East African Community organization would have to undergo a two-week quarantine. 

“This contributes to a real lack of trust in the authorities, particularly in the national electoral commission, to organize elections properly and fairly, and transparently, and of course the absence of any international observers has attenuated that,” said Tertsakian. 

Burundi’s new president will be elected by a majority with a second-round taking place on 19 June if necessary, and provisional results expected on 25-26 May. Some 5.1 million Burundians are eligible to vote in 14,778 polling stations. 

Polls during pandemic 

The other fear surrounding election campaigning and polling day is the potential for spreading Covid-19. Large election rallies, including those for Ndayishimiye’s CNDD-FDD, have demonstrated no social distancing – thousands of people sandwiched together, standing in close contact. 

Civil society group FORSC Burundi accuses the government of prioritizing running the polls over putting measures in place to contain Covid-19 infections. The government is hiding the true extent of the coronavirus in Burundi, according to FORSC Burundi’s April report. 

One person has died from the coronavirus in Burundi and there have been 42 confirmed cases of the virus, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Burundi’s government kicked out four experts from the World Health Organisation, declaring them “persona non grata” and giving them until 15 May to leave the country. 

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