General elections in Burundi: Political actors must prevent the escalation of violence
PARIS, France, April 24, 2015/African Press Organization (APO)/ -- The Burundian President's party, the CNDD-FDD, will hold its caucus next Saturday, during which it may nominate its candidate for the upcoming Presidential election in June. Ahead of the incumbent, Pierre Nkurunziza's likely nomination, tension is rising and there is apprehension around the possibility of escalating violence. FIDH and its member organisation ITEKA, who have documented multiple cases of pre-electoral violence and who fear a real deterioration of the security situation as the elections approach, call upon all political actors to refrain from any action which could lead to widespread violence, for which they could be held accountable.
“The upcoming elections are crucial for Burundi. However, the current context is not conducive to free and secure elections. Thousands of Burundians have fled their country out of fear for their safety. Opposition protests are being repressed violently. There are persistent abuses being perpetrated by the Imbonerakure, and civil society continues to be stigmatized. These are bad signs and Burundian political actors must take appropriate measures to prevent an escalation of the situation,” declared our organisations.
Increased repression against those who oppose a third term for Pierre Nkurunziza
The president Pierre Nkurunziza, who has been in power since 2005, could be nominated by his party, the CNDD-FDD, as its presidential candidate. These past months, many voices, including those of the main opposition parties, civil society organisations, churches, foreign diplomats and even members of CNDD-FDDD, have spoken out against his candidacy, which they consider to be a violation of the provisions of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi (2000) and the Burundian Constitution (2005).
FIDH and ITEKA, who interviewed several Burundian political actors, civil society representatives, and diplomats in Bujumbura in February 2015, fear that the intensification of the repression against those who oppose a third term for Nkurunziza will lead to the multiplication of politically-motivated abuses. “Contestation of a possible third term for Pierre Nkurunziza is on the rise, tightening the noose around his neck and reducing the support he has within his party. As we approach his party's caucus, the regime seems to be responding to this pressure with force, sanctions, and intimidation,” added our organisations.
On the 19 April 2015, violent clashes occurred between Burundi police forces and hundreds of people demonstrating in Bujumbura, the capital city, against a third term for Pierre Nkurunziza. To disperse the protesters, the police used water canons, tear gas and batons. Two police officers were injured in the clashes and 105 protesters were arrested, including 65 that were charged with participating in an insurrectionary movement and transferred to Muramvya prison, about 50 km from the capital. They face up to ten years in prison. Monday, 20 April, at a joint press conference, the Ministers of the Interior, Defence, Justice and Public Safety hardened the tone and suggested that the authorities intensify the repression against those who oppose a third term for Nkurunziza.
Within the presidential party, those who have openly opposed the candidacy of the incumbent have been the targets of sanctions. In a petition dated 20 March 2015, 17 senior representatives of CNDD-FDD called upon the President to comply with the position of the Party Council requesting that he not run at the risk of seeing the country descend into chaos. Among the signatories of the petition were the President's spokesperson, the spokesperson of the party, and the Governor of Bubanza province, all of whom were dismissed. The Governors of the provinces of Bujumbura Rural, Muramvya, and Karusi, and the Director General of Burundi National Radio and Television (RTNB) all suffered a similar fate. Our organisations have also learned that a dozen senior executives of the CNTB (National Commission on Land and other Assets) and twenty employees of Parliament have recently been dismissed for the same reasons.
Thousands of Burundians flee the country, fearing for their safety
“Many acts of pre-electoral violence have occurred in recent months in several provinces in Burundi, particularly targeting opposition activists and opponents of a third term for Pierre Nkurunziza. People fear that the situation will deteriorate and consequently seek shelter. It is the stability of Burundi and the sub-region that are now at stake,” our organisations warned.
Fleeing the pre-electoral violence and fearing an escalation of insecurity with the approach of the elections, nearly 8,000 Burundians have left their country to seek refuge in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to our information, some have also begun to arrive in Tanzania. According to UNHCR, refugees, who are primarily from Kirundo, in northern Burundi, have reported politically motivated acts of harassment and intimidation, forced disappearances of their relatives, and forced recruitment by members of the youth league of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure.
In February 2015, FIDH and ITEKA interviewed people from the province of Kirundo who were victims of pre-election violence. One of them, a member of the opposition party FRODEBU-Nyakuri told our organisations: “On January 26, 2015, I left the capital of the district of Bugabira and went home. I heard stones thrown on the roof of my house. I went out to see what was happening and was captured by Imbonerakure of our hill area, who dragged me down the road. They beat me with steel bars, clubs, and sticks. It was a group of over twenty people from my hill area. They fled when my neighbours came to see what was going on […] Today, we are in a standoff. In our area there are representatives of UPRONA, FNL, the CNDD-FDD, and FRODEBU. Now there are places we are afraid to go because they are controlled by CNDD-FDD. They call us 'Ibipinga' [the people who you have to do battle with]. Today, I continue to attend the meetings of my party. But the Imbonerakure come to our meetings and disrupt them. They throw stones at us so we can't hold the meetings. It is mainly the UPRONA and FRODEBU-NYAKURI that are harrassed by the Imbonerakure. The President of FRODEBU-NYAKURI is originally from the province of Kirundo. Most of the party members live in this province. No justice is expected when it is the Imbonerakure who commit the crimes. They are untouchable, protected by the law. Me, I cannot run away. You know, they frighten us because they want us to leave. They want us to flee so they remain the only ones during the elections. That is why we refuse to flee.”
