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Story Publication logo December 10, 2015

Burundi's Election in Three Acts


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Burundi, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and the Central Africa Republic were the targets of a UN...

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Jina Moore, for the Pulitzer Center
Bujumbura, Burundi

Burundi's election, in three acts

It was literally no surprise that Burundi's president Pierre Nkurunziza won reelection on Monday. He was, after all, the only candidate.

The country's entire political opposition boycotted the presidential vote, alleging that Nkurunziza's party had committed "massive fraud" to win a local poll a month earlier.

The national independent elections commission said the claims were unfounded; the European Union observation mission said it didn't think the "irregularities" it saw affected the outcome, and without that relationship, ipso facto, no fraud.

But the nature of the fraud charges are pretty weedy, and they didn't make it into most international news stories on the election, including my own. The reasons for that are important -- they should make us question pretty much everything we think we understand about how things like war, peace and politics work. But to see that particular forest, first we have to look at the trees.

Cast of characters

Romping between the trees with us will be the country's independent electoral commission, known by the French acronym CENI; the "opposition parties," by which I mean the 12-party coalition that withdrew collectively from the presidential vote; and the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD. (Ruling party, by the way, is called tellingly in French, "parti du pouvoir." You don't say.)

Supporting characters include the European Union Electoral Observation Mission, the UN mission in Burundi (BINUB) and a chorus I'll call the Old Hands. The Old Hands are observers, African and Western, who know the region well and whom I've chatted with over the past few weeks. They didn't speak on the record, and I won't name them. But I'm also not going to pretend I don't remember what they said.

There will be special guest appearances by the FNL, the ex-rebel group that kept its guns and delayed "real" peace until just last year, and Alexis Sinduhije, journalist-turned-politician (turned-future-rebel? He's hinting…).

Act I: In the beginning there was the vote…

Scene One, in which we accept on good authority the authorities. Burundi held a local vote on May 24, after a three-day delay. CENI said it wasn't ready; opposition parties later wondered if it meant, "Wasn't ready to pull off a smooth theft." People went to the polls; everyone agrees there were issues, including open air (or semi-public) balloting in some places. CENI says the opposition waited too long to call the issues fraud. "It's as if the opposition parties woke up when the results were announced and said the vote had been stolen," the CENI spokesman told me. The EU team says there's no proof the irregularities affected the outcome, which is technocrat's way of saying, "Fraud? No."

Right off the bat, the opposition parties have some credibility issues. One, they did wait until the 11th hour to say, "Hey, there was massive fraud." Two, the parties like to accuse the CNDD-FDD of vote-buying. They're not alone; even ordinary Burundians acknowledge that the party promises beers or doles out cash to turn people's votes. Maybe, but the Old Hands say the opposition parties do the same thing (and ordinary Burundians second it). Burundi is still Burundi, no matter which party you're trying to get elected.

Scene Two, in which we give the opposition the benefit of the doubt. One big, as-yet-unresolved issue is about something called the PV, or process verbal. This is a kind of executive summary of the poll day: How many votes were cast and for whom. It's supposed to be signed off on by a representative of each political party in the race. The coalition of 12 opposition parties would get one representative; the ruling party would get one; Uprona, the country's second-biggest party, would get one, and another smaller party called MRC would get one. They all sign the PV. The EU says it would be "nice" if they signed enough copies so that each party could keep one, but CENI rules say the only need to sign one.

The question is, where's the one? Alexis Sinduhije told me many of the 6,500+ polling stations in Burundi didn't have an opposition member present to sign the paper. It gets even more tangled than that, but the absence of the PV is probably the strongest thread in the tangle, so I'll leave the rest out. So far, the opposition says, no one's seen them. Their absence implies the possibility of rigging the totals.

Sinduhije has said the opposition "will not stand" for these elections. The coalition is also boycotting the legislative elections in July. It's hard to see the logic in this: It would seem to be a move that literally hands over all branches of government to the party the coalition wanted to oust from power. And that would pave the way to unarguably dramatic changes -- like altering the constitution, say – with the easy approval of a one-party democracy.

