A Thought for Burundi

Africans ought to spare a thought for Burundi; the country is in political turmoil, and it will probably pay in terms of lives and political stability. The superstitious among us might think as though Burundi is cursed. Pierre Nkurunziza’s damaging reign as president is ending; nominally, this is cause for cautious optimism. However, current circumstances will probably jeopardize what was supposed to be a modest move for the better. Elections are set to take place on 20 May 2020. I am sure the opposition in Burundi found themselves in a very disturbing quandary; would they suggest a postponement of the election to an indefinite date, and thereby prolong Nkurunziza’s unfortunate stay in power? Alternatively, would they go ahead with the elections, and if they did so, how would they campaign under current circumstances? 

The government decided both questions in April when it said that the planned elections would go ahead. Campaigns are earnestly in full throttle with 17 May 2020 set as the last day. There is, however, a downside to all this: the fact that people are free to attend campaigns en masse. While the number of COVID-19 infections in Burundi remains minimal, at 15 as of 4 May, compared to other African countries, the government was supposed to be vigilant. In the tumult of campaigns, people who attend largescale rallies will be needlessly exposed to chances of contracting the deadly virus currently ravaging the world. The Burundian government talks in tandem with John Magufuli of Tanzania by referring to God – an excuse that is now becoming nauseatingly stultifying.

I cannot speak for the God that some African leaders are so eager to summon as a shield against COVID-19 but, if that God were benevolent, then surely s/he would not step in the way of people employing human measures to stave off chances of contraction. When one faces undeniable danger, our first impulse is the choice between fight and flight. It is when we make such a choice that we might seek some help. An old adage says, “God helps those who help themselves.” Perhaps the Burundian government could borrow some wisdom from this adage. For electoral purposes, advising people not to worry about COVID-19 appeals to those who do not fully appreciate its gravity. This ruse is not limited to Africa. Donald Trump (initially) in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have employed it. Furthermore, it is possible that the Burundian government is not being entirely honest about cases of COVID-19 in that country. Otherwise, what explains the pains the government took to prevent journalists from attending a coronavirus press conference convened by the Ministry of Health? 

Apart from concerns about the coronavirus, the political situation in Burundi is also pungently toxic. The violence that now sweeps across the country started as far back as 2015 when the incumbent president sought to extend his stay in power. Human Rights Watch reports that “There is little doubt that these elections will be accompanied by more abuses, as Burundian officials and members of the Imbonerakure are using violence with near-total impunity to allow the ruling party to entrench its hold on power.” The Imbonerakure (Youth League) is a vicious youth wing of Burundi’s ruling party (CNDD-FDD) that has been behind some of the most blatant cases of brutality. The United Nations has described them as a militia. Political violence had already claimed dozens of lives since the beginning of the year. More people have fallen to extrajudicial executions while others have disappeared. 

Its small size notwithstanding, Burundi will likely cause problems of catastrophic proportions if the African Union does not keep a stern and watchful eye over what is happening there. Continued violence and an approaching election whose validity is already in doubt, might see another surge in refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries. Apart from putting a strain on their host countries, the fleeing refugees might also be a health risk to themselves and the areas where they seek sanctuary. Understandably, it is not easy to prescribe what should happen in Burundi. The election has already been set. There is speculation that if army General Evariste Ndayishimiye, the ruling party’s candidate, wins, he will allow Nkurunziza to rule from the political grave. With what has happened in Angola and Botswana, some handpicked successors have shown remarkable independence and, in the case of Angola, have struck out in ways directed against the interests of their former superiors. Could that be the case in Burundi if the ruling party wins? One would hope so because the families of the murdered and disappeared victims will need answers and the current ruling clique will have to provide them. The African Union has a lot of work to do in that country because the challenges it faces are unprecedented and the probability of political and electoral manipulation by the ruling party likely if not certain. Who will monitor the elections, and how? Will the AU impose its wherewithal to prevent what could be a regional disaster? 

Emmanuel Matambo is a Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS)

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