Nurturing Trust for Landmark Elections in Burundi
After years of civil war, it had been hoped that Burundi’s last elections, held in 2010, would help to cement its progress in building political reconciliation.
The polls were marked instead by controversy, as a major opposition boycott left the sitting president as the only candidate, and incidents of violence drove opponents in the exile, threatening to push the country back into civil strife instead of clearly reaffirming its democratic credentials.
Mistrust and allegations of intimidation have been clouding the political environment ever since, plaguing one of the world’s poorest countries as it struggles to revive its economy and forge national unity after a 13-year conflict.
With eyes now turning to a fresh and potentially defining round of polls in 2015, the United Nations is exerting every effort to help Burundians find common ground in order to avoid a repeat of what transpired the last time around.
Lessons to be learned from that experience was the theme of a modestly titled “workshop” held in the lakeside capital of Bujumbura in March of this year under the auspices of the United Nations Office in Burundi (BNUB).
Yet this was not just any workshop. For key opposition figures that came from exile to take part — some of whom have stayed in the months since — it was a crucial testing of the waters of the political space in the country.
Leaders of the National Council for the Defence of Democracy, the Movement for Solidarity and Development, and other politicians returned to Burundi to participate in the workshop after years in exile.
Agathon Rwasa, who was widely thought to be the key challenger to the current President Pierre Nkurunziza before withdrawing from the 2010 presidential polls, also dispatched his party’s spokesperson.
The three-day meeting allowed politicians to “rebuild trust among themselves and agree on a set of parameters they consider critical for the organization of peaceful and transparent elections,” says Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, the UN envoy to Burundi and head of BNUB.
“The fact that we met already constitutes the first result,” observed Pascal Nyabenda, the President of the ruling party — a feeling shared by many participants in a meeting labelled by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as “another historic moment for Burundi.”
One opposition participant labelled the meeting a “good beginning” on the road to reconciliation.
Leaders adopted 42 recommendations as key elements for a roadmap intended to set the stage for free, fair and peaceful elections in 2015.
They reached agreement, for example, on the need to adopt a consensual electoral code, to establish dispute management bodies, to enhance women’s participation, and to ensure just representation of parties in regional electoral bodies.
A follow-up workshop organized by the government, with the UN’s support, focused on improving the electoral code.
BNUB, a political mission supervised by DPA, operates under a recently renewed Security Council mandate to foster dialogue and political space, advance reconciliation, equitable economic growth, human rights and effective institutions.
“Lifting a country out of poverty and healing the wounds of long-term and cyclical violence are immense challenges,” Onanga-Anyanga told the Security Council recently.
While acknowledging the country has come far from the period of its civil war, which came to an end in 2005, Burundians and the UN are acutely aware that there is no time for complacency. Holding elections is a condition — not a guarantee — of a democratic system.
Tensions are still present and the level of mistrust remains high. Several significant political parties and actors continue to complain of difficulties in conducting their activities on the ground, with alarming reports of meetings being interrupted or prevented by local authorities or members of the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, exerting pressure and committing violence against followers of opposition parties.
Leaders of the ruling party have condemned all violence perpetrated by members of the league. However, conditions on the ground continue to prompt concerns.
The recent passing of a controversial press law and a pending bill on public demonstrations have raised concerns about the space for criticism in the country.
Clearly, challenges remain. Yet the UN remains engaged at the highest levels.
Visiting Burundi this year, Jeffrey Feltman, the Under-Secretary- General for Political Affairs, met with leaders including President Nkurunziza, political opponents and civil society, pledging the UN’s continuous support for free, fair and inclusive elections.
In his video message to the March workshop, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said elections in 2015 would require magnanimity by the winners and acceptance with dignity by the losers. “We all know democracies are not built overnight. They require sustained and painstaking work. Yet, once begun, there can be no going back,” he said.