Voting, in any case, is not so much in vogue here anymore.

Act II: …and CENI saw that the vote was good. But was CENI?

The opposition's suspicion of the May vote is fueled by the fact that it took CENI more than two weeks to release official poll results.Journalists reported unofficial results throughout the day of the May 24 vote, and by the next morning, the CNDD-FDD was declared the winner, with 64 percentage points. CENI didn't release the results until June 15 (according to its website; I couldn't find the documents there on June 17.I didn't check back until June 22 when I found the documents, which appeared to me to be back-dated).

When I first met him, Sinduhije was particularly miffed at the international community for what he perceived as double-talking on fraud. "They excuse things you would not excuse in the civilized world," he says. "Excuses for not having secret ballots. Excuses for not having election returns. Excuses for Africans." Doubt it? Think, he says, about the standard of success in an aid project. "In Africa, if people only steal 20 or 30 percent, that's considered good."

The opposition decided to boycott the election – but not the campaign season. It traveled the country, or tried to, telling supporters to boycott the poll. It made some trips successfully; at other points, it was turned back. On June 8, the Minister of the Interior said it was illegal for individuals to hold political meetings unless they were running for president. Rights groups said that curtailed the opposition's constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly. The opposition said it proved the CNDD-FDD was interfering with the elections process and unduly influencing CENI, which is supposed to be an independent electoral body.

I put this question to Prospere Ntahorwamiye, the spokesman for CENI, in this way: If campaigns are part of the electoral process, why didn't CENI issue the decree prohibiting campaigning by non-candidates? Why did it come from the Ministry of the Interior?

He responded by reading to me from Burundi's election code, giving the minister of the interior the right to regulate public safety. Campaigns are a matter of public safety, he said, and read to me twice more. When I pushed, he responded, "You do understand French, don't you?"

So I put it differently: What if the Minister of the Interior were to make a declaration in the name of public safety, that everyone agrees is indeed a matter of public safety and that therefore is fully within his purview, but that violated the electoral code or some protected political rights? Would CENI exercise its independence and intervene or respond to protect that code or those rights?

Ntahorwamiye had grown weary of me. "I don't even understand the logic of the question."

Intermission: On being your own worst enemy

The Old Hands are full of advice for the opposition, ways they could have gone about their argument that would improve their chances of getting a hearing. One foreign diplomat involved in trying to broker a compromise in mid-June told me he had hinted to Agathon Rwasa, the leader of the FNL, that he should stop pouting and play ball, lest someone start asking questions about certain massacres in which the International Criminal Court might be interested. It appears either to have been very influential or totally superfluous; Rwasa disappeared before the election and is said to be gearing up for a second rebellion or on vacation, depending on whom you ask.

Burundi is a country of suspicion, misdirection, and outright lying. Burundians say they don't know what's really happening most of the time, but they have ways of finding a kind of truth between all stories. There's no way a white outsider with only passable French and a few refrains of Kirundi is going to figure it out – so don't let us fool you.

But here's an interesting way of thinking about it anyway: Assume everyone's a little bit right. Assume the CNDD-FDD did win – and a lot of people think that's reasonable, some even go so far as to call Nkurunziza's most recent term a five-year campaign for the presidency, from the presidency. So then, why rig the vote?

And assume the opposition is faking some of it. So then, why walk away completely when your enemy is obviously stronger – politically, financially, militarily? Sure, you could start a rebellion again, but I haven't met anyone yet who thinks it would be a successful government-toppling war. It would be awful, of course, and people would die, but it wouldn't change the political outcome. (This, by the way, would seem to me to hold even if you don't assume they're faking any of it, unless you have a Kantian devotion to voting.)

