Burundi Government Scales Up Repression As Elections Near

Human rights abuses and severe crackdowns on civil liberties continue to mount as Burundi prepares for its presidential elections on May 20. The elections have long been a source of anxiety amongst human rights watchdogs, who fear that current president Pierre Nkurunziza’s party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD), will use the opportunity to tighten their stranglehold on the country and its citizens. 

“Violence and repression have been the hallmark of politics in Burundi since 2015, and as elections approach and the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, tensions are rising,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

The Central African country has been experiencing unrest since 2015, when Nkurunziza announced his candidacy for a third presidential term, violating the two-term limit specified in the 1993 Arusha Accords. In the aftermath of his victory, nearly half a million people fled their homes and hundreds have been killed in clashes with security forces, according to the Security Council Report. 

Violence and repression have been directed at journalists, political opponents, and suspected political dissidents. “Moralization sessions,” some hosted by the president himself, have been organized for journalists in order to familiarize them with the official line, but pens, microphones and cameras were banned, says a Reporters Without Borders’ report. “In such an environment, the media are for the most part dominated by fear, resignation and self-censorship.”

Regular civilians have suffered under the CNDD’s repressive governance as well, many at the hands of the party’s militarized youth wing, the Imbonerakure. Refugees that have fled to neighboring Rwanda and Tanzania have accused the militia of carrying out killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of torture, ill-treatment, and rape against alleged political opponents, according to the UN Human Rights Council. The council found in a 2019 report that the eight risk factors most common to criminal atrocities were present in Burundi. 

Now, Nkurunziza is ostensibly stepping down from his 15-year presidency, a step which could signal a positive step towards peace and stability in the troubled country. The CNDD chose army general Evariste Ndayishimiye to run in his place, who has since praised the outgoing president’s leadership.

Despite Nkurunziza’s apparent renouncement of power, analysts remain concerned about the country’s post-election trajectory. Ndayishimiye is widely expected to win, and the ruling party appears intent on safeguarding its hold on power at the cost of further unrest. What’s more, journalists have reportedly been barred from COVID-19 press conferences, according to Human Rights Watch, raising fears that the government is blocking access to information about the pandemic. 

“As a citizen, I’m not happy. I don’t support Evariste [Ndayishimiye] as future president of Burundi because he acts [sic] a soldier, he acts like someone who is using dictatorship in his way of ruling,” an anonymous citizen told Deutsche Welle. 

As the election date draws closer, regional and international powers must monitor the human rights situation vigilantly in order to prevent widespread unrest. Though Nkurunziza’s withdrawal from politics should ostensibly bring much-needed stability to the electoral process, the future is far from certain. “There will never be a free and fair or credible election,” former minister Charles Nditije said. “The coming election is meant to give legitimacy to the new president.”