Guest Column

OPINION | Burundi’s 2020 elections: What is at stake?

2020-03-10 11:44
Burundi is gearing up for general elections scheduled for May. This image was taken in Bujumbura, Burundi's largest city and main port. (Renovat Ndabashinze, Anadolu Agency, Getty Images)

Burundi is gearing up for general elections scheduled for May. This image was taken in Bujumbura, Burundi's largest city and main port. (Renovat Ndabashinze, Anadolu Agency, Getty Images)

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Beyond the national dynamics, the 2020 elections offer an opportunity for improved relations between the Government of Burundi and the international community, especially the West, writes Patrick Hajayandi and Selina Diaby

In May 2020, Burundians will be casting their vote in a ballot that will see a new president elected, replacing the incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza.

The 2015 elections were preceded by violent street riots that culminated in a failed military coup and increased political tensions. In the aftermath of the coup, members of the civil society called for street demonstrations.

Meanwhile, a number of opposition party leaders were forced to go into exile.

Attempting to mitigate the political tensions, the East African Community tasked President Yoweri Museveni from Uganda to lead the mediation process.

President Museveni was seconded by former President William Mkapa of Tanzania, who acted as a facilitator in the controversial process that tried to help the conflicting sides find a lasting solution.

The mediation process ended without any tangible results and the leadership of the opposition was extremely weakened by this failure.

As a consequence, there were multiple splits within the opposition platform known as the Council for the Restoration of the Constitution and the Arusha Agreement (CNARED).

As the country gears towards the 2020 elections, there is a significant number of opposition leaders still living in exile.

It is yet difficult to define their place and role in the near future and how their actions will influence Burundi politics.

Today, only a few months away from entering the polls, there are contradictory perceptions regarding the possible outcome of the 2020 elections.

On the one hand there is uncertainty mixed with anxiety and fear of violence as the election approaches.

On the other hand, there is hope and new expectations stirred by the changes that have occurred within Burundi's political arena.

The new election will take place in a post-Nkurunziza context with the opposition operating from inside the country showing an increased readiness to actively participate in the process.

Besides the usual leading figures of the opposition, there are new and young political actors coming into the arena and trying to challenge the current dynamics.

The 2020 elections promise to be one of the most diverse and colourful in the electoral history of Burundi.

Already and in anticipation to the approaching electoral campaign scheduled on 27 April 2020, around 10 candidates have announced their decision to run for president.

Among these are Valentin Kavakure - the candidate proposed by the newly created party, the Popular National Front; Kassim Abdul from the Union for Progress and Democracy and Kefa Nibizi from the "Frodebu-Iragi rya Ndadaye" party.

As the only female candidate Fidélité Nibigira will challenge her male opponents on behalf of the Alliance for the Promotion of Democracy (APDR).

Among the newcomers, there is one independent candidate - Dieudonne Nahimana, who is also a pastor from one of the local churches.

Leonce Ngendakumana from the Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU) is a presidential candidate representing the old school.

The 2020 election comes in the aftermath of the adoption of an amended constitution overwhelmingly confirmed by a popular referendum on 17 May 2018.

The amendment led to accusations raised by the opposition regarding the president's intentions to stay in power.

Many media outlets argued that president Nkurunziza pushed for a constitutional change in order to stay in power until 2034 despite the fact that he announced several times that he was not going to run for president in 2020.

The designation of Evariste Ndayishimiye, a retired general and the current Secretary General of the ruling party, brought all the speculations to an end.

It is not yet very clear how the 2020 electoral process will unfold.

What is clear is that the stakes are high, and all sides seem to be determined to turn the page of 2015 chaos.

Despite expressed concern regarding the possibility of clashes especially between the youth of the various political parties, the prospects of violence occurring in the upcoming election are expected to be significantly low.

In other words, preventing violence will not be the main stake in this election.

According to a statement made by the current United Nations Assistance-Secretary General for Africa, Bintou Keita, during the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) Ambassadorial-level meeting on Burundi on the 27th of January, election related violence is inevitable.

However, the fear of a large-scale violence erupting across the country is unfounded.

In the current context, instability and violence could mainly be triggered by exogenous factors such as the radical opposition activism and attacks by armed groups from neighbouring countries.

In our view, the participation of all stakeholders and the validation of the electoral process will play a major role in the future of Burundi as a stable nation.

The increased number of presidential candidates, including even the independent ones, points to the importance attached to this election.

In a country emerging from years of instability, the participation of all these stakeholders is crucial for the restoration and strengthening of the fragile democracy.

The absence of a politically engaged and participative opposition has been detrimental for democracy and political stability while creating an environment for a de-facto one party rule.

While the primary focus of many politicians seems to be for the higher office, the experience of the past electoral results shows that vying for a seat in the parliament or in the local government should not be neglected.

Politicians with a clear strategy and maturity are able to grasp this reality.

The ability to clearly articulate a realistic agenda detailing what candidates or parties will accomplish for Burundi once elected is another important stake in moving away from unproductive politics of the past.

Beyond the national dynamics, the 2020 elections offer an opportunity for improved relations between the Government of Burundi and the international community, especially the West.

The restoration of ties will necessarily pass by the review of the relevance of the current sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States against some members of Burundi National Police, the Army and some official figures.

It may also imply that the moment has come for the West to shift its perspective on Burundi by focusing on what is going well, be it very small.

Arguably, the new relations will have to consider the increased role played by China and Russia in Burundi's international relations.

But questions remain: will the European Union and the US be willing to lift their sanctions imposed on the country after Nkurunziza leaves his office?

And what will constitute the diplomatic orientation of the new leadership vis-à-vis Burundi’s partnership with China and its cooperation with the West?

With this in mind, the upcoming elections provide a unique opportunity for Burundi’s political landscape to stabilise and its economy to come back on track.

This will help in mitigating political tensions.

- Patrick Hajayandi, is Senior Project Leader at IJR, Cape Town and Selina Diaby, is studying International Security at Science Po, Paris, France

Read more on:    burundi  |  politics  |  leadership  |  elections
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