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An African strongman, a rockstar journalist, and an EU worker with a dopey haircut all walk into a bar…

I wrote this for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and while posting it in its entirety here is going to bite into my SEO rating, I figure there aren't a whole lot of people who can overtake me in a Google search for "jina moore."  And this, alas, is no variety show.

I wrote this post in part to use all the information I'd gathered that no one wanted (rightly) to publish, and in part to interrogate why we don't publish this stuff.  I think it's related to how some places manage to get away with "elections" in the first place.  You'll see, soon enough. In the meantime, here's a teaser:

If the night of the election is any indication, grenades will be thrown, most people (“even the prostitutes!”) will be in after dark, and everyone will sit, torqued, waiting to see if Burundi “relapses” into rebellion.

Flash lights.  Hand out Milk Duds...because if I ran a theater, that's how it would be... And take your seats.

Burundi’s election, in three acts

It was literally no surprise that Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza won reelection on Monday.  He was, after all, the only candidate.

The country’s entire political opposition boycotted the presidential vote, alleging that Nkurunziza’s party had committed “massive fraud” to win a local poll a month earlier.

The national independent elections commission said the claims were unfounded; the European Union observation mission said it didn’t think the “irregularities” it saw affected the outcome, and without that relationship, ipso facto, no fraud.

But the nature of the fraud charges are pretty weedy, and they didn’t make it into most international news stories on the election, including my own.  The reasons for that are important -- they should make us question pretty much everything we think we understand about how things like war, peace and politics work.  But to see that particular forest, first we have to look at the trees.

Cast of characters

Romping between the trees with us will be the country’s independent electoral commission, known by the French acronym CENI; the “opposition parties,” by which I mean the 12-party coalition that withdrew collectively from the presidential vote; and the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD.  (Ruling party, by the way, is called tellingly in French, “parti du pouvoir.”  You don’t say.)

Supporting characters include the European Union Electoral Observation Mission, the UN mission in Burundi (BINUB) and a chorus I’ll call the Old Hands.  The Old Hands are observers, African and Western, who know the region well and whom I’ve chatted with over the past few weeks.  They didn’t speak on the record, and I won’t name them.  But I’m also not going to pretend I don’t remember what they said.

There will be special guest appearances by the FNL, the ex-rebel group that kept its guns and delayed “real” peace until just last year, and Alexis Sinduhije, journalist-turned-politician (turned-future-rebel?  He’s hinting…).

Act I:  In the beginning there was the vote…

Scene One, in which we accept on good authority the authorities. Burundi held a local vote on May 24, after a three-day delay.  CENI said it wasn’t ready; opposition parties later wondered if it meant, “Wasn’t ready to pull off a smooth theft.”  People went to the polls; everyone agrees there were issues, including open air (or semi-public) balloting in some places.  CENI says the opposition waited too long to call the issues fraud.  “It’s as if the opposition parties woke up when the results were announced and said the vote had been stolen,” the CENI spokesman told me.  The EU team says there’s no proof the irregularities affected the outcome, which is technocrat’s way of saying, “Fraud?  No.”

Right off the bat, the opposition parties have some credibility issues.  One, they did wait until the 11th hour to say, “Hey, there was massive fraud.”  Two, the parties like to accuse the CNDD-FDD of vote-buying.  They’re not alone; even ordinary Burundians acknowledge that the party promises beers or doles out cash to turn people’s votes.  Maybe, but the Old Hands say the opposition parties do the same thing (and ordinary Burundians second it).  Burundi is still Burundi, no matter which party you’re trying to get elected.

Scene Two, in which we give the opposition the benefit of the doubt. One big, as-yet-unresolved issue is about something called the PV, or process verbal.  This is a kind of executive summary of the poll day: How many votes were cast and for whom.  It’s supposed to be signed off on by a representative of each political party in the race.  The coalition of 12 opposition parties would get one representative; the ruling party would get one; Uprona, the country’s second-biggest party another opposition party, would get one, and another smaller party called MRC would get one.  They all sign the PV.  The EU says it would be “nice” if they signed enough copies so that each party could keep one, but CENI rules say they only need to sign one.

The question is, where’s the one?  Alexis Sinduhije told me many of the 6,500+ polling stations in Burundi didn’t have an opposition member present to sign the paper.   It gets even more tangled than that, but the absence of the PV is probably the strongest thread in the tangle, so I’ll leave the rest out.  So far, the opposition says, no one’s seen them.  Their absence implies the possibility of rigging the totals.

Sinduhije has said the opposition “will not stand” for these elections.  The coalition is also boycotting the legislative elections in July.  It’s hard to see the logic in this: It would seem to be a move that literally hands over all branches of government to the party the coalition wanted to oust from power.  And that would pave the way to unarguably dramatic changes -- like altering the constitution, say – with the easy approval of a one-party democracy.

Voting, in any case, is not so much in vogue here anymore.

