Places Not to Be Right Now: Burundi

Human Rights Watch released a new report on Burundi today, the first in-depth look at the country since the debacle of elections this summer.

The reports squarely calls out Burundi’s Minister of Interior for illegal crackdowns against political opposition parties, during and after the election; details the disappearance into exile or hiding of opposition leaders; and catalogs so many overtures of authoritarianism that it’s hard not to see a trend.

It’s also hard to understand the relative international silence on these issues. In the two days before June’s presidential election, for example, at least 26 people were arrested, many charged with “inciting the population not to vote” — which does not actually exist as a crime in Burundian law, according to HRW’s sources. Just as the presidential campaign was about to begin, all of Burundi’s opposition pulled out of the election; the minister of interior then said only political parties fronting candidates were legally allowed to meet. Arrest warrants were issued for two major opposition figures.

And yet, no international organization — not the UN, not the EU, which fronted a major observation mission there — condemned these moves publicly. The UN office in Burundi has gotten a little more vocal in recent months, as the HRW report documents, but relative to the threats, intimidation, and arrests, there’s a non-conversation that seems, at best, like indifference.

I was in Burundi in June, during the presidential elections and the craziness that preceded them. I was reporting on the UN Peacebuilding Commission for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The commission is a new UN body charged with promoting stable peace in post-conflict societies. It is supposed to be, I heard again and again and again in the countries I visited, “aggressively political.” It was neither. And until now, neither has anyone else.

There are a lot of reasons for that, and I can’t pretend to know many of them. But here, maybe is one. HRW writes:

Burundians and international observers had hoped that national and local elections—the country’s first since the end of a nearly 16-year civil war in 2009—would consolidate Burundi’s democratic gains and showcase years of successful investment by the United Nations, regional governments, and donor states in moving Burundi from an era of violence to one of multiparty democracy.

HRW’s characterization is itself a little grandiose — the first mostly-post-conflict presidential election, much more successful by most accounts than the second one, was in 2005, and it went pretty well despite the holdout rebel group waiting four years to sign a peace deal. And even some of the UN folks I talked to who worked in Burundi then find the idea of the “Burundi success story” naive. But as any of your ex-boyfriends or -girlfriends can confirm, the delusions we create can be powerful.

In Burundi, though, it might help to give ourselves a little hip-check and adjust our strategy. This report is a good first step toward setting the record straight.


  • yolanda says:

    “the first mostly-post-conflict presidential election, much more successful by most accounts than the second one, was in 2005, and it went pretty well despite the holdout rebel group waiting four years to sign a peace deal.”

    the 2005 election was not a direct popular election of the president – voters did not vote directly for pierre, rather, pierre was appointed by his parliamentary peers, which is why many are calling the 2010 elections the first presidential elections. while these weren’t the first elections, it is the first time burundians voted in presidential elections since the end of the war.

    this may end up being an important point five years from now, as i’ve already heard many people (ruling party supporters for the most part) saying that as pierre was not elected by the populous in 2005 it doesn’t count as a first “mandat,” and that this is his real first mandat, meaning that he could run again, for his second of two constitutionally allowed mandates in 2015. (the constitution currently only allows for 2 mandates, though constitutions can and do change, i guess, and revisiting the constitution is on the agenda…)

    • Jina Moore says:

      Thanks, Yolanda. That’s interesting. The possible political ploys certainly are many… but it’s hard for me to imagine that an indirect presidential election is not considered an election. Britain’s prime minister is not directly elected… Germany’s chancellor isn’t either, and the Canadian prime minister is also appointed. The notion that a presidential election has to be a direct election seems oddly American — one that Nkurunziza might find convenient in a few years. That would be interesting, given how insistent the folks I talked to this summer in these different peacebuilding countries were that the form of government really doesn’t matter…

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