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Violence sparks alarm ahead of Burundi polls

Mounting violence in Burundi is adding to concern over an already volatile political climate. The government and the opposition are trading accusations, while rights groups warn that basic freedoms are being restricted.

A wave of violence has been sweeping the Central African country of Burundi for weeks. Heavy clashes between the military and rebels have left scores of people dead. Unidentified assailants dressed in military fatigues killed several members of the ruling party in early January.

Meanwhile the political climate is becoming harsher ahead of legislative elections in May, which are to be followed by presidential polls in June.

The incumbent president, Pierre Nkurunziza, is exacerbating an already difficult situation in the country by pursuing a third term in office. Burundi's constitution only allows for two terms, as was agreed in 2000, in a peace deal that ended a civil war. But President Nkurunziza's camp argues that when he was elected for the first time in 2005, it was not by popular vote but by the legislature.

Observers see a clear connection between the upcoming elections and the escalating violence. "The attacks come just as the ruling party and the government are having problems with the opposition," said Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, president of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH), a rights organization in Burundi.

The opposition accuses the government of having manipulated the voter registration process. The national electoral commission, however, refuses to repeat the registration.

"Civil society, too, is unhappy with the way voter registration proceeded," Mbonimpa said. In his opinion, the government made the situation worse. "Searches were conducted for the sole purpose of terrorizing and intimidating opposition members," he said.

Burundi's president Pierre Nkurunziza. Photo: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

President Pierre Nkurunziza would like to run for a third term in the 2015 election

Mounting repression

Journalists, too, have to fear for their freedom and sometimes their lives. An editor of the opposition radio station RPA recently just barely survived an assassination attempt. Hit lists with the names of opponents and critics of the government were circulating, a journalist told DW on condition of anonymity.

The activities of opposition members and human rights activists are increasingly being restricted, according to Gesine Ames of the Berlin office of the Ecumenical Network for Central Africa, a coalition of Christian organizations promoting human rights, peace and development in Africa's Great Lakes region.

"The government is becoming more repressive," Ames said. Laws were being passed to restrict press freedom. The opposition and the government did not enjoy equal rights of assembly and freedom of expression. "This, for example, is demonstrated by the fact that the opposition only has the right to campaign for two weeks before each of the two elections," Ames added.

While the opposition is not allowed to hold gatherings outside this period, the ruling party exercises this right daily, Ames remarked. Whoever criticizes or opposes a third term for the president is threatened or harassed.

Map showing Burundi

The Burundian army says rebels crossed over from eastern DR Congo not far from Bujumbura

However, Onésime Nduwimana, a spokesman for the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD/FDD), accuses the opposition of seeking to delay the elections or even to topple the government. "These people bad-mouth the ruling party or engage in provocations to see whether a possible reaction could lead to chaos. We believe that there are people hiding among the opposition who would go to extremes and who wish for a state of chaos in Burundi that could propel them to leadership positions in a transitional government."

Divided opposition

Burundi's president presents himself as a man of the people; he hands out campaign gifts and throws election parties. But his popularity is declining. According to Gesine Ames, Burundians are becoming increasingly aware that the government is not keeping its promises and that the opposition has far fewer rights.

But Ames does not blame the government for the growing voter fatigue and disenchantment with politics among Burundians.

Tutsi soldiers and gendarmes guard a road. Photo: cc-by-sa/Kalou Kaka

Burundi is still on a difficult path to recovery from a civil war in the 1990s

The opposition, she says, should agree on a candidate and try to end party infighting.

In 2010, there was no opposing candidate and President Nkurunziza won the election by a landslide. Most of the opposition had boycotted the poll.

Appeals to the international community

Pacifique Nininahazwe, the president of the human rights organization Forum for Awareness and Development (FOCODE), wishes the international community would become more involved. "We're dealing with a government that doesn't respect its citizens, but does listen to donor countries. And I remind you that the international community finances at least 50 percent of the national budget," Nininahazwe said. Therefore, he argued, the international community also bears some responsibility for the country. "It should do justice to this role."

Gesine Ames wants the EU to coordinate its policy more effectively. "The EU must speak with one voice to stop what is happening in Burundi at the moment." She said the EU needed to make clear demands regarding freedom of the press, free speech and the right to free assembly. The EU, Ames added, should also oppose changes to the constitution and insist on an independent electoral commission.

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