Dispatches from the Field: Meetings in Burundi Focus on Upcoming Elections
Bujumbura – Security Council members arrived in Burundi on Friday morning (13 March) for the third and final leg of the Council visiting mission to Africa. Angola, France and the US were the three co-leads for the visit.
The question of whether President Pierre Nkurunziza will seek a third presidential term in the June elections was the overriding issue of the visit. The prospect of a third term has been increasing tensions in the country and could possibly lead to violence. According to Burundi’s 2005 constitution, the president should be elected by “universal suffrage” for a maximum of two five-year terms. However, his supporters argue that for his first term in 2005, he was not elected by a popular vote but through a vote of the parliament, and therefore is still eligible for a second term. Opponents have promised mass demonstrations if he runs, and also note that the Arusha Accord – the peace agreement that is the basis of the constitution – provides no exception on the two term limit.
In addition to the focus on the tensions over Nkurunziza’s possible third term, common issues emphasised by Council members were the need for a peaceful, transparent and inclusive electoral process, respect for human rights and ensuring freedom of assembly and the press.
Over the day, Council members met with the UN Electoral Observation Mission in Burundi (MENUB), the UN Country Team, the ministers of foreign affairs and the interior, the heads of Burundi’s electoral and human rights commissions, political parties and actors, civil society and lastly, with President Nkurunziza.
The first meeting of the day was with MENUB and the UN Country Team. The Secretary-General’s Special Adviser and head of MENUB, Cassam Uteem, noted that the upcoming elections put Burundi at a decisive and delicate moment and though Nkuruniza’s eligibility was dividing public opinion, it was not MENUB’s role to intervene on this question. However, he said that the 9 March charter of non-violence, signed by all 43 of Burundi’s political parties, civil society groups and religious leaders, was positive and builds on the roadmap towards the elections and code of conduct for parties.
Immediately following the meeting, members met with the Minister for External Relations and Cooperation, Laurent Kavakure, and the Interior Minister, Edouard Nduwimana. A key point stressed by members in discussions with the interior minister was that the police must ensure that their response towards demonstrations is managed peacefully, just as protestors must exercise their rights peacefully.
Council members then met with the leaders of ten of Burundi’s political parties, including the ruling party and opposition parties. The meeting also included two political actors, Agathon Rwasa and Charles Nditije. (Both individuals are no longer members of recognised political parties but have political influence. Political actors will be allowed to run in the elections as independent candidates and Rwasa, particularly, is seen as a possible presidential candidate.)
It seems that in the meetings, Russia’s position on Nkurunziza running for a third term differed from the Western members. Russia appears to have been more supportive of the government and stressed the importance of abiding by the decision that the constitutional court may make on the legality of Nkuruniza’s third term. Other Council members raised questions or expressed doubt about the constitutional court’s ability to make an independent ruling on the issue.
Russia also expressed the view that the biggest problem for the opposition in challenging Nkurunziza was their fragmentation. China also spoke more positively of the government and praised the electoral process preparations. While African members, during negotiations of Council outcomes in New York, have sought more positive language on the situation in Burundi, it seems that the points they stressed during the visiting mission were focused on ensuring the country’s unity and free and peaceful elections.
The Council also met with a large number of civil society organisations, including women, youth and journalists. Most groups emphasised their opposition to the president running for a third term, and stressed concerns over the government’s intimidation of journalists, human rights activists and irregularities in the preparations for the elections as well as the growing potential for violence. At least two of the groups, however, expressed support of the government and Nkurunziza running for a third term. Both sides warned the Council that divisions in the country could lead to violence.
At the end of the day, Council members met President Nkurunziza and expressed recognition of his role in Burundi’s progress since the end of its war. However, Council members also reflected the views they had heard during the day highlighting that a third term would be very divisive and a risk to Burundi’s stability. Members stressed that the president should take actions that ensure the country’s unity.
It seems Nkurunziza’s response was that the matter was a legal issue to be decided on by the constitutional court and that he intended to abide by the court’s decision. It seems that Ambassador Samantha Power (US) said that it was not a legal issue but a political issue, and speaking in a national capacity suggested that the president should not run for a third term.
A joint press conference by Angola, France and the US was held at the airport before Council members returned to New York. Ambassador Francois Delattre (France) said that the Council had come to Burundi at a very important moment in the country’s history and had engaged in an intense dialogue with all stakeholders. Speaking as Council president, he said Council members had encouraged the authorities to address the issue of the third term in a spirit of consensus in order to avoid a deterioration of the security situation.
Ambassador Ismael Abraao Gaspar Martins (Angola) said that the decision on the third term was ultimately a political act, and that Council members had appealed to Burundian leaders to find solutions that would safeguard the country’s unity. In her remarks, Ambassador Power said that the US interpretation of the Arusha Accord, which has been the foundation for Burundi’s peace, was that no individual should serve more than two terms.