Experts warn Burundi’s controversial presidential election could reignite civil war

A day before Burundi is due to hold controversial presidential elections, analysts warn the East African country risks sliding into violence, sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term, which opponents say violates the constitution.

GITEGA, BURUNDI (RTNB) – Burundi is set to hold its third democratic presidential elections since the country’s independence on Tuesday (July 21) but the vote has already been marred by controversy, an attempted coup and violence that experts warn, risks dragging one of the world’s poorest nations back into civil war.

The central African country was plunged into its worst crisis since the end of a civil war in 2005 after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced in April that he would run for a third term in office, a move opponents and protesters say is unconstitutional.

The president, whose CNDD-FDD party was declared the winner of last month’s parliamentary poll that was boycotted by the opposition, cites a court ruling saying he can run.

The opposition boycotted the vote and said they would not take up their seats, but the election committee said they would count their votes as the name was on the ballot.

U.N. monitors declared the vote unfair, while European and African states did not send monitors as they said conditions were not right for a free election.

Nkurunziza’s election bid triggered weeks of violent protests, often involving clashes between demonstrators and police.

Dozens of people have been killed and analysts say it could get worse as the crisis lengthens.

“If the date stands president Nkurunziza does run for a third mandate he is most likely going to win a third mandate in Burundi. In this condition, the political opposition will then most likely be pushed to work with the government in some sort of national unity government despite their protests. What’s most concerning however is the fact that there is an armed opposition which is now launching an insurgency against the government and should the military or the Burundian army spilt, fracture and see some of its members join the insurgency, we could see in Burundi an escalation of the country and possibly the breakout of full on civil war,” said Yolande Bouka, a researcher on conflict prevention and risk analysis at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi.

The looming presidential elections were likely to trigger major instability and clashes which could spread across Burundi’s borders, seven independent U.N. human rights investigators said on Thursday (July 16).

The crisis is being closely monitored in a region still scarred by the 1994 genocide that killed more than 800,000 people in neighbouring Rwanda, which like Burundi, was divided between ethnic Tutsis and Hutus.

During the civil war, the FNL or National Forces of Liberation was one of two Hutu rebel armies fighting the government after Burundi’s first elected Hutu president was assassinated by the Tutsi-led army in 1993.

The bigger and more influential rebel army was the FDD or Forces for the Defence of Democracy and in 2002, their commander Pierre Nkurunziza led them out of the bush to join the political process, turning his rebel army into a party called the CNDD FDD.

In the election in 2005, they won 58% of the popular vote and Nkurunziza has been the country’s president ever since.

The opposition has called fraud in following elections along with all the other main presidential contenders officially withdrawing from the race by getting their nomination papers back from State House – effectively leaving Nkurunziza without a challenger.

African efforts to cool the Burundi crisis have stumbled, despite calls by the African Union and regional east African states for dialogue.

In Rwanda, Burundi’s neighbour, parliament voted this week to support changing the constitution to allow President Paul Kagame to extend his rule beyond two terms.

Despite struggling to develop its poor agrarian economy, Burundi has been praised for healing deep ethnic rifts, largely by openly acknowledging differences rather than lightly addressing them. Opposition coalitions often group Hutus and Tutsis.

But mounting tension and clashes could further strain international relations after the elections even if regional countries maintain ties with the troubled nation.

The United States and the European Union have threatened sanctions against those it blames for agrivating the violence.

“Regionally things will remain the same. Ethiopia has been able to hold elections with no observers for quite some time and has been able to run a government accepted by other African countries. What’s more difficult to tell however is whether countries like the United States will resume their financial assistance for the security sector. Whether Belgium, one of the largest donors of Burundi, will resume its economic development initiatives and funding of its national budget, and the European Union and so forth. What we may see however is continued sanctions from those countries like we’ve seen in Zimbabwe for instance,” said Bouka.

According to UN agencies, more than 150,000 Burundians – almost 1.5 percent of the population – have already fled across borders to escape the mounting violence.

A flare-up in Burundi risks repercussions well beyond the borders of this small nation of 10 million people and will create fresh instability in a region with a history of ethnic conflict.