Burundi announced earlier this week that the postponed elections would take place within weeks – parliamentary elections on June 29, and the presidential election by July 15. As we indicated last week, protests are losing strength in Burundi, particularly in the capital Bujumbura, which has been at the epicenter of the crisis. But, in spite of this relative appeasement, the issues which have been at the heart of the crisis – specifically President Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term, which is constitutionally prohibited – have not been resolved.
Throughout the crisis Nkurunziza has appeared particularly tone deaf, either ignoring or dismissing the criticisms leveled against him. This week, a presidential decree (therefore with absolutely no parliamentary or judicial oversight) fixed the following: the new electoral calendar proposed by the national election commission (CENI); that the CENI would have a quorum with 3 out of 5 commissioners (instead of 4 out of 5 – one of the commissioners fled the country last week); and that private independent radios are not allowed to broadcast. With this decision, Nkurunziza is making clear that it’s his way, or no way. His approach, which consists primarily of pretending that all is well, is risky – without addressing the grievances of the people of Burundi, it is difficult to imagine that elections will be free, fair, and credible – and won’t reignite the simmering conflict.
Regionally, African leadership has been critical of Nkurunziza’s third term bid, but no country or institution has been willing to take a genuinely forceful position on the matter. The African Union, which is holding its 25th summit in South Africa this week, will likely not see Nkurunziza attend – the last time he went abroad, he was almost deposed – in spite of the fact that his presidential bid will be a central topic of discussion in closed door meetings over the weekend. While the head of the African Union has said clearly she does not support his bid, there are no means available to her to enforce a decision, or prevent Nkurunziza from running. Regional institutions have little leverage over the internal affairs of their members, and Nkurunziza knows this.
Earlier this week, Nkurunziza’s spokesperson announced that the President’s third term bid was “non-negotiable”. Worryingly, the regional UN envoy, Said Djinnit, has decided to step down from his role as mediator, due to criticisms and complaints of partiality towards the government from the opposition. Indeed, Djinnit was unable to convince the government to make the President’s third term one of the items to negotiate – not that anyone can truly blame him, given the absolute refusal of the President to consider standing down from his decision to run. The space for dialogue between government and opposition is becoming narrower than ever.
As elections approach, the inability of the government and the opposition to see eye-to-eye on key issues poses a severe risk to peace, security and stability. While the worst fears about the Imbonerakure, the militarized youth wing of Burundi’s ruling party, have thankfully not yet materialized, many of the 100,000+ refugees who fled the country have mentioned them as reason for leaving. So far, the police and loyal army officers have done the President’s bidding in terms of keeping protests limited to certain areas, and intimidating the population, particularly in Bujumbura. But, given the deadlock in political talks, and the approaching elections, their role could become more important – it’s difficult to predict what may happen, but the possibility of a much more violent and deadly conflict is a real one, which analysts and observers of the region will have been warning about for several months.