Burundi’s Bad Elections

A week ago, the first round of highly contested elections took place in Burundi. Initially slated for the end of May, legislative elections were delayed for about a month following the resignation and hasty departure of key staff of the electoral commission. The vote, which took place on June 29, was described by United Nations observers as having taken place in an “overall environment [that] was not conducive for free, credible and inclusive elections.”

Burundi watchers will not be surprised by this assessment.  Tensions have been high in the country since President Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a third term – indeed, the conditions for an all-out conflict in Burundi have been ripening for months.

No Improvement In The Humanitarian Situation

The UN also reports that ten thousand people fled into neighboring countries  in the days preceding the vote – prior to the authorities closing the border – bringing the total number of refugees since April to a staggering 144,000. As the international community struggles to find ways to help Burundi out of this crisis, the UN says – as is often the case with these types of crises – children are particularly vulnerable and bearing the brunt of the crisis. Schools in the capital have been closed, while other schools have been targeted, and, sadly young children have also been killed in election-related violence. Meanwhile, only 13% of a $207 million Burundi Regional Refugee Response Plan, which covers the April-September 2015 timeframe, has been funded, leaving the UN and other humanitarian organizations struggling to meet the needs of the ever-growing population of Burundian refugees.

Second UN Mediator In As Many Months Steps Down

Last month, the UN-appointed mediator, Said Djinnit, was forced to step down from his role after being criticized by the opposition for siding with the ruling party. The new UN mediator, Abdoulaye Bathily, appointed by the UN Secretary-General in late June, was asked by the Burundian government to “resign from his post because he seriously lacked respect for the country’s sovereignty.” Nevertheless, the report prepared by the international mediation group, which Mr. Bathily was leading, will be on the table during today’s meeting in Tanzania – yet another effort by regional powers and institutions to help Burundi find a way out of the crisis.

A Third Regional Conference Gathers in Tanzania

Since April, this is the third time regional leaders from neighboring countries and regional organizations meet to discuss the situation in Burundi. During the first one of these events, mid-May, President Nkurunziza was almost deposed while attending the meeting abroad. Since then, Nkurunziza has not left the country, missing the second conference in late May. He also will not be attending this third one, however, the Burundian opposition will be making a show of force, likely pleading with regional partners to increase pressure on Nkurunziza. Indeed, there is a lot at stake, not just for Burundi. As mentioned above, the crisis has led nearly 150,000 people to flee their country, and seek refuge in neighboring countries. As a result, Tanzania is contending with a cholera outbreak, and creating hardship for communities near the border in Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC.

In Dar-es-Salaam, regional leaders will once again attempt to find a solution to the crisis. However, given that their three main recommendations from the previous meeting were not adopted by the Burundian government – delay elections, disarm militias, and establish a dialogue with the opposition – have not been respected, it will be interesting to see whether a more stern tone is adopted. How much longer can Nkurunziza ignore his partners’ pleas?

Presidential Elections Slated for July 15

As of today, it appears that Burundi will move forward with its presidential vote, despite warnings and criticisms from the international community. With another UN mediator gone, and the dialogue between the ruling party and the opposition essentially at a stand-still, it’s difficult to imagine that the presidential election will take place in an atmosphere conducive to a free and fair vote. If Nkurunziza wins the vote, it’s easy to imagine an all-out revolt by groups that have been pleading with him to renounce a third term, and the electoral commission may be heavily criticized, if not worse. If he loses, it’s equally as easy to imagine a scenario where the ruling party will refuse to accept the results. General Leonard Ngendakumana, another top intelligence officer who was involved in the failed coup of May 2015, warned “All those actions that are going on in the country, we are behind them and we are going to intensify them until Pierre Nkurunziza understands that we are there to make him understand by force that he has to give up his third term.”

Either way, Burundi is headed into uncharted territory. With a highly contentious election around the corner – which will, regardless of the results, make for some very unhappy losers – the country is at a risky cross-roads.