The Protests Have Died Down, But Burundi is Still a Political Mess

Following weeks of unrest, a failed coup attempt and a president who just won’t quit, Burundi’s government spokesman announced yesterday that the parliamentary elections slated for June 5, and the June 26 presidential elections, were being delayed. The national election commission, known as CENI, has yet to draw up a new electoral calendar, but the Burundian government is adamant that elections must take place before August 26, when the current government’s constitutional limit ends. This change of plans comes amid an unprecedented crisis in Burundi’s recent history.

While anecdotal reports through social media suggest that protests are weakening and becoming smaller each day, will the delay in elections really allow for the free, fair and credible elections Burundians deserve?

Since the failed coup attempt mid-May, several disturbing developments have taken place. Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report, with interviews and eye witness accounts from several incidents across Bujumbura, the capital, and its vicinity. The stories tell of arbitrary arrests, of excessive police force, and a profoundly divided population. Government supporters, in an attempt to control the narrative of the crisis, have claimed, over the last few weeks of protests, that the protesters themselves are “rioters”, that 99% of the country is peaceful, and that the government “will not negotiate and will not discuss matters that undermine our institutions.”

With the constitutional court having validated Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term, the government feels comfortable in its position, and is refusing to back down. Meanwhile, though, the legitimacy of this position is being tested by several events which highlight just how deep and disturbing the crisis is.

First, the election commission – CENI – lost both its vice-president and a commissioner over the weekend. Both individuals resigned and apparently fled the country, leaving the CENI scrambling to not only figure out next steps with the electoral calendar, but also to maintain their composure in the face of the blow dealt by these resignations.

Second, the Catholic Church, an influential actor in Burundi, announced last week that it was withdrawing its support for the upcoming elections. In his radio statement, Bishop Bashimiyubusathe  said that the Church “cannot endorse an election riddled with shortcomings”, and asked all priests involved in local electoral commissions to step down.

Both of these developments came after an opposition leader, Zedi Feruzi, head of of the Union for Peace and Development party, was shot dead by unknown attackers in the capital. This latter disturbing event caused opposition parties, which had just begun talks with the government to find a way out of the crisis, to suspend negotiations. In another blow to the government, several international donors have withdrawn funding for the elections, leaving the government budget short of what it needs to run the elections. This prompted the Burundian presidency to ask “patriotic citizens”  – via social media – to wire money to a government bank account to help cover those costs.

In addition to these high profile events, Burundi, and particularly the capital, Bujumbura, is caught in a climate of unrest, insecurity and ongoing conflict between protesters and armed forces, primarily police. A disturbing incident in a hospital in the capital, reported by Human Rights Watch, where police ordered all patients and staff out of the hospital building as they were hunting down army officers allegedly disloyal to the government, serves as a reminder of the depth and severity of the crisis.  The International Crisis Group warned in a recent report that “[…] all elements of an open conflict have fallen into place. Delayed elections are not sufficient to avoid a rapid escalation of violence, a political and security climate conducive to free and peaceful elections must be restored.”

In another attempt to help defuse the situation, regional leaders, under the auspices of the East African Community, met again over the weekend in Dar es Salaam. The meeting brought together the leaders of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa – notably absent were Kagame of Rwanda, and Nkurunziza. The Burundian president’s explanation for his absence was that he was busy campaigning. Many have surmised that the real reason behind his absence is that he cannot afford to leave the country again; last time he was abroad, the coup attempt almost cost him his job. During the EAC meeting, regional leaders urged Burundi to delay elections, a call that was finally heeded this week.

The delay in the election calendar, however insufficient, has allowed for a little bit of political breathing space in the country, as opposition leaders have agreed to resume talks this week. Given how volatile the situation is, though, these talks could be abruptly suspended again once the next egregious incident takes place.

Furthermore, the central issue at stake here – Nkurunziza’s third term bid – is not something either the government or the opposition is apparently prepared to yield on. The international community is watching these events unfold closely, particularly as already over 100,000 refugees have flooded border regions in neighboring countries, prompting the UN to release $15 million in emergency funding to support the humanitarian response in those areas (an estimated 60% of refugees are children.) The high profile visit from United Nations Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, last week in Bujumbura, further underscores concerns that the current conflict could become much more deadly.

While the presidency is increasingly isolated in its position, it continues to have the support of (most of) the army and the police, allowing it to remain in control – for now. Still, the situation is a complete mess and there is precious little chance for any sort of political reconciliation. The streets may not be full of protestors, but don’t let that fool you. The situation is as precarious as ever.