Regional leaders to meet over Burundi crisis even as govt insists on holding polls

Saturday May 23 2015

Burundians protest against President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for third term in office in Musaga, outskirts of the capital Bujumbura, on April 30, 2015. AFP PHOTO | SIMON MAINA

East African Heads of State are this week expected to hold yet another Summit to discuss the Burundi crisis even as it emerged that the region is divided on the issue.

Agreeing on the "pressure points" will not be easy for the regional leaders "because only Kenya and Tanzania have the moral authority to ask Nkurunziza to respect the spirit of the Constitution, since they hold regular elections and respect the two-term limits. But the rest of the countries have either gone or are going the Nkurunziza way," said a diplomatic source.

The divided opinion emerged during the May 13 Summit that aborted after a former army general declared a coup against President Pierre Nkurunziza.

READ: Top Burundi general announces overthrow of president

"South Africa's President Jacob Zuma had earlier sent an envoy to Bujumbura to ask President Nkurunziza to drop his candidacy, but he refused to heed. In that meeting, the South African representative was asking "Who among you is going to put their foot down?" recounted the source, who added that the region was unwilling to intervene militarily.

The EAC Council of Ministers recommended that the Heads of State convene the second Summit in honour of a commitment they made when they called off the first one.


READ: EAC ministers in emergency summit on Burundi -VIDEO

The Council’s chairman, Harrison Mwakyembe of Tanzania, and Secretary-General Richard Sezibera, were in Burundi last week and met separately with President Nkurunziza and the opposition.

The EastAfrican has learnt that the opposition is pushing for the bringing back on air of a radio station that was closed after pro-Nkurunziza forces announced that the coup plotters had been defeated. They also want the drafters of the Arusha Peace Agreement brought in to explain its intended meaning.

The other EAC ministers from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda travelled to Kigoma and Rwanda to meet the Burundi refugees.

READ: EAC in fact-finding mission to Burundi

The report on refugees and what Dr Sezibera and the EAC Council of Ministers chair gathered in Burundi will be tabled to the presidents.

During the summit in Dar es salaam on the day the coup was announced, EAC leaders had asked President Nkurunziza to postpone the elections which are scheduled for late next month.

"The ministers think that by postponing the parliamentary elections by only a week, Nkurunziza is making a mockery of the Heads of State. They want the leaders to ask him to postpone the elections by at least one month to allow the citizens to participate effectively," said the source.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta is reported to have called Nkurunziza to express the region's concerns about the violence in Burundi.

"He picks only President Kenyatta's calls, and so the region is relying on him to express any concerns they may have."

After nearly a month of protests and an attempted coup on May 13, the country’s electoral commission on Wednesday delayed parliamentary and local polls scheduled for May 26 by a week, following requests by the opposition for more time to campaign.

Presidential spokesperson Gervais Abayeho told The EastAfrican that the nation is ready to hold elections because the “rest of the country is peaceful” except for the capital Bujumbura, “which is still mired by pockets of violence.”

“The electoral commission has postponed legislative polls to June 2 but the presidential election date remains unchanged,” Mr Abayeho said.

Opposition politicians say President Nkurunziza is forcing himself onto the ballot by relying on the army, the police and the government-leaning militia in a campaign of intimidation and violence against those who reject his third-term bid.

But as authorities in Bujumbura remain adamant about holding elections during a time of violent civil strife, the key question is how the government will organise a vote that will have value or credibility in the eyes of the international community.

First, the National Electoral Commission (CENI in French) does not have enough money to run the elections.

“An election cannot be held if there are no preparations,” Agathon Rwasa, the main opposition presidential candidate, told The EastAfrican.

“They are not able to conduct any credible elections. The donors pulled out with a lot of money that was already budgeted for the polls,” said Rwasa, who is also the leader of the National Forces of Liberation party (FNL). 

The electoral commission needs about $50 million to run the polls, but some donors, who contribute more than 80 per cent of the budget, are withdrawing funding for the polls.

Just a day before the coup attempt, Belgium and The Netherlands announced they were withholding millions of dollars meant to finance the elections after the EU observation mission in Burundi said the country is currently not able to organise free and fair polls.

A local journalist told The EastAfrican that President Nkurunziza has allegedly asked civil servants to help finance the polls because the state cannot afford to pay for them.

“There is no money but the government says civil servants will contribute… but they are resisting and if the government forcibly takes a cut from their payslip they may have to join the protesters,” said the source, who cannot be named for his safety.

Civil servants in Burundi can earn as little as $100 per month and “these few weeks of unrest have left most of them virtually broke,” the source added. 

But presidential spokesperson Mr Abayeho said that the elections will take place “whether there is funding or not,” adding that the donors, who withdrew support for the polls, “are punishing the people of Burundi for exercising their democratic rights.”

Burundi is also heading to the polls without a crucial watchdog in the electoral process. All private broadcasters were taken off the air during the coup attempt by forces loyal to the regime, and after the failed coup bid, authorities have stepped up the campaign of repression against independent media.

The press, according to the government, allegedly supported the cause of the coup leaders because a private radio station was used to air the news of the putsch.

Opposition leader Mr Rwasa said, “An election without a free media will be a farce,” adding, “People have no information on what is going on in the country and the state media remains a tool for the government.”

Media on trial

For now, all private media in Burundi is on trial for allegedly conspiring with the coup plotters to depose President Nkurunziza. But those found innocent will resume their operations, according to a government official.

Asked how the elections would be deemed credible without an independent media, the president’s spokesman said, “International observers from the EU, US and AU will be in the country” throughout the elections period and “they will tell the world whether they were free or not.”

With the capital mired in chaos and street protests, and with tens of thousands of Burundians internally displaced or in refugee camps in the region, analysts say the electorate in Burundi are in no condition to vote.

Bujumbura was hit by new demonstrations and violence a few days after the putsch was thwarted by loyalist forces on Friday, May 15, continuing the wave of anti-government protests that started in April over President Nkurunziza’s disputed bid for a third term in office.

READ: Bujumbura quiet after night of heavy gunfire

Opposition and rights groups say the president, who has been in office since 2005, cannot serve for more than two terms. The president, however, argues his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people.

Much of the international community has warned Burundi against holding the vote, with UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, Said Djinnit saying the escalation of violence could close the door to dialogue. 

READ: AU urges Burundi to postpone elections

ALSO READ: EAC threatens to suspend Burundi as rivals battle to control the capital

The World Health Organisation says more than 100,000 people have fled to neighbouring Rwanda, Tanzania, DRC and Uganda and more than 20 lives have been lost since the protests broke out last month.

Kenya and Tanzania have called on the president to delay the polls until the security situation stabilises, while South Africa and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), say the elections should be postponed indefinitely.

“The elections should be postponed indefinitely until there is stability‚ which would allow the elections to be free and fair‚“ said South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma in a statement read on behalf of the ICGLR.

The opposition said there can be no level playing field as the police and the government-backed Imbonerakure militia hunt down individuals suspected of supporting the coup bid, including journalists and civil society activists who played a leading role in organising the Bujumbura protests.

Reports further say that the militia has been armed and given police uniforms with a firm brief to flush out opposition supporters.