Burundi – Will the election postponement fix the crisis?

At the conclusion of an emergency summit on Burundi held in Dar es Salaam on Sunday, heads of state from the East African Community (EAC) called on the government of Burundi to postpone legislative and presidential polls by at least a month and a half. The postponement would allow the EAC under the leadership of its chairperson, President Kikwete of Tanzania, to “consult with all stakeholders in Burundi on the way forward.” The EAC leaders also called for the “urgent disarmament of all youth groups allied to political parties,” an indirect reference to the Imbonerakure, the youth branch of the ruling CNDD-FDD party. An internal communication from the UN Office in Burundi (BNUB) to UN headquarters in New York alleges a distribution of weapons to the Imbonerakure, an allegation denied by the government.

The government of Burundi quickly “welcomed” the recommended election postponement. The electoral calendar, with parliamentary and local elections scheduled to take place on June 5th, followed by presidential polls on June 26th and senate elections on July 17th is thus likely to slide. The revised electoral calendar should be issued by June 5th.

Burundi has seen extensive turmoil – including an attempted coup d’etat – since April 25th, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was running for reelection for a third term. According to Art. 96 of the 2005 constitution, “The President of the Republic is elected by universal direct suffrage for a mandate of five years renewable one time.” The CNDD-FDD argues Nkurunziza’s first term doesn’t count as he was indirectly elected by parliament. His opponents, in turn, point to the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement which brought the civil war started in 1993 to an end; the agreement states unambiguously in its Art. 7, section 3 that “No one may serve more than two presidential terms.” On May 5, 2015 the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the presidential camp’s interpretation of the constitution and allowed Nkurunziza’s candidature to go forward, but only after the vice-president of the Court had fled the country citing “death threats.”

The EAC heads of state – among whom Yoweri Museveni of Uganda who has been president for nearly 30 years – did not address the third mandate issue. The position of the EAC leaders was uncharitably labeled as a “non-decision” by a diplomat present in Dar es Salaam. Following the summit, a spokesperson for the Burundian government indicated that the government considered the debate on the third mandate “closed.” Opponents of a third term have, on the other hand, called for demonstrations to resume today, Tuesday June 2nd. More than 30 people have already been killed during over a month of demonstrations, see daily updated map with incident reports verified by UK-based NGO Peace Direct.

Will the election delay give peaceful elections a chance? Burundi has been backsliding for a while. Fortunately, the crisis is at heart political, not driven by ethnic divisions. Fixing the crisis requires a negotiated solution to the key issue dividing the CNDD-FDD and opposition groups: President Nkurunziza’s candidature. There are two possible solutions: either the opposition accepts his standing, or he withdraws from the race.

Without a negotiated agreement, it is difficult to see how peaceful and credible elections can take place before August 27, 2015, the end date of Nkurunziza’s mandate. Major donors have suspended their funding for elections, the EU and Burundian civil society have adjourned their election observation efforts, and two out of five members of the independent election commission (CENI) have resigned and left the country due to the prevailing security and political conditions. The CENI thus lacks the required quorum to appoint new leadership for many of its regional and local branches after the Catholic Church withdrew its priests from those positions. Access to independent media also remains a challenge after the destruction of several private radio stations.

Burundi has come very far since 2000, succeeding in blurring ethnic divisions between Hutu and Tutsis and securing peace for over a decade. A peaceful and credible presidential poll would cement progress achieved and avoid the risk of the political crisis reawakening old demons. The ICC is watching closely.

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