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BUJUMBURA, Burundi — The warm baritone of Burundi’s former president drifts out onto the terrace of his residence before he appears singing, shoes and socks in hand, crocodile leather sandals on his feet. “I’m terribly sorry I’m late, but this is not a normal day,” he says with jarring joviality. June has been a deadly month for opposition politicians in Burundi, and a seven-man military security detail surrounds Domitien Ndayizeye’s compound.
On June 29, Burundians will vote in their new parliament, and Ndayizeye has spent the previous 24 hours conducting eleventh-hour negotiations with the ruling party. He and the rest of the opposition, as well as the international community, want to postpone the elections until a number of criteria are met, including the reinstatement of independent media, which has been silenced, the disarmament of militia and the restoration of human rights. The government, however — which turned up to the negotiating table last week after claiming it was too busy to engage in talks — wants to push ahead with the parliamentary plebiscite next week, and the presidential elections on July 15. “Forced elections are a source of national instability,” Ndayizeye warns.
Although imminent, the elections are all but invisible on the streets of this compact East African capital. No rainbow-colored rallies block the traffic, no electioneering blares out of handheld radios. There is not even a campaign poster to be found. Open political affiliation with anyone opposed to the ruling party in Bujumbura has become deadly. Opposition politicians are like ghosts, hiding in self-imposed house arrest out of fear of assassination. After just a decade of peace — the country’s last civil war ended in 2006 after 13 years — many Burundians fear another round of conflict is about to begin.
They have good reason to think so. Zedi Feruzi, leader of Burundi’s Union for Peace and Development party (UPD), was shot dead while jogging in the capital one evening in May. The wife of Agathon Rwasa, leader of the National Liberation Forces party (FNL), narrowly survived being shot in the head while at a hair salon in early March. Rwasa himself is now stuck at home. “I can’t leave — there are people trying to kill me,” he said from behind the tall brick walls of his compound. Many more have left the country, including members of the government. One of the country’s vice presidents, Gervais Rufyikiri, sought refuge in Belgium on Wednesday. And up to a thousand soldiers are said to have fled — though the army denies any defections. The opposition, which boycotted the last elections, is marginalized and divided, while the ruling party is well organized with a strong rural support base and sizeable resources.
More than 80 Burundians have died in political violence since incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement on April 25 that he will run in upcoming presidential elections. Those who oppose him say a third term violates the constitution and the Arusha peace agreement that ended the country’s civil war. Following weeks of protests that paralyzed parts of the capital, a string of grenade attacks has exacerbated fears over the past week by injuring more than 50 people and killing at least eight.
Civil society leaders, some of whom are now in hiding, have for years warned that Burundi’s narrowing political space might lead to another long-term conflict. The ruling CNDD-FDD party has slowly co-opted two major opposition parties in the last five years by recognizing politicians sympathetic to Nkurunziza as their leaders. Those who maintain a spirit of opposition have been forced to move to new parties, and to take their supporters with them. If Monday’s election goes as planned, the ruling party will win with an almost total absence of opposition. In recent years, those in power have sought “to traumatize people to the point where they can’t object to anything… so [President Nkurunziza] can run, win, rule, for years and years,” says a peace-builder working in the capital, whose name was withheld due to security concerns.
The situation is little different in Ngozi, which is far from the fear and fury of the lakeside capital. Six days before the vote, Honoré Nzohabonayo, a politician in Agathon Rwasa’s FNL party who also works as a nurse, was in the office of a local human rights defender discussing the beating and subsequent arrest of eight young members of his party. He went from the defender’s office to the police station, where he inspected wounds inflicted on the young men. “One head injury that’s serious, one dislocated hip, another with thoracic trauma … ” Nzohabonayo was born in the town of Mwumba, the hometown of President Nkurunziza, but Nzohabonayo has not returned for almost a year for fear of arrest or assassination. Even his elderly parents are persecuted because of their son’s political involvement.
Like many rural areas, Ngozi is dominated by pro-ruling party policemen and members of the imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth league. Many imbonerakure are nonviolent party supporters, but some are armed, allegedly by the ruling party, which accounts for their reputation as a youth militia. Shortly after the last parliamentary elections in 2010, Nzohabonayo was visiting his parents when he says a government intelligence agent struck him on the head with a blunt, metal instrument. As Nzohabonayo lay on the ground surrounded by imbonerakure, the intelligence agent drew a pistol to kill him. His life was saved by the intervention of a police officer.
Nzohabanayo’s attempts to hold rallies have resulted in the beating and imprisonment of his political supporters, and he claimed that Ngozi’s prison currently holds around 40 political prisoners. Instead of rallies, he now conducts quiet, door-to-door campaigning and secret meetings. He receives warnings about possible kidnappings and threats on his life almost every day, and his wife and 4-year old son live in the capital for reasons of safety.
Driving through Ngozi days before the election, Nzohabanayo spotted another opposition leader, Déo Gasamagera, who is regional head of the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD). In early June, Gasamagera was arrested and held for four days on an expired arrest warrant. Five years before, he had been arrested under very similar circumstances. “It’s normal for me to be arrested before elections,” Gasamagera said, chuckling.
Nzohabanayo said he went to visit Gasamagera the last time he was in prison. “The third mandate has brought the opposition together more than it was before,” Gasamagera said over sodas and roasted chicken in an Ngozi restaurant. Asked what they would do on Monday, Nzohabanayo smiled: “I’m going to pray to God.” A few days after that meeting, all main opposition party leaders announced plans to boycott the election.
It will require significant change to restore democratic order. In Nyanza Lac, a lakeside town 30 kilometers north of the Tanzanian border, Izekerie Nzisabira, president of the independent UPRONA party, has seen his electorate diminish in the last two months: 65,000 people registered to vote but only 30,000 claimed their polling cards. An atmosphere of fear is in place, and thousands have fled to Tanzania since the beginning of May.
During the 1993-2006 conflict, the blood of thousands of civilians suffused the densely populated hills around Nyanza Lac. People still quietly recount the mass killing of neighbors, friends and family. Like many others, Nzisabira fears the imbonerakure in the area are receiving weapons from pro-ruling party security forces to silence unwanted opposition.
At his Bujumbura home, however, the former president is adamant that there will be no war, and that democracy must prevail. “We don’t want to go backward with respect to the Arusha Accords — we want to keep moving towards democracy. We just want to create a favorable environment for free and fair elections,” Ndayizeye says.