Diplomatic Pouch / July 6, 2015
By Larry Luxner
Burundi, a tiny, landlocked African nation few Americans have ever heard of, is awash in political violence as its president, 51-year-old Pierre Nkurunziza, seeks a third term in office — against the wishes of many of his 10 million citizens.
As the death tolls mount back home, Burundi’s envoy to the United States is on a mission to defend Nkurunziza’s track record. It hasn’t been easy.
“He has the right to run again,” Ambassador Ernest Ndabashinze told the Diplomatic Pouch on June 30, as the results of controversial parliamentary elections held the day before were being tallied in Bujumbura, the capital. “Unfortunately, some political parties and civil-society leaders decided to protest against his candidacy.”
Even worse, he said, “some of our allies — for instance the United States and the European Union — say the president cannot run again, regardless of our constitution. This is very harmful to our country.”
At first glance, this looks like yet another case of an authoritarian African head of state trying to bend the rules and hold sham elections so he can stay in office indefinitely.
But Ndabashinze insists there’s no funny business going on here.
“The situation is that we have to hold elections before Aug. 26. That’s when the president’s term ends,” he said. “There was a debate over his candidacy because, according to our constitution, the president is elected for two terms. But the current president was designated in 2005 by parliament, so he has the right to run again for a second and last term.”
That’s certainly not the view in either Washington or Brussels, or even in Addis Ababa, headquarters of the African Union (AU).
The 54-member AU refused to send observers to monitor Burundi’s June 29 parliamentary election, and has urged Nkurunziza to delay the presidential election planned for July 15. The AU as well as the president’s opponents at home say his effort to run again violates the constitution, along with the Arusha peace accord that ended Burundi’s civil war in 2005.
Ndabashinze, however, said the real reason the AU won’t send observers to monitor Burundi’s election is because it’s financially dependent on Brussels. “The EU refused to give funds to the AU to deploy observers in Burundi,” he claimed.
On the day of the election, a grenade exploded at a polling station in Bujumbura, and elsewhere armed groups fired weapons — even as the 51-year-old president was telling Al Jazeera TV “this is great day for Burundi” because people were exercising their democratic right to vote.
In recent months, the political standoff has led to dozens of killings, and sparked an exodus of refugees. About 127,000 people have already fled Burundi for neighboring countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The United States is “deeply disappointed” with Nkurunziza’s decision to go ahead with the June 29 parliamentary elections despite calls to postpone them. Turnout was reported to be low in and around Bujumbura, partly because the election was boycotted by 17 opposition groups.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters that there were “woefully inadequate conditions for free and fair elections” in Burundi.
Asked why Nkurunziza wants to run again, the ambassador said it’s simple.
“In 1993, after the assassination of our elected president [Melchior Ndadaye], Burundi unfortunately went through a long period of crisis,” said Ndabashinze, describing the legacy of a civil war between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis that killed an estimated 300,000 people and decimated the country’s economy.
“Under the Arusha agreement that ended the war, a ceasefire was signed by the government and the rebels,” he said. “When the constitution was drafted, the politicians agreed that the president would be designated by the parliament, then elected twice.”
Depriving Nkurunziza the chance to run for a third term, he said, would be considered “a violation of the legitimacy of the people of Burundi to decide their future.”
Ndabashinze claimed that recent anti-government protests rocking Bujumbura have been organized by “Western partners.” He also disputed the UNHCR’s refugee figures, insisting that only 70,000 people have fled the Vermont-sized nation — not 127,000 — and that of those 70,000, about 40,000 have already returned.
“The government is sending envoys to neighboring countries like Rwanda, Congo and Tanzania, meeting with officials to convince those refugees to come back home,” he said. “They went abroad based on rumors. When we show them there is no threat in Burundi, a lot of them come back.”
Ndabashinze has represented Burundi in Washington for one year. Before that, the French-educated diplomat served at the United Nations in New York; he also headed the Africa department in his country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Most of his time, he said, is spent meeting State Department officials, visiting lawmakers on Capitol Hill and consulting with think tanks such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the Atlantic Council and the National Democratic Institute.
“My job is to inform those people who have been misinformed,” he said. “Some news outlets are reporting that Burundi is at war, with people killing each others. It’s not true. There is no violence today in Burundi.”
He added: “The objective of the EU and the U.S. is to push us into a transitional government and violate the constitution. But if we do that, we’ll have chaos. We had this kind of a problem in the past, after our president was killed. We want to avoid that because we know what this chaos will bring. We believe that democracy means holding elections and giving people the opportunity to decide who must be the leader.”
For the moment, Ndabashinze maintains an air of optimism. He noted that Burundi has the world’s second-largest contingent of peacekeeping troops in Somalia after Uganda, where both nations are facing off against the terrorist group al-Shabaab.
“No one in the world wanted to go there. We also went to the Central African Republic when there was a crisis, and to Côte d’Ivoire and Haiti,” he said. “No one is protected against terrorism. We have to work closely with other nations to do that.”
Ndabashinze added: “We are not going against the wishes of the United States. We are engaged in dialogue. That’s why my minister came to Washington. My job now is to promote economic relations with the U.S. This misunderstanding is a small problem, and we think we will remain good partners and do whatever is necessary to strengthen this relationship.”