Warnings grow as Burundi begins presidential elections

Policemen patrol the Musaga district of Bujumbura, Burundi, July 20, 2015. (Credit: AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

The potential for fair and peaceful elections in Burundi continue to wane in the run up to tomorrow’s vote. Three candidates running against President Pierre Nkurunziza withdrew from the race over the weekend due to concerns about the validity of the electoral process. That came shortly after the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights called for the international community to take proactive steps in order to prevent further violence.

Demonstrations, a failed coup attempt, and pressure from world leaders do not deter Nkurunziza from seeking his third term as president. Where things currently stand, it appears the leader will win the elections. What that means for the stability of Burundi, an East African country that emerged from years of civil war only a decade ago, remains up in the air.

“The world is witnessing an escalating pattern of politically motivated violence in Burundi, enabled by the country’s decades-long tradition of impunity,” warned a group of U.N. human rights experts. “The international community must not simply stand by and wait for mass atrocities to unfold, thereby risking a major conflict of regional proportions before it finally decides to act.”

Last-ditch talks between political leaders in Uganda fell apart on Sunday. Opponents to the president still contend that his bid for a third term violates the constitutional limit of two terms. It is a claim he denies by arguing that he was not directly elected to his first term, meaning that it did not really count towards the limit.

Protests began in the wake of the April 25 decision by the ruling party to support Nkurunziza for a third term. Clashes between police and protesters simmered until members of the military attempted a coup on May 13. Nkurunziza managed to regain power, but some fighting continues as the once robust and free press struggles after offices were attacked during and after the coup.

The insecure state of Burundi led more than 145,000 people to flee the country in a matter of weeks. At least 100 people protesting against the president have died. The disorder and lack of safety are reason for further delaying the elections in order to address some of the major problems, said the U.N. experts.

“The absence of independent media and a climate of repression and fear to exercise civil rights and express opinions, notably by peacefully taking to the streets, have marred the recent elections and will also be defining the forthcoming presidential elections, now scheduled for 21 July. The postponement by six days of the presidential elections does not remedy this blatant deficiency,” they said.

The capital city of Bujumbura continues to experience gunfire and grenade explosions. Meanwhile, rebels in the northern part of the country are fighting with the military. Taken together, the current state of things in Burundi is worrisome.

“This can escalate into major conflict through the use of outright repression against, and intimidation of, the population at large, the instrumentalization of the police, the closure of independent media, as well as the detention of the opposition and other civic leaders,” said the U.N. human rights experts.

A group of academics penned an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month about the situation in Burundi. The experts urged Kerry to galvanize global action in order to prevent potential mass atrocities. The concerns by the experts and the U.N. panel are shared by others.

“The regime in Burundi is becoming rapidly more authoritarian as President Pierre Nkurunziza continues to push for a third mandate. Rhetoric and frictions that led to war and massacres in the past are returning,” said Thierry Vircoulon, Central Africa Project Director for the International Crisis Group in late May.

With elections set to begin in a few hours, it may already be too late for the international community to take the steps to prevent a potential crisis in Burundi.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.