Jamila El Abdellaoui, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Addis Ababa Office
This year, 2009 turned out to be the year during which Burundi's piecemeal peace process finally drew to a close. More than 25 years after its creation, the Palipehutu-FNL - Burundi's last remaining rebel movement - was registered as the country's 42nd political party. Many senior members of the movement - now named simply FNL to allow its political birth - took up various positions in the Government of Burundi (GoB) and thousands of its combatants either integrated into the national army or the police force or went through a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process. Burundi's peace, a culmination of African efforts that commenced as far back as the mid-1990s, appears to be complete.
This milestone - though obviously welcomed - did not receive the attention it would have if the country had not long since entered into an election mode. Burundi is scheduled to hold its second post-transitional elections in mid-2010 and unofficial electioneering reportedly commenced as early as 2008. This eagerness can partly be explained by a general awareness among political parties that the ruling party may not be guaranteed victory at the polls this time around. The CNDD-FDD, itself a rebel movement until 5 years ago, inherited a country with numerous challenges, the most important of which related to the challenges of state craft and ending the cycle of poverty. It has been tried and tested for almost five years and in some cases found wanting, as could have been expected. In addition to this, numerous new political parties have been established, not least the FNL, which is regarded by many as serious competition for the ruling party.
Unfortunately, post-conflict reconstruction efforts in Burundi did not succeed in adequately preparing the young democracy for the upcoming competition at the ballot box. Various initiatives have been undertaken to promote and facilitate dialogue between different stakeholders, including the political factions in the country. This is especially important given the fact that lack of dialogue, resulting in heightened misunderstanding and tensions at critical moments in the country's history, have allowed waves of violence to occur in Burundi in the past. The 2010 elections could arguably be considered as another critical moment for Burundi although a common understanding of the rules and value of the electoral contest among political players appears to be absent.
As a result, tensions have been running high, further exacerbated by restrictions imposed on both political parties and civil society organisations by the ruling party. Human Rights Watch reported the arrest of more than a hundred political opponents between June 2008 and April 2009. Other reports claim the (re-)arming of militias by several political parties as tools to intimidate the electorate. The fact that the reintegration phase of the country's recently completed DDR process has largely failed, especially concerning those returning to urban areas, explains the availability of some former combatants to join such groups. Lastly, the ruling party as well as other political parties, including the FNL, appear to suffer from serious internal rifts, something that has plagued Burundi in the past. As is well-known, weak political parties do not augur well for a democratisation process.
It has been argued that country-wide violence in Burundi as a result of the elections is unlikely - an argument that is explained by the conflict trajectory in Burundi. The populace is generally tired of the insecurity that has prevailed in the country for so long. Nevertheless, recent developments are worrisome and in a country as small and densely populated as Burundi, violent clashes between armed supporters of political factions could easily reverse the country's path towards sustainable peace. Moreover, it should be noted that Burundi is just one of four key countries in the Great Lakes Region - besides Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda - that is scheduled to hold elections in the next two years. The various electoral contests are likely to have an impact on a region already suffering from lingering tension.
Based on this, it can be argued that Burundi is a classroom example of a country at potential risk of election-related violence and the question therefore is how relevant international actors are contributing towards the prevention of such a situation. At present, its engagement at least appears to be coordinated. For instance, towards the end of August when relevant political parties still had not agreed on a draft revised electoral code - an issue that prevented the country's electoral commission from commencing with basic preparations for the polls - various foreign missions in the country issued a communiqué urging the parties to reach a consensus. However, other efforts could be undertaken at this stage. Promoting dialogue between political factions could still have an effect and provide a possible alternative to a resort to violence. Furthermore, Burundi provides an opportunity for the AU, for instance, to move beyond its conventional approach to elections, which has centred on deploying election observers or facilitating an agreement to end an already existing election-related dispute. The continental body has a long track-record of peacemaking efforts in the country, providing a leverage that could be used to engage political factions more rigorously. It is therefore noteworthy that a recent communiqué of the AU Peace and Security Council urges the deployment of such a mission. This could possibly be coordinated with efforts from relevant countries in the region that successfully facilitated the negotiations between the GoB and FNL. Supporting initiatives aimed at building public trust, especially in the urban areas, is key as well as they could still positively affect the current apprehension that appears to be prevailing. Efforts towards building the mediation capacity of selected community leaders and other influential people should also be encouraged.
Lastly, it should be noted that Burundi's upcoming election is not only a test for the Barundi, but also for those organisations and structures put in place to deal with the prevention of conflict, especially election-related conflict. This issue has received more attention after experiences of violence triggered by elections in numerous African countries in the recent past. In the case of Burundi, it is impossible to argue that there were no warning signs.