Burundi heads to the polls despite pandemic and violence
Bujumbura - General elections are expected to go ahead in Burundi on Wednesday, despite the coronavirus pandemic, ongoing ethnic tensions and consistent reports that the ruling party has been using force to repress the opposition and the media.
"The Burundian regime, isolated on the international scene, has decided to hold elections at any cost," Anschaire Nikoyagize, president of the Burundian Human Rights League (ITEKA), said in a statement on Monday.
"Considering how tense the campaign has been - full of violence and inflammatory rhetoric - the country risks sinking into deadly clashes as soon as the results are known," he added.
Although there are seven presidential candidates, the main contest will be between Agathon Rwasa of the National Congress for Freedom (CNL) and General Evariste Ndayishimiye of the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Force for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD).
Rwasa, 56, is a former rebel leader who is also the vice-president of the National Assembly.
Ndayishimiye, 52, currently serves as secretary general of the CNDD-FDD and has held the positions of interior and security minister, as well as of army chief.
President Pierre Nkurunziza, who has been in power for three terms, has thrown his support behind Ndayishimiye.
Human rights organizations have for years warned that elections in the tiny East African country are unlikely to be free or fair.
"The actual voting day will probably be quite peaceful," Liesl Louw-Vaudran, of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told dpa from the head office in South Africa.
"But anyone opposed to the ruling party in the run-up to elections has been at huge risk."
The Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) said in a special report that the ruling party's youth league, Imbonerakure, "continues to carry out human rights abuses in the run-up to the election."
Human Rights Watch (HRW) announced that it had documented "killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and threats and harassment against real or perceived political opponents" over the past six months.
"Violence and repression have been the hallmark of politics in Burundi since 2015, and as elections approach and the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds, tensions are rising," said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at HRW, referring to the respiratory disease caused by coronavirus.
Both camps have been able to attract thousands to their campaign rallies, says Louw-Vaudran, although she predicts turnout to the polls to be quite low.
She couldn't say with certainty whether holding elections amid the pandemic had been strategic, but she did point out that the president has claimed the country to be under God's protection from the disease.
Church gatherings, political rallies and football matches have continued, with only a few safety precautions in place.
On Thursday the World Health Organization (WHO) country representative and three other WHO officials were expelled from Burundi, with no reason given.
And, after initially refusing election observers, Nkurunziza eventually allowed 20 from the East African Community. However, they were told they would have to be in quarantine for 14 days, making it impossible for them to observe proceedings.
Louw-Vaudran and other analysts have said the absence of observers was of great concern in ensuring that elections be free and fair.
"If elections were free and fair ... there is a good chance for him [Rwasa] to win," she said, although most analysts predict a win for Ndayishimiye and the ruling party.
Rwasa has been a figure in Burundian politics for many years. He was present when the Arusha Accords were signed in 2000, which eventually brought an end to a civil war in which approximately 300,000 people died.
The war had pitted the majority Hutu ethnic group against the minority Tutsi and the accords introduced power-sharing quotas, with the aim of protecting the Tutsis.
Over the years, however, the ruling party has chipped away at the conditions of the agreements. When Nkurunziza, a Hutu, announced in 2015 his decision to seek a third term in office, despite a two-term limit set by the accords, civil unrest broke out.
His subsequent election victory unleashed a crisis that led to hundreds of people being killed and hundreds of thousands fleeing.
Burundians are now desperate for change. They would like to see political stability, better relations with their neighbours, international investment, an end to political repression and an end to impunity for politically motivated crimes, Louw-Vaudran said.
Not many expect reform from Ndayishimiye, who is running on a ticket according to party lines, whereas Rwasa is presenting himself as the symbol of change.
"We really have a chance," he told dpa by phone.
The big risk, according to a number of analysts, is that the loser refuses to accept the results, leading to a lengthy political crisis, as has been seen in many other countries in Africa.
"Rwasa is very popular but I don't think the ruling party can accept defeat," Pacifique Ninanahazwe, a prominent Burundian activist, told dpa.
He said there was fear of post-election protest and violence similar to those of 2015.
The UN Commission of Inquiry into Burundi also said on Friday that it was concerned that electoral processes or the results' announcement "could become triggering factors of a new and deeper cycle of political violence."
About 1 500 polling stations are expected to be open on Wednesday and more than 5 million Burundians are eligible to vote.dpa