“We have lost our hope in politicians”
Published: 6 Aug 2015
Burundians recently headed to the polls in a strongly contested election that was boycotted by most of the opposition in protest of the president’s decision to seek a third term. While there has been much discussion of the legitimacy of the elections and possibilities for transition, mostly from those in Bujumbura or who have recently fled Bujumbura, little has been heard from the countryside. I was, however, recently able to speak with a number of people living in the south of the country, who expressed a profound disillusionment with the entire political process. They are concerned about their immediate needs, their need to support their families and to have food to eat. They are convinced that none of the politicians care about their struggles and therefore showed little interest in the details of the electoral process.
In many respects, this disillusionment is not surprising given how the electoral process has played out. The opposition announced that they were boycotting elections on 21 July 2015, leading to a predictable conclusion: the incumbent president won with a 69.41% of the ballot. Then on 24 July, the newly elected communal counsellors met and elected the members of the senate, an election that was fundamentally dominated, like the previous two (local and parliamentary), by the CNDD-FDD. Meanwhile many international partners, including the European Union, the USA, the East African Electoral Observation Mission, and numerous civic organisations, expressed concern that this series of elections cannot be accepted as free and fair considering the political and security context under which they took place.
Neighbouring countries, mostly under the auspices of the East African Community (EAC), organised talks between the opposition and the government, but these have, as yet, produced no tangible outcome. The most recent initiative led by Ugandan President Museveni, was interrupted before the parties could reach agreement on any of the 10 agenda items, including the third term of the current president, the electoral calendar, issues to do with refugees, security, and the media. It is unclear at the moment whether or not the talks will resume.
With only one set of elections remaining (the colline, the smallest administrative unit in Burundi, elections), the government argues that the election process is now almost finished and is busy establishing new institutions, including the parliament, senate, and communal councils. Finally the new government is expected to be inaugurated on August 26 – although rumours have it that it could take place earlier. All of this is being done apparently in the absence of the opposition, which appears to be of greater concern to the international community than it does to regular Burundians who have other pressing concerns.
In a number of interviews and discussions with people living in the provinces of Rutana and Makamba in the southern part of the country, their concerns were less about the mechanics of elections and more about their utter disillusionment with all politicians whether those in power or in opposition. When asked what he thought about the election process that had just taken place, one man, a 42 year old father of five children, had nothing positive to say: “These elections mean what politicians what them to mean… In 1993 we had free and fair elections. After three months, we were all dying and the country ended up in civil war and you know all the bad consequences. Some politicians were not happy with the president who had been elected and this was enough to decide to put the whole country in trouble. Before independence, I understand that those politicians who did not want independence killed Rwagasore and his companions, and yet the elections were free and fair! What do I think of the current elections? They may be free and fair, they may not. This is not the most important thing. What matters is what politicians make of them. If they continue to contest them, we are in trouble and they will kill us especially that they have already declared war… if they choose to give us peace, then we may be happy for the next five years.”
Likewise a 25 year old primary school teacher in Kayogoro had this to say: “Do not speak about elections and democracy in a poor country. People need food and most Burundian politicians aim at having as much as possible. What these elections mean for me is that the CNDD-FDD members will eat for another five years while the others will do everything including war to overthrow them so that they may eat as well… Meanwhile, the population will have to suffer war consequences.”
When asked whether he thought that a postponement of the electoral calendar by all politicians would have made a difference to what he saw as imminent civil war, he answered: “No, not at all! Politicians are never genuine in what they do or say. As long as there will be a winner and a loser in elections, the loser will never accept to starve for another five years. Look here! It is about food and as long as we have no solution to poverty and people must be in power to get their daily bread, then free and fair elections have no meaning. We always need a win-win situation.”
Similar sentiments were expressed in a discussion with five members of an extended family, including three men and two women. They had just returned from Tanzania where they had fled in June following the protests against the third term and attempted coup. At first they were hesitant to voice an opinion on the political process, but when assured of anonymity, they agreed to talk. As one person said, “Elections are very dangerous to all of us. We actually hate them because they bring war to us. But we must try and do our best out of this situation. You see we have ration cards in Tanzania – Nyarugusu camp. When there is food distribution, we go to Tanzania and get food as refugees. We sell some and leave the rest for our children [who are still in the camp] and then come back here to Burundi where we continue with our activities. This is only possible because of these elections are now finished.”
When asked whether organising a new – and free and fair – election would make a difference to the economic welfare of Burundians, one of the group answered: “Forget about free and fair elections. It does not matter. What matters is whether or not we can see in them an economic opportunity. We have a serious problem of poverty and we do not mind who comes in as president how they got there. All we need is for him to change our lives economically. As we see things, the opposition or the government are not interested in free and fair elections neither. Hiyo ni vitu ya wazungu (these are western things). They play the game to get their food; we must play ours [they all laugh].”
Some acknowledged that they were registered as refugees in Tanzania despite having returned to Burundi: “Our children are safe in the camp and we are here watching how things evolve. We have lost our hope in politicians. They do not care about us and we think that elections are just means by which they come to power but not means by which we change our lives. Let Peter [the president] know that others are hungry and assure them about their future and they will support the outcome of these elections… whichever way, we do not want the elections to be repeated.”
The tragedy here is that a democratic process that officially started in the 1990s is now being seen as a major source of their suffering. Elections, they believe, are not necessarily a means to put pressure on politicians to perform better. Instead, it is an opportunity for people to seek power in order to have control of the country’s resources. As a result, a very dangerous situation is evolving, in which the population is gradually losing trust in the politicians and questioning the capacity of democracy to bring harmony in poor countries. As the school teacher concluded, “China is not democratic but because their economy is good, their country is more stable and Chinese people are happier than Burundians. The economic prosperity must precede democracy or even better these two must go hand in hand.”
Politicians in Burundi must allow Burundians to be the masters of the destiny of their nation. The government may have won the elections, but it is clear that they have not won the support of the people. Much more needs to be done to ensure that both the government and those in opposition listen to what people are saying and that the mechanics of elections lead to a forum for real exchange. For sure, they have the key to resolve this crisis. But whether or not they are willing to unlock it remains to be seen.
This blog was written by a Burundian activist who wished to remain anonymous.