Here's what both sides have in common: They are treating the situation as a zero-sum game. Yet there seems to be plenty of room for compromise. Except that they see it as a zero-sum game. "This is still Africa," one Old Hand said to me. "These guys are after everything."

Act III: Diplomacy, wherefore art thou?

Scene One, in which diplomacy has unintended consequences. A good deal of anger about all of this is being directed at the international community. The EU mission has twice been targeted by Bujumbura's grenade throwers, as mysterious as they are ubiquitous, and people occasionally lob rocks at UN cars.

That's because the EU mission endorsed the results, and other international actors followed. Regardless of what you believe about what 'really' happened, the EU endorsement gave the ruling party political cover. Renate Weber, the chief of the observation team, insists that her mission is merely technical; the political implications of her findings, she says, are problems for politicians in Brussels.

Fair enough. Except in Bujumbura. When the CNDD-FDD accused the opposition of being bad losers, it could have sounded like a retaliatory political barb – but the EU stamp of approval gave it greater authenticity. The EU mission may think of itself as dispassionately drawing neutral conclusions, but outside its hotel offices, those conclusions look an awful lot like points scored by the ruling party. Whatever the EU meant to do – or to avoid - the ruling party came out looking more in the right, and with that stronger, than the opposition.

This is the part of the play where dramatic irony rolls in like fake fog, the part where the character is oblivious to the situation around him but the audience has enough information, and enough distance, to understand.

There's simply no such thing as neutrality.

This is not a fatal flaw, but it is a weakness – and often a blind spot.

Surely, you might say, the EU, the UN and other international NGOs aren't really oblivious to neutrality-complicity conundrum. And I might agree. I've met the people who work for these kinds of organizations, here and elsewhere. They're pretty smart.

But I've also seen, time and again, a failure to recognize that institutions themselves have agendas, and those are often more powerful than the analysis of their smart field staff. The international community has been funneling money to a democracy in Burundi for years. An election is the crown jewel of democracy, so we also funded an election. We regret the rules of that election and pin blame on the parties who negotiated those rules, as if without our assistance. We have a one party vote but - despite even Weber's concession that "it's difficult to imagine democracy without political pluralism" – we continue to call it democracy.

Scene Two, in which The News Story is written

None of this gets into the news stories I or other people write, for two reasons. That this blog post is three times the length of my usual news article is one reason. But the other reason is that journalism is vulnerable to the same kind of complicity as the international community: Our professional assumptions give more authority to sources with power. This, too, is not a fatal flaw, but it is also a weakness, and often a blind spot.

Think about the characters in this wonky drama: The 'independent' electoral commission; a victorious political party whose clear interest in winning dissolves in the face of 'objective' international endorsement; and those international endorsers. Two of the three I'm supposed to take as neutral, without clear evidence to the contrary. But I don't get to explain to readers that there's reason to doubt, if not the actors (and that's a big if), the game in which they are engaged.

So we'll call Burundi's election controversial. Irregularities will be noted and 'learned from.' The opposition parties' refusal to participate will be regretted. Burundians will be congratulated on persevering through it all, at least until they don't. And if the night of the election is any indication, grenades will be thrown, most people ("even the prostitutes!") will be in after dark, and everyone will sit, torqued, waiting to see if Burundi "relapses" into rebellion. But democracy nonetheless.

That's one way to look at the forest. From another point of view, it's a tangled, messy jungle, and there's just no good way out.

Stage directions

There are a few things that are important to keep in mind here. My French is good on good days, bad on others, and I always work with someone just to double-check. The CENI spokesman was being cheeky, yes, but he was being cheeky in the presence of my translator.

He also won't take calls from my known telephone numbers, so I can't confirm or get comment on the missing PVs, the backdated report, or other elements of the story that any half-decent journalist would to take back to the other side. Not for lack of trying.

Next in Burundi's election season…

A Q&A with Alexis Sinduhije, one-time pacifist-journalist turned jaded politician-rebel? And an audio slideshow of a day at the polls… stay tuned.


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