By Christian Bigirimana
Bujumbura, Burundi, May 20 (efe-epa).- After 15 years in power and in a campaign marred by violence, just over 5 million voters in Burundi have been summoned to the ballot Wednesday to elect a successor to President Pierre Nkurunziza
Nkurunziza has run the small East African country with mounting authoritarianism since the end of the civil war (1993-2005) between Hutus (85 percent of the population) and Tutsis. The war claimed 300,000 lives.
The president will step down from power but will be awarded the title of “supreme guide to patriotism.”
When Nkurunziza announced he would be running for a third term in 2015, banned by the Constitution, the move sparked a wave of protests causing hundreds of deaths and displacing half a million people, according to the United Nations.
On 13 May of that year, Major General Godefroid Niyombare attempted a coup d’état.
Nkurunziza backtracked and said he would not run in the elections, but instead a new Constitution in 2018 eliminated the term limit and paved the way for him to remain in power until 2034.
In December 2019, the president confirmed he would not be running for a fourth term as leader of his party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), and put forward close ally Évariste Ndayishimiye, until then secretary-general of the ruling party, as his candidate.
According to observers, Ndayishimiye is favourite to win the first presidential elections since 1993 and in which Burundians also elect national deputies and municipal councillors.
“Each one of you has entrusted me with your wishes and you can always count on me. I will be your humble servant,” Ndayishimiye said Saturday during the campaign’s closing rally in a neighbourhood of Bujumbura, Burundi’s economic capital.
Ndayishimiye has pledged to improve health care and education, as well as to boost infrastructure, construction and agricultural development in the country of some 11 million where 73 percent live in poverty, according to the World Bank.
The CNDD-FDD’s main opposition is Agathon Rwasa, 56, leader of the National Congress for Freedom (CNL).
“The CNL victory in the 2020 elections is an opportunity to fight injustice and the excluded,” Rwasa, a former Hutu militia leader during the civil war, said on Monday at a closing campaign in the capital Gitega.
The CNL has accused the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) of not publishing the voter register and of placing supporters of the ruling party in polling stations risking the manipulation of results.
The electoral campaign, which began on 27 April peacefully, has descended into violence and “is characterized by an increase in political intolerance and numerous acts of violence and human rights violations,” according to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi
Between 27 April and 10 May, the Burundi League for Human Rights (Iteka), affiliated with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), claims to have documented the killings of 12 people, the torture of six, the kidnapping of four that remain missing and the arbitrary arrest of almost 90.
“These acts were allegedly committed mainly by police and intelligence officers and members of the Imbonerakure, the militia of the ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD),” according to FIDH.
In a joint statement, the African Union (AU) and the UN on Sunday called on Burundi authorities to “provide a safe and secure environment which will allow Burundians to exercise their political and civil rights in tolerance, peace and mutual acceptance.”
In addition to the violence, the electoral campaign has unfolded amid the coronavirus pandemic which to date has caused one death and 42 infections.
Authorities have been accused of failing to provide a safe environment for campaigning and of putting people’s health at risk.