Sunday, November 22, 2009

Analysis: Upcoming polls to test Burundi's fragile peace

BUJUMBURA, 19 November 2009 (IRIN)

Next year’s elections in Burundi, billed as a milestone on the country’s long road to sustainable peace, could trigger more conflict because of a combination of widespread illegal weapons and well-organized youth wings of political parties, according to analysts.

Power struggles in Burundi have provoked bouts of armed violence and civil war from independence in 1962 until the country’s last rebel group gave up and became a political party in April 2009.

According to Jean-Marie Gasana, a veteran Burundi analyst, the risks associated with the youth wings are exacerbated by the presence “of large caches of arms in the hands of civilians.

"Even more worrying is what happens should the opposition contest the outcome of the elections," he told IRIN in Bujumbura. "We are likely to see a repeat of scenarios... where violence has ensued following flawed elections."

"We could return to civil war,” echoed Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, founding president of the Burundi Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detainees.

"We have to also pay attention to the police and army, both of which have integrated former rebels into their ranks," he added. "If there is an incident during the elections, these people could be tempted to support their original movements."

Some of the armed, government-controlled former rebels in the capital operate outside the formal structures of the police and army, according to one human rights activist, who asked not to be named.

“The situation could become chaotic because youth [groups] have often been used during past civil wars and this is no different,” said Mbonimpa.

Some of these groups feel unfairly targeted by the authorities. Odette Ntahiraja, the secretary-general of the Mouvement pour la solidarité et la démocratie (MSD), a party registered in June 2009, told IRIN its young supporters were “often denied the right to hold demonstrations.

“Sometimes they are even arrested and some are beaten. Yet other youth groups are armed and go ahead and intimidate people without any action being taken against them,” she added.

Risk of election violence

For the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, such uneven attitudes by the authorities help to make Burundi a “classroom example of a country at potential risk of election-related violence”.

Jamila El Abdellaoui, a senior researcher in the institute’s conflict prevention programme, says another reason is the reported “[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 [disarmament, demobilization and reintegration] process has largely failed, especially concerning those returning to urban areas, explains the availability of some former combatants to join such groups,” she argues in an October article.

Pancrace Cimpaye, spokesman for the main opposition Front pour la démocratie au Burundi (FRODEBU), said his party would not arm its young supporters but added that they would “stand up” for the people if they were targeted by the ruling party.

"Our main concern as we head to the polls is security; we urge the international community to pay more attention to this and, if possible, help in the setting-up of a special protection unit specifically for the elections," he said.

For the European Network for Central Africa (EURAC), a Brussels-based coalition of advocacy NGOs, “The potential for violence is not yet under control” in Burundi. It cited divisions within political parties, widespread precarious living conditions, bad governance and the fact that “the rule of law is still under construction” as potential drivers of unrest.

For land conflict and human rights consultant Rene-Claude Niyonkuru, land issues are another factor: "We would be mistaken if we said there will be no violence - especially related to issues such as land. The people are frustrated, especially returnees, who are coming home in large numbers. The government had been encouraging them to return [but] it seems the same government is ill-prepared to ensure their smooth resettlement."

He called for the mobilization of the population to address land conflicts: "Why can't we use the election period to interrogate potential candidates on their proposals and commitment to the resolution of land disputes in the country?"

Voluntary disarmament

Civilians across Burundi handed in thousands of guns, grenades and rounds of ammunition during a voluntary disarmament campaign in October. According to Leopold Banzubaze, deputy head of the National Disarmament Commission, more than 80,000 weapons – which Banzubaze said amounted to almost 80 percent of all the weapons in circulation - had been handed in since 2007.

Many analysts believe that despite these campaigns, there are tens of thousands of firearms still circulating in Burundi. According to the commission’s own data, fewer than 2,500 of the weapons handed in during the last phase of voluntary disarmament were rifles. The rest were grenades (10,429), bombs (218) and mines (28).

Officials in Burundi seem to be aware of the risks surrounding the polls.

"I can say there are cases of murders and other killings which are the consequences of our civil war,” Guy-Michel Mfatiye, chief of staff in the Ministry of Human Rights and Gender, told IRIN.

He added that his ministry was working with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to “sensitize the people at different levels from the regional, provincial and even to the communal level on why the elections are important and how to conduct themselves during that period”.

According to the president of the electoral commission, Pierre Claver Ndayicariye, it has established a technical committee on security and is working with the Ministry of Public Security - with the support of donor countries such as the Netherlands and Norway as well as the UN Development Programme - to build the capacity of the security forces to ensure peaceful elections.

"The issue of security is important before, during and after the elections; our message as the electoral commission to political parties is: stop rival youth groups from provoking each other, the parties are on the ground, they can stop any harmful activity by their members," Ndayicariye said.