Another resident originally from Kirundo, also a member of the FRODEBU-NYAKURI party, told our organisations, “On December 23, 2014, a Gitobe administrator drove by my shop and threatened me, saying 'You Ibipinga here, I will work on you today.' Later, he came back to my shop in a vehicle filled with Imbonerakure. They attacked my shop. I managed to flee. The next day, I took all that was left in my shop and I moved to another place in Busoni. But in January 2015, two Imbonerakure tried to force open my shop. I think a war will start in our community. Knowing the CNDD-FDD, even if they are defeated, they will not give up power.”
“The Burundian authorities should take the measures necessary to putting an immediate end to threats, harassment, and intimidation of opposition activists or people perceived to be close to the opposition. If they do not do so, the credibility of the electoral process will be tainted. They must ensure full respect for the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest. Furthermore, they should ensure that the Imbonerakure are held responsible for their actions before the courts,” said our organisations.
“The international community, particularly the African Union and the United Nations, must increase pressure on Burundian authorities to prevent the escalation of violence and guarantee free, credible, and inclusive elections,” they added.
The challenges presented by a possible third term for Pierre Nkurunziza
Under Article 7 of the Arusha Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation (2000) and Article 96 of the Constitution (2005), the President of the Republic of Burundi is elected by universal direct suffrage for a five-year term, renewable only once. While the CNDD-FDD admits that Pierre Nkurunziza has served two presidential terms, the party recalls that in 2005, Nkrurunziza was elected by the Parliament and therefore did not serve his first term (2005-2010) as a result of universal direct suffrage. However, the opposition and civil society believe that this argument ignores Article 103 of the Constitution, which states that “the term of the president begins on the day he is sworn in,” and the fact that the incumbent President was sworn in twice (2005 and 2010). Those opposed to a third term also stress that article 302 of the 2005 Constitution explicitly states: “The first President of the republic post-transition is elected by the National Assembly and the Senate.” They have pointed out that this is the same section of article 302 of the Constitution that the ruling party tried unsuccessfully to amend in 2014, a sign, according to the opposition, that the ruling party will do anything in order to allow Nkrurunziza to run for another term.
In February 2015, FIDH and ITEKA were able to interview several Burundian political actors and diplomats in Bujumbura and witnessed the real tensions that surround the question of a possible candidacy of Pierre Nkurunziza. Several opposition members say they are strongly opposed to such a candidacy. For one of them, “the candidacy of Pierre Nkurunziza will contribute to exacerbating tensions. Articles 96 and 302 of the Constitution should be read as complementary articles. The term of the President of the Republic shall take effect on the day of his swearing in.” Another said: “We are adamant that there is no way that Nkurunziza can stand for a third term. A third term would be equivalent to a descent into hell. He never had a half-term. If he runs for a third term, it will mean that there is no commitment to the Arusha Agreement, or the Constitution, so disorder is permitted.”
For Pascal Nyabenda, President of CNDD-FDD, who met with our organisations: “The problem is that people want to compare Burundi with Congo. But the situation is different. We are in a country still in transition. The term from 2005 -2010 was a shared term. The term from 2010 to 2015 was different. Article 96 of the Constitution says that the President is elected through universal suffrage. Some refer to Articles 103 and 302 of the Constitution. Those who were in Arusha said that we had agreed that the President could serve a maximum of two terms. The Constitutional Court has not yet ruled on the matter because it has not yet been seized. The opposition is afraid of our President, that's all.”
The diplomats that met with our organisations also expressed fears that the political and security situation is deteriorating, as tensions crystallize around the issue of the third term of the incumbent. For one of them, “The question of a third term is a risk factor that could incite people to violence.” Another went even further by stating: “The third term is not legal. If article 302 of the Constitution had been removed, there would be no debate about the third term. That is why the government wanted to remove it. But the review process failed. From my point of view, we must interpret the two texts [the Arusha Agreement and the Constitution] together.”
FIDH and ITEKA reiterate their call on the authorities to ensure a truly inclusive electoral process that allows opposition candidates to participate freely, and to fight effectively against acts of political violence. For our organisations, while the debate surrounding the possibility of President Pierre Nkurunziza running for a third term must revolve around the law, it must also serve to push the current government to fully guarantee democratic principles and avoid an authoritarian turn.