Despite elections, Burundi is still a long, long way from redemption

As several nations take measures to protect their citizens against the coronavirus, Burundians will be leaving the safety of their homes for the polls on May 20 for the presidential and parliamentary elections amidst fears of ethnic clashes and the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The country has evidently chosen the option of risking citizens’ lives to bring in another regime rather than keeping them safe at home but whether the risk will be worth the reward remains to be seen.

This election will signal the end of the Pierre Nkurunziza era, a 15-year extended rule that became more autocratic over time, with the government accused of human rights abuses, executions, torture and sexual violence.

But Burundi is not the only country to allow its citizens to go to the polls during a pandemic. South Koreans took to the polls in April amid the coronavirus outbreak for the parliamentary election, with reports claiming that the only difference between that election and the previous one was the presence of hand sanitizers, gloves and special areas for voters who had symptoms of the virus.

A similar experience played out in the Wisconsin state elections and presidential primaries in the United States, where electorates risked their health to exercise their civic responsibilities to vote rather than staying at home. On the flip side, at least 52 countries across the world have postponed elections due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Actually, the coronavirus has been a concern in Burundi,” chairman of Burundi’s National Independent Electoral Commission Pierre Claver Kazihise declared recently . “We’ve been in touch with the health ministry who have responded positively to provide kits and other means to protect ourselves during and after the election,” he added, assuring those concerned that measures would be taken. However, exactly what the measures, or “other means” were, he did not explain.

The opposition of the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) has been the target of politically-motivated violence and intimidation ahead of the polls. There have been several reports of the ruling party using fear and oppression to course outcomes to their will. More than 200 members of the opposition party have reportedly been attacked by the youth militia which is loyal to the CNDD-FDD.

“There is little doubt that these elections will be accompanied by more abuses, as Burundian officials and members of the Imbonerakure [the CNDD-FDD’s youth league] are using violence with near-total impunity to allow the ruling party to entrench its hold on power,” Lewis Mudge, the Central Africa Director of the Human Rights Watch, said recently. 

Burundi, for the past few years, has ranked as one of the least happy nations in the world according to the World Happiness Report. This is not far fetched. With a high level of impunity across the country, a low rate of social trust and low life-satisfaction is reported by Burundians. Based on their response to the Cantril ladder, the major assessment used by the World Happiness Report to rank happiness and life satisfaction across 156 countries, Burundians are living their worst possible life.

The country is still recovering from the president’s decision to seek a third term in 2015, against constitutional provisions — a decision that led to political unrest, detention of activists, government critics and violence that killed hundreds of Burundians and prompted about half a million people to flee the country .

With more than 65% of the country’s population living in poverty, the East African nation recorded its first case of the Covid-19 at the end of March and currently has reported  27 cases and one death. This election, and the weeks after it, present an existential test for citizens.

The major contenders of the election are 52-year old Evariste Ndayishimiye and 56-year-old Agathon Rwasa. Ndayishimiye, the flag bearer and secretary-general of the CNDD-FDD, is a former minister of interior and security, and runs the department of military affairs in the president’s office. Rwasa, on the other hand, is the candidate of the leading opposition party, the National Congress for Liberty. A former rebel leader, Rwasa was the leading opposition candidate in the 2010 and 2015 elections, which his party boycotted.

With the upcoming election lacking in thrill and surprises, Burundians are left with two options: re-elect the ruling party, further broadening the pseudo-democracy in place in the country, or give the opposition a chance, while noting that this will also not change things overnight. 

If the ruling party wins, there is the likelihood of the unhealthy precedence of brutality, the silencing of opposition and other vices that have characterised the current regime maintaining prominence in the country. 

If, however, the opposition wins, the country is still a long way from redemption. Regardless of the outcome, Burundians will find themselves at risk, and had best use this election to strengthen their learnings on how to — or not — run a nation.

Jideonwo is co-founder of media group RED and human flourishing company, Joy, Inc. Morenikeji is on the founding team at Joy, Inc.

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