Act II: …and CENI saw that the vote was good.  But was CENI?

The opposition’s suspicion of the May vote is fueled by the fact that it took CENI more than two weeks to release official poll results. Journalists reported unofficial results throughout the day of the May 24 vote, and by the next morning, the CNDD-FDD was declared the winner, with 64 percentage points.  CENI didn’t release the results until June 15 (according to its website; I couldn’t find the documents there on June 17. I didn’t check back until June 22 when I found the documents, which appeared to me to be back-dated).

When I first met him, Sinduhije was particularly miffed at the international community for what he perceived as double-talking on fraud.  "They excuse things you would not excuse in the civilized world," he says.  "Excuses for not having secret ballots.  Excuses for not having election returns.  Excuses for Africans."  Doubt it?  Think, he says, about the standard of success in an aid project.  "In Africa, if people only steal 20 or 30 percent, that's considered good."

The opposition decided to boycott the election – but not the campaign season.  It traveled the country, or tried to, telling supporters to boycott the poll.  It made some trips successfully; at other points, it was turned back.  On June 8, the Minister of the Interior said it was illegal for individuals to hold political meetings unless they were running for president.  Rights groups said that curtailed the opposition’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly.  The opposition said it proved the CNDD-FDD was interfering with the elections process and unduly influencing CENI, which is supposed to be an independent electoral body.

I put this question to Prospere Ntahorwamiye, the spokesman for CENI, in this way:  If campaigns are part of the electoral process, why didn’t CENI issue the decree prohibiting campaigning by non-candidates?  Why did it come from the Ministry of the Interior?

He responded by reading to me from Burundi’s election code, giving the minister of the interior the right to regulate public safety.  Campaigns are a matter of public safety, he said, and read to me twice more.  When I pushed, he responded, “You do understand French, don’t you?”

So I put it differently:  What if the Minister of the Interior were to make a declaration in the name of public safety, that everyone agrees is indeed a matter of public safety and that therefore is fully within his purview, but that violated the electoral code or some protected political rights?  Would CENI exercise its independence and intervene or respond to protect that code or those rights?

Ntahorwamiye had grown weary of me.  “I don’t even understand the logic of the question.”

ntermission: On being your own worst enemy

The Old Hands are full of advice for the opposition, ways they could have gone about their argument that would improve their chances of getting a hearing.  One foreign diplomat involved in trying to broker a compromise in mid-June told me he had hinted to Agathon Rwasa, the leader of the FNL, that he should stop pouting and play ball, lest someone start asking questions about certain massacres in which the International Criminal Court might be interested.  It appears either to have been very influential or totally superfluous; Rwasa disappeared before the election and is said to be gearing up for a second rebellion or on vacation, depending on whom you ask.

Burundi is a country of suspicion, misdirection, and outright lying.  Burundians say they don’t know what’s really happening most of the time, but they have ways of finding a kind of truth between all stories.  There’s no way a white outsider with only passable French and a few refrains of Kirundi is going to figure it out – so don’t let us fool you.

But here’s an interesting way of thinking about it anyway: Assume everyone’s a little bit right. Assume the CNDD-FDD did win – and a lot of people think that’s reasonable, some even go so far as to call Nkurunziza’s most recent term a five-year campaign for the presidency, from the presidency.  So then, why rig the vote?

And assume the opposition is faking some of it.  So then, why walk away completely when your enemy is obviously stronger – politically, financially, militarily?  Sure, you could start a rebellion again, but I haven’t met anyone yet who thinks it would be a successful government-toppling war.  It would be awful, of course, and people would die, but it wouldn’t change the political outcome. (This, by the way, would seem to me to hold even if you don’t assume they’re faking any of it, unless you have a Kantian devotion to voting.)

Here’s what both sides have in common:  They are treating the situation as a zero-sum game.   Yet there seems to be plenty of room for compromise.  Except that they see it as a zero-sum game. “This is still Africa,” one Old Hand said to me.  “These guys are after everything.”

Stage directions

There are a few things that are important to keep in mind here.  My French is good on good days, bad on others, and I always work with someone just to double-check.  The CENI spokesman was being cheeky, yes, but he was being cheeky in the presence of my translator.

He also won’t take calls from my known telephone numbers, so I can’t confirm or get comment on the missing PVs, the backdated report, or other elements of the story that any half-decent journalist would to take back to the other side.  Not for lack of trying.

Next in Burundi’s election season…

A Q&A with Alexis Sinduhije, one-time pacifist-journalist turned jaded politician-rebel?  And an audio slideshow of a day at the polls… stay tuned.

Like everything else I've been doing lately, and will do for the next month, this work was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, to which I am very grateful.

UPDATE:  Human Rights Watch tells me that they are told that the PV reports are now available for consultation at CENI's offices.  They also questioned my metric for calling Uprona the 'second biggest' political party -- number of votes won?  number of members? -- and I say, good point.  Really, the point is, they're an opposition party, too (and, as I recall, had a vice-presidency under the last Nkurunziza administration).

