Burundi: Violence in run up to elections

13 May 2015 | Natasha Pearce

Natasha Pearce is currently studying for an MA in Human Rights and Cultural Diversity. She has a background in History and Film Studies which she studied at Queen Mary, University of London. She focused her studies largely on African history and the aftermath of colonialism, as well as studying the depiction of colonialism and African independence in African cinema. She has undertaken placements in Ghana and Tanzania, as well as visiting a number of other African countries. Whilst previously working for the Centre for Armed Violence, she has been an intern with Resolution:Possible for a year.

Note from Resolution:Possible – Minutes after we published Natasha’s piece we received word there has been a coup in Burundi.

votingIn recent months, Britain has been captivated by the 2015 General Elections which resulted in a surprise Conservative victory. The last week alone has seen a new cabinet reshuffle, the resignation of three party leaders, the reinstatement of one such leader (UKIP’s Nigel Farage was reportedly forbidden by the party executive from leaving his position as party leader), a spate of protests on the streets of London and across social media against the new government and reports of some of the more alarming policies we should expect to be implemented in the next 5 years; the abolition of the 1998 Human Rights Act, increased spending on Trident, harsher immigration policies and welfare cuts.

Whilst news of the British general election has dominated nearly every national news outlet of every variety, the violence sweeping across the Burundian capital has barely touched headlines. Burundi, a small country in east central Africa, has broken out in violent protests after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his decision to run for a third term of presidency, despite the fact that doing so is against the Burundian constitution; a document which he helped to write.

Pierre Nkurunziza came to power ten years ago in the wake of Burundi’s 12 year civil war. Burundi is perhaps lesser known that its neighbour, Rwanda, whose 1994 genocide shocked the world and continues to be remembered internationally today. Burundi, like Rwanda, has a Hutu majority and Tutsi minority and has suffered a number of episodes of ethnic violence throughout its history, with its recent civil war standing out as one of its most brutal violent periods. It is estimated that in the 12 year period, 300,000 people died, largely civilians.

Nkurunziza came to power in 2005 following peace agreements, which included ethnic quotas within government in an attempt to help lessen potential ethnic violence. A former rebel leader, Nkurunziza comes from the Hutu majority. He inherited a country left devastated by over a decade of war and has focused much of his career on rebuilding the country. As a result, he has achieved a number of awards and honours from the international and regional communities for this work in rebuilding the country

The Burundian Constitution was written in 2005 as part of the transitional period established by the new government. Yet, despite his role in the drafting process, Nkurunziza has chosen to defy its principles, by announcing his run for a third term as President. The decision has resulted in violent protests, largely in the capital and has resulted in at least thirteen civilian deaths, including that of a man who was set ablaze by protestors. Most recently a video of a young police woman attacked by a crowd in the streets of Bujumbura went viral across social media as she was chased through the streets and beaten. The protests have only worsened after Nkurunziza did not rule out the possibility of seeking a fourth term as President. Thousands of civilians have fled the country fearing a resurgence of the violence that has affected the country in the past and there seems little chance of the protests ending in the near future. All this before Burundi even reaches the polls.

Yet, these events have gained minimal attention here in the midst of our own election results. Whilst it would be unfair to say that there is not a sense of cynicism among the nation at the prospect of what is to come in the next five years, we maybe need to take the time to reflect upon our own election process. It may be flawed but David Cameron has already ruled out the possibility of a third term as prime minister, and indeed, he is only back in Number 10 due to the fact that he has been democratically elected and gained a fair, albeit surprising, majority. If we compare our elections to the run up to those in Burundi, we must stop and think about how lucky we have been to have been part of such a relatively peaceful process, even if there is protest and discontent with the results and the ambiguous representation of the votes. Even though our system is not perfect there are others around the world who sacrifice their freedom, rights and in some cases their lives, in order to have the elections process that we take for granted.

Burundi is yet to go to the polls, but if even the period in the run up to the election can be so brutal, the future prospects of the country do not seem bright. The international community, including the United Nations and the European Union have called for an end to the violence, but whilst Nkurunziza remains an electoral candidate, there seems little hope for peace. Nigeria made history earlier this year with their peaceful process and the amicable accession of Goodluck Jonathan. Perhaps the success of Nigeria can set be recreated for Burundi in the near future. However, until Nkurunziza listens to the cries of his people, only time will tell what the future holds for Burundi.

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