Burundi: storms ahead?

Burundi: storms ahead?

by / 1 Comment / 61 View / 13th September 2010

We were wrong to be optimistic in 2005. The people voted for peace and good government but Burundi’s political leaders put party and personal advantage first, their country second. The government of “Peter” Nkurunziza started off quite well with a lot of good will from all sides. From the very start, however, the President and the then party chairman, Hussein Radjabu, started pulling every string to ensure that CNDD-FDD (the governing party which emerged from the main pro-Hutu rebel movement) would win the 2010 election. The first actions were the popular moves to provide free primary education and maternity care. But Radjabu was in a hurry to consolidate his own power and made too many enemies and the increasingly influential military element in the government gave Nkurunziza the courage to eliminate his friend, who has languished in Mpimba prison ever since.

The Burundi constitution and political tradition is for the government to include ministers in proportion to the seats held in parliament. Nkurunziza’s government never fully honoured this, causing increasingly bad relations with FRODEBU, the mainly Hutu party that had been in a majority before 2005. The government also dragged its feet over negotiations with the last rebel group, the FNL (Forces Nationales de Libération) and over its registration as a political party in 2009. It also harassed any political activists that it feared: for example, imprisoning Alexis Sinduhije and delaying the recognition of his new party, the Mouvement pour la Solidarité et la Démocratie (MSD). Thus well before the 2010 elections, relations between the government and all the opposition parties were already very bad temprered. At the same time the President lost no opportunity to visit the rural population, share in their sorrows and their worship, drink Fanta and play football with them. At the same time the local administration, mainly controlled by the ruling party, is known to have kept up pressure on voters including giving multiple ID cards to party supporters. [protected]

Then in the run-up to the elections it is clear that CNDD-FDD spent a lot buying votes, or as they say in French, acheter les consciences. There is evidence of gifts of cooking pots and other items as well as money (raised it is said from Sudan and elsewhere) and the use of government transport. This is not to say that some of the other parties did not try similar tricks but they had fewer resources. The media had also moved in the government’s direction with radio, Rema,  well-funded (from where?) strongly pushing the party line. (Burundi does, however, still have several radio stations and a weekly paper. Iwacu, which provide a balanced opinion.)

The plan for the 2010 elections was to have communal elections in May followed by presidential and then parliamentary elections. The problem was that the President, soon followed by the other parties, put all their energies into winning in May, so that the communal elections became in fact presidential elections. Nkurunziza’s portrait even appeared on his party’s ballot paper. The official results gave the ruling party over 60% over the whole country, with FNL getting the highest vote in Bujumbura Rural and Sinduhije’s MSD topping the poll in much of Bujumbura. International and national observers said that on the day the communal election was generally free and fair. Yet some questions have been raised: the two day delay of the election was, according to the electoral commission (CENI), due to the late arrival of printed papers from South Africa, but there is evidence that no plane arrived from South Africa during those two days; a number of polling stations remained open illegally late; there were questions about the privacy of the polling booths which meant people feared being watched (and some fear this even when there is privacy!); counting went on late by candlelight in most places and elsewhere there was a nationwide electricity blackout at 7pm which seems highly suspicious; and some ballot boxes spent the night somewhere before reaching Bujumbura. However, the results when they were eventually announced did reflect those noted by the national and international observers at the polling stations.

The opposition leaders simply did not and do not believe the results. They were expecting the presidential election to go to a second round. Some say they are just poor losers, but it is significant that every serious opposition group is of the same opinion about the election and in spite of their very different party positions and personal antagonisms they joined together into a grouping, ADC Ikibiri, which several months later seems to be holding together. Alexis Sinduhije and other opposition leaders visited Ngozi province (the President’s home area) just after the May poll and received a heroes’ welcome which seems to suggest that the official election results may have been flawed.

The first decision ADC Ikibiri made was not to take up the places won in the communal vote; the next was for the other candidates to pull out of presidential election – thus making Nkurunziza’s victory a hollow one. More controversially they (with the exception of UPRONA) also boycotted the parliamentary election in July in spite of pressure from the international community. This was the crucial decision as it has left CNDD-FDD with a huge majority in parliament and an even larger one in the senate (based on the communal councillors’ vote) and thus the ability easily to change the constitution and run the country as a one party state. Yet if the CENI had shown a little statesmanship it might have averted this decision. First CNDD-FDD offered a re-run of the communal election in places where the result was challenged. CENI refused. There was also a fair chance that the opposition might agree to participate in the parliamentary poll if it could be delayed. Again CENI refused, some would say because it was in the pay of CNDD-FDD, others that it was just arrogance on the part of its members.

In the end was the opposition wise to opt out of parliament? There are two views: the one that regrets that there will be nowhere for issues to be raised and the government held to account – and nothing to stop the constitution being changed; and the other that reckons a weak minority in parliament would be useless and that much greater pressure can be brought to bear from outside. (Some people believe that Leonard Nyangoma, leader of the tiny CNDD party had too much influence on the decision since he had little to lose by not taking up seats in the communes, whereas FNL, FRODEBU and MSD might have had a reasonable number of seats in parliament.)

But what sort of pressure do the opposition leaders hope to apply? Alexis Sinduhije believes that popular anger, especially among youth, will make life hard for the government. The flight of Agathon Rwasa, leader of the FNL, suggests that he might be contemplating violence. Leonard Nyangoma and Alexis Sinduhije have also both left the country. It is certainly going to be difficult for the government to administer areas where the opposition is strong, though the temptation to accept paid jobs has already begun to attract individuals to defect from the opposition. 

Can Burundi descend again into full scale civil war? It is possible but unlikely. The high vote for CNDD-FDD was as much as anything a vote to avoid more conflict by not disturbing the power in place. Demobilised FNL fighters do not appear keen to go back to the bush, but if they find they have no income and can live better as rebels this should not be ruled out.There were a number of incidents in May and June and it is likely that there will be more. Bujumbura has been gearing up in case of possible attacks by al-Shabaab, but no doubt local threats are also on the government’s mind.

What of the regime itself? Nkurunziza seems to have little vision for the future of his country, yet he is said to be a great admirer of President Kagame in Rwanda. This suggests he is not likely to open out and make concessions to his opponents, which is what he needs to do to calm the situation. However, Nkurunziza’s position is weak in his own party. He was not the party’s first choice as presidential candidate but he was seen to be the most likely to win the popular vote. His relationship with the party president, Jérémie Ngendakumana, who replaced Radjabu back in 2007 and who according to party rules should have been the candidate, has been bad from the start. The military men in the government are powerful. It is by no means certain that “Peter” can survive the next five years – even though the constuitutional court’s ruling which caused Radjabu’s MPs to lose their seats when they resigned from the party may help preserve the ruling party against probable future splits.

Burundi is small and weak. The international community, and this increasingly includes the East African Community which Burundi has recently joined, can exert pressure. Having declared the elections fair they are not likely to destabilise the government if it behaves well. However, if – as is likely – it continues to allow serious corruption, abuse human rights and harass the opposition there will be stronger pressure from outside and the opposition leaders will be lobbying for that. If it changes the constitution in effect to consolidate what is now a one party state the lobbying will be even stronger. The weather forecast? Calm at first but a risk of stormy times ahead. [/protected]

By Nigel Watt

The writer represented Christian Aid and later CARE International in Burundi from 1998 to 2002.

His book, “Burundi, Biograophy of a Small African Country” was Published by Hurst in 2008.