4 Responses to “An African strongman, a rockstar journalist, and an EU worker with a dopey haircut all walk into a bar…” Leave a reply ›

  • Hi Jina,

    I enjoy your reporting. Thanks for the coverage. A couple comments:

    On the vote rigging accusations, I've tended to be quite skeptical about the accusations. The opposition strategy seems to be largely one of delegitimizing a process that they cannot win given their general lack of mass appeal (beyond Bujumbura and certain enclaves, e.g. in Bururi). The boycott was a relatively cheap exercise for the opposition: there was no hope of any of the opposition coming close to winning (even in an election with absolutely zero fraud), so there was little lost in that regard. At the same time, by raising a stink, the opposition could generate some international pressure to make the ruling party appreciate that they simply cannot exclude the opposition. The ruling party needs the opposition to legitimize their electoral victory and, perhaps more importantly, to satisfy the preference among donors for an inclusive political process. The opposition, seeing this as the only currency available to them, is being strategic in how they use it.

    True, the ruling party has had much more in the way of opportunity and resources to solidify their mass appeal, and so one could argue that the playing field over the years has not been level. In addition, the ruling party has been quite disappointing in their legislative record since 2005 (though as it takes two to tango, the opposition has shown as much interest in spoiling as making things happen on the floor of the assembly). But based on the evidence that has been produced by various researchers over the past decade (my own research included), the results of the communal polls, as well as the turnout and votes among those who turned out in the presidential polls, strike me as well within the range of plausible levels of CNDD-FDD support throughout the country. (Again, with Buja and Bururi, are exceptions. However, Buja and Bururi account for maybe 10% of the country's population, even if they host a highly disproportionate share of the country's political and economic activity.)

    On the possibility of renewed rebellion, recall that the CNDD-FDD's ascendancy was due largely to their military success (which itself had a lot to do with the support they were able to muster from the population, sometimes through voluntary contributions but of course also through coercion at times). With military integration complete, it's hard to imagine anyone picking a real fight with them now. One could imagine FNL members deciding that mainstream participation was not fruitful at this time, and returning to the kind of spoiling that they used during the peace process up to 2008/9. In addition, there are always hints of intrigue from among the "old" Bururi elite, with their ties in the military and abroad (although accusations along these lines often have less to do with genuine coup threats than the need for the ruling party to bind political opponents). But again, the military has been thoroughly reformed and so these kinds of plots are much less complelling than in 1993, say. The talk of the likes of Sinduhije turning to rebellion sound rather comical, I must say.


    • Thanks, Cyrus. You raise some good points.

      I was hella surprised to hear Sinduhije talk about rebellion, but these are the times, I guess. I think the spoiling approach you've described is precisely what people are worried about. That, and the rather annoyed crew of would-be DDR-ers. I'm assuming the returned refugees who don't have land any longer are too old to wage bush warfare, or they'd also be at least something to worry about.

      I've heard from a lot of people that the CNDD-FDD win is plausible. I don't know enough to say anything about it, and a chorus of voices all saying the same thing is obviously compelling. But that's also not exactly the point: Why not handle the PV issue? Why not actually have a conversation with the opposition (which CENI refused for weeks to do)? I'm not saying these things as a sympathizer with one side or another; these are the questions a reporter wants to ask.

      I've also heard your explanation about the opposition's stance from others. It makes sense, but it also doesn't theorize away the legitimate, and acknowledged, problems f the communal vote. I've highlighted only a few; there are more. Until they're dealt with, I think the opposition is going to continue to feel like it has a point.

      However, I disagree that the opposition's strategy was one without risk, as you suggest by saying there was "little lost" in nay-saying the results. In fact, they didn't succeed in generating international pressure on the ruling party; they succeeded in getting the international community (I'm thinking especially EU and UN) to stand by the electoral results, thereby isolating the opposition further. That was a big risk, and they didn't win on that one. And the international community seems just fine to sigh and say, "We wish this democracy had some pluralism" but not to do more than that --- so I don't know that the message that the ruling party needs the opposition to signify political inclusiveness was necessarily reinforced. The opposite, I'd say.

  • Hi Jinna,

    Thanks for your insight, which is great to read from Bujumbura (even with a bit of delay).

    Just a footnote: in French, it's parti au pouvoir (in power) rather than parti du pouvoir (party of power). Not terribly different from the English term?

    • Thanks! Yeah, you can say that in English, but in America we never do. It has a bit too much bite, and we have this problem of "in" what? In the White House? In the House? The Senate? So we usually just name the parties... We might say, "The dems/repubs, who control the White House/Congress, etc." I never thought that much about it, but yeah, there's a philosophical issue, I think -- control can shift, but "the party in power" is too absolute for the way we think about politics...

      Can you tell us from Buj, how did parliamentary elections go?

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