NAIROBI // Sudan and Burundi are on similar paths. Both are East African countries that will, in the next few months, hold their first presidential elections since devastating civil wars. Political tensions are high in both countries in the run-up to the elections. Depending on the results, the elections could plunge each country back into civil war or chart a new course in democracy.
But unlike oil-rich Sudan, where the international community has focused much attention and pledged European election observers, few people outside the region seem to care about tiny Burundi. Election observers from the East African Community (EAC) will monitor Burundi's poll in the first test of the regional bloc's political arm. Voters in Burundi go to the polls in June to directly elect their president for the first time since civil war broke out in 1993. The current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, was chosen by parliament in 2005.
Mr Nkurunziza, who so far has no announced challengers, made the requisite promise to hold free and fair elections in a speech in Bujumbura, the capital on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. "The elections will be free, fair and transparent so as to make the country a more viable and active partner in the East African Community," he said, according to local media reports. Just to be sure the EAC, which includes Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, will send an observer mission. The Burundian election will be a test run for the organisation as it looks to avoid post-election fiascos like the violence that left more than 1,300 dead after Kenya's 2007 poll.
The observers will do more than just monitor ballot casting on election day, according to Beatrice Kiraso, the EAC deputy secretary general for political federation. "[Election observing] involves voter registration and civic education besides ensuring the right material is in the right places at the right times," she said. "The process needs to be monitored during counting, tallying, announcing of results and even up to swearing-in of successful candidates."
Burundi has a long history of violence, and this election could be a catalyst for more fighting, analysts say. Elections bookended Burundi's 12-year civil war, which broke out in 1993 after the country's newly elected president, a Hutu, was assassinated by Tutsi extremists. Like Rwanda, Burundi's northern neighbour, the civil war took on an ethnic dimension with Hutu and Tutsi groups killing each other as they battled for power. However, unlike in Rwanda where 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered in three months, Burundi's war never reached a genocidal scale.
The swearing in of President Nkurunziza after the 2005 parliamentary elections officially ended the war with 300,000 people dead. A final Hutu rebel group, the National Forces of Liberation, continued to attack government positions for the next three years, but finally laid down its arms in late 2008. Burundi, which is half the size of the emirate of Abu Dhabi, has few resources apart from some copper reserves and coffee plantations and gets little notice from the international community. Tensions have been mounting ahead of the election, according to a report last week from the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.
There are signs of growing unrest in the army and police force, whose loyalty is vital for the ruling CNDD-FDD party to remain in power. Last week, two soldiers went on a shooting rampage in Bujumbura killing one soldier and wounding a civilian. The incident began at a military base where 18 soldiers, who are accused of destabilising the government, were being held. Separately last week, Burundi began a trial for 33 soldiers accused of mutiny while serving as peacekeepers with the African Union mission in Somalia. The soldiers took up arms against their superiors demanding withheld wages, according to an Agence France-Presse account of the trial.
Late last year, the government banned civil society organisations after they made statements critical of the government. Human rights observers called for the government to reverse the ban. "Banning an organisation several days after it speaks out against threats raises concerns that the government's goal is to silence critics," said Hassan Shire, the executive director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project. "Rather than abolish civil society groups, it should engage in a productive dialogue with them to improve conditions for all Burundians."