Bitterly divided Burundi heads for elections
BUJUMBURA, Burundi – Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza appears set to win a controversial third consecutive term in elections on Tuesday, July 21, a hollow victory that will leave him ruling over a violently divided nation.
The opposition and civil society groups have denounced his candidacy as unconstitutional and a violation of a peace deal that brought an end to a dozen years of civil war and ethnic massacres in 2006.
With the elections denounced by opponents as a sham, the 51-year-old president – a former rebel, born-again Christian and football fanatic – has no competition.
"The government has opted to isolate itself and go ahead with pseudo-elections," said Leonce Ngendakumana, a prominent opposition figure, after talks on the crisis mediated by Uganda broke down on Sunday, July 19.
"It's very irresponsible," said another opposition figure, Jean Minani. "They have refused to save Burundi from sliding into an abyss."
More than two months of anti-Nkurunziza protests 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.
In mid-May, rebel generals also attempted to overthrow Nkurunziza in a coup, although this failed and they have since launched a rebellion in the north of the country.
Small, landlocked and one of the world's poorest nations, Burundi is situated in the heart of central Africa's troubled Great Lakes region.
Analysts say renewed conflict in the country could reignite Hutu-Tutsi violence and bring another unwelcome humanitarian disaster to the region, with the added risk of drawing in neighboring states – much like in the war-torn east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The last civil war in Burundi left at least 300,000 dead.
The Imbonerakure, a fearsome youth wing of Nkurunziza's ruling CNDD-FDD party, have been branded a militia by the United Nations and have revived memories of the early days of the Hutu extremists who led the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Five more years of peace?
The United Nations and the East African Community – a 5-nation regional bloc – has been trying to mediate a solution but without success.
On Sunday an EAC source said the latest effort, led by Ugandan Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga, now appeared to be "dead".
"The security situation could degenerate at any moment," the source warned.
The International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention think-tank, has also already warned that the crisis has all the ingredients to kick-start renewed civil war.
The CNDD-FDD scored a widely-expected landslide win in parliamentary polls held on May 29, but these were boycotted by the opposition and condemned internationally as neither free nor fair.
The presidential elections are likely to be seen in the same light, diplomats said, meaning Nkurunziza – whose impoverished nation, a former Belgian colony, is heavily aid-dependent – is also facing international isolation.
"The government has increased in strength by using delaying tactics," a Western diplomat said, commenting on the failed mediation efforts.
"We will have presidential elections that are not credible, just like the parliament elections," the diplomat said, saying the only hope now was for the government to "open up for talks after the polls."
Minani said the opposition was open to continuing talks "to demand for the elections to be held again, without Nkurunziza".
Nkurunziza, however, views his presidency as divine destiny, and has campaigned on a promise of keeping the peace and lifting the country out of poverty.
"If you choose the CNDD-FDD you are sure of five more years of peace," he said on Friday during one of his final rallies.
"Since the election of the CNDD-FDD in 2005, it is the first time since independence in 1962 that people haven't been killing each other because of ethnicity," the president said. – Esdras Ndikumana and Aymeric Vincenot, AFP / Rappler.com