Burundi – President Nkurunziza reelected, what now?

On July 21, 2015, President Pierre Nkurunziza was reelected for a highly controversial third term.  According to official results, he won 69.41 percent of the votes in a poll boycotted by some opposition candidates. The runner-up was Agathon Rwasa, leader of the National Liberation Forces (FNL), who garnered 18.99 percent. Despite the boycott by opposition candidates, their names remained on the ballot as ballot papers had already been printed before the boycott was announced. According to the election commission, the national average turn-out among the country’s 2.8 million voters was 73.44 percent, with a low of 29.75 percent in the capital Bujumbura (500,000 inhabitants) and much higher figures in the more populous rural areas (Burundi has a population of about 10 million people).

The vote took place following months of protests and violence triggered by Nkurunziza’s announcement on April 25th that he was standing for reelection [see previous blogpost on the third term controversy here]. Police used “excessive lethal force” and treated demonstrators and entire residential areas of Bujumbura as if they were part of an “insurrection,” according to a recent Amnesty International report, fueling further violence and pushing the country to the brink of conflict. Over 150,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries and more than 100 people have reportedly been killed.

Under pressure by the East African Community (EAC), the presidential election was postponed twice, from June 26th to July 15th and then to July 21st, to give negotiations a chance. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni (who has ruled his country for three decades) tried but failed to broker an agreement between the government and opposition. His efforts focused on the creation of a “government of national unity” following the presidential poll. Museveni also urged the “political class” of Burundi to focus less on “controlling government” and more on “the private sector” [unclear how that would have helped resolve the immediate political deadlock]. The United States State Department urgently called on “all parties in Burundi to commit themselves to constructive dialogue to resolve peacefully the political impasse that threatens to unravel the peace and stability ushered in by the implementation of the Arusha Agreement over a decade ago.”

Dialogue failed to materialize before the polls and Burundi now has a president whose legitimacy is in question. The EAC Observer Mission to Burundi concludes in its preliminary statement of July 23rd that “The electoral process fell short of the principles and standards for holding free, fair, peaceful, transparent and credible elections as stipulated in various international, continental as well as the EAC Principles of Election Observation and Evaluation.” A conclusion echoed by the UN observers in their preliminary statement of July 27th. The EU and US agree that the election was not credible.

What is the way out of the impasse? While everyone, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is calling for a resumption of dialogue, the EAC suggestion of the creation of a government of national unity is the only concrete proposal on the table. Opposition leader Agathon Rwasa supports forming such a unity government, if its primary function is to organize new elections within a year. The president’s camp is also open to discussing a unity government, but has rejected the idea of cutting short Nkurunziza’s third mandate as “impossible.”

Who will tire out first, the opposition or Nkurunziza and the ruling party? As the newly elected parliament sat for the first time on July 27th, parts of the opposition took up their seats while others declared they will not – which could be a sign of weakening opposition cohesion. On the other hand, the government of Burundi depends on donor funding for 52 percent of the national budget. The EU is looking into asset freezes and travel bans targeting Burundian government officials considered responsible for violence and for hampering political dialogue. The US will be reviewing its assistance – which includes 80 million USD a year for Burundi’s military and security forces – over the next couple of months.

Hopefully a protracted stand-off will not result in renewed large scale violence and the fanning of ethnic flames from the 12-year long civil war that ended in 2005. Some opposition leaders living in exile, such as Alexis Sinduhije, have threatened to take up arms, while the Burundian government has expressed concern at allegations that the government of Rwanda is supporting armed groups. The next potential trigger for violence is the official enddate of President Nkurunziza’s current mandate, August 26th. After that date, according to the Forum for Strengthening the Civil Society (FORSC), Nkurunziza will be “an ordinary citizen” and can no longer “pretend to be the president of the people who did not appoint him to represent them.”

Credible and productive dialogue to end the stalemate would require a “moral chief mediator” accepted by both parties, playing the role of “facilitator” as Nelson Mandela did during the Arusha peace process (Mason 2008, p. 21). The regional countries have yet to find a statesman of the same stature and with a similar personality to play that role.

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