Burundi defies COVID-19 for election ending a bloody rule

KAMPALA, UGANDA (AP) — Burundi is pushing ahead with an election on Wednesday that will end the President’s divisive and bloody 15-year rule.

When President Pierre Nkurunziza hands over power, it could be the first truly peaceful transfer of authority in the East African nation since independence in 1962.

But the coronavirus poses a threat to the May 20 vote. Burundi has kicked out World Health Organization (WHO) workers after concerns were raised. The WHO Africa Director messaged the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention Chief about political rallies the day that Burundi’s campaigning launched and images of crowds circulated online.

Authorities have been accused by critics of downplaying the pandemic and citing divine protection. But the government appears to be using virus measures to limit election observers, warning the East African regional bloc on May 8 that arriving foreigners face a 14-day quarantine.

More than the virus, however, it’s the fear of violence that weighs on many of the more than five million people eligible to vote.

Crowds of supporters of the ruling party gather for the start of the election campaign, in Bugendana, Gitega province, Burundi. PHOTO: AP

Government agents have been accused of harassing the main opposition party, the CNL, whose leader Agathon Rwasa is believed to be in a close race with Nkurunziza’s chosen successor in the ruling CNDD-FDD, Evariste Ndayishimiye.

More than 145 CNL members have been arrested since campaigning began on April 27, according to SOS Medias Burundi, a group of independent journalists. Police spokesman Pierre Nkurikiye has accused Rwasa of making “incendiary and defamatory” remarks and inciting revolt.

Deputy Parliament Speaker Rwasa has drawn large crowds despite the risks of openly supporting him, according to an online group of activists known as i-Burundi.

The group worries that a rigged election could spark the kind of street demonstrations that marked the previous vote in 2015.

“The ruling party was hoping to use this post-Nkurunziza election to gain a semblance of legitimacy, but given what’s happening we might end up with more violence,” i-Burundi said in an interview. “People want change. But the ruling party has the incumbent advantage and controls the electoral process.”

Rwasa told The Associated Press (AP) he feels it’s important not to boycott the election even if the outcome is not expected to be fair.

“Everything has its right time,” he said. “Right now, it is not the time to give up and abandon our people.”

Ndayishimiye, a retired general, would be a weak President because he will be a front for Nkurunziza and other powerful ruling party members, said David Gakunzi, a Burundian political analyst: “He consults but he will fear to take independent decisions.”