It was not a pretty weekend in everyone’s favorite, dysfunctional, nominally democratic Great Lakes autocracy. (Whoops! Second favorite.) The fallout over Burundi’s disputed elections last week began as soon as the official results were announced on Friday, with President Pierre Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD party claiming a convincing 64.03 percent of the votes. The former rebel group, FNL, was a distant second, with just over 14 percent.
On Friday, the opposition parties “expressed outrage at the official results and demanded the resignation of the national electoral board.”
“Our position is crystal clear: we are still demanding the May 24 elections be invalidated and we also want the electoral commission to resign because it is not independent,” said FNL leader Agathon Rwasa.
He was speaking in the name of 12 opposition parties at a press conference held immediately after the annnouncement of the official results.
Meanwhile the United Nations’ independent expert on the human rights situation in Burundi, Akich Okola,
interviewed observers in Burundi to evaluate the elections. He said as far as he can see, the results reflect the will of the people. But he added that the necessary evidence might not be available to him.
“This is the third democratic elections that this country has held,” said Okola. “I was privileged to observe the second democratic elections in 2005 and this third series in this democratic process I think is indicating that Burundi is slowly maturing into a democratic state.”
Of course, that slow maturation process won’t come without some growing pains. And things quickly became painful this weekend, when violence erupted in Bujumbura during opposition protests over the contested results.
The opposition National Liberation Forces (FNL) said people began demonstrating in Bujumbura’s Kinama quarter when they found “several ballot boxes filled with balloting papers, some of them not counted.”
“The people protested and the policed intervened,” said party spokesman Jean-Bosco Havyarimana, adding that senator Petronie Habanabashaka and 50 party activists were taken in by police.
A police spokesman denied that the senator had been arrested, but a local official said that elsewhere in Bujumbura, things quickly began to spiral out of control. According to administrator Emile Ndayarinze:
“Election commission agents were collecting election material used in Monday’s vote. A large crowd arrived and started hurling stones at these agents and police fired in the air to disperse the crowd,” he said.
This was followed by a “real riot — the Kinama market was looted and was closed in the afternoon, police and civilians were wounded and a dozen ringleaders were arrested,” he said.
The violence escalated on Sunday, when a local leader from the opposition Union for Peace and Development (UPD) party was killed by a grenade blast in Muyinga province.
“At 16:00 GMT the UPD’s deputy chair in Buhinyuza commune, Asumani Nzeyimana, was talking to some people when someone in police uniform threw a grenade at them. It exploded and caused him fatal injuries,” said [party spokesman] Chauvineau Mugwengezo.
“Nzeyimana succumbed to his injuries while six other party activists were seriously wounded and are in hospital,” he said of the Sunday incident.
The spokesperson also said another local party leader narrowly missed death on Sunday after two men in civilian clothing shot at him.
“In both cases these are political crimes linked to the elections and ordered by the regime,” he said.
Ruling party officials denied any political motives behind the attacks, but Mugwengezo insisted both men “were investigating the fraud that characterised last Monday’s local elections, notably the ballot box stuffing we’ve seen everywhere.”
On Monday, in the campaign season’s latest twist, FNL leader Agathon Rwasa and four other presidential candidates announced they were withdrawing from this month’s polls in protest over the results of last week’s elections.
“I came to withdraw my candidacy in the June 28 presidential poll because I refuse to take part in a fraudulent election whose results are already decided,” Rwasa told AFP at the electoral board office.
This is troubling news, since despite the optimism and assurances of international observers last week, the political situation in Burundi appears to be rapidly deteriorating. Let’s not forget the high level of risk involved in this sort of brinkmanship: both the ruling party and the main opposition party (CNDD-FDD and FNL, respectively), are former rebel groups who spent more than a decade fighting in Burundi’s disastrous civil war, and who are believed to be armed to the teeth. UPD – another prominent opposition party – is itself a CNDD-FDD splinter group, widely considered to have stockpiles of arms. And even minor political players, like FRODEBU and MSD, have drawn discontented, demobilized rebel soldiers into their ranks. The widespread clashes in the weeks leading up to last week’s elections, however minor, have illustrated just how volatile the political climate is in Burundi right now. Let’s hope the gains of the past five years aren’t undone in the days and weeks ahead.