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Burundi: WHO reps expelled ahead of polls set to go, despite COVID-19

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 18 May – 22 May

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Monday, 18 May 2020 16:27

Virus Outbreak Burundi
Crowds of supporters of the ruling party gather for the start of the election campaign, in Bugendana, Gitega province on April 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Berthier Mugiraneza)

Burundi expelled World Health Organisation (WHO) representatives in the country and warned election observers from the region that they would have to go into quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

In a letter signed on 8 May, Burundian authorities asked every person entering the country to “respect the 14 days quarantine period.” But in the same vein, Bujumbura asked the Eastern African Community (EAC)’s secretariat to “delegate among stakeholders who [would] be already present in Burundi and to whom the 14-day quarantine doesn’t apply.”

Campaigning despite COVID-19

While the warning is logical in a world dealing with a fast-spreading novel virus, what is questionable is how President Pierre Nkurunziza’s administration has at the same time downplayed its spread across Burundi. Campaigns have been in high gear since the period began in late April.

READ MORE: East Africa goes to the polls in 2020

The campaign period has seen large crowds gather throughout Burundi, as the ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy  (CNDD-FDD), prepares for a future without Nkurunziza.

Although Nkurunziza is eligible to run in the 20 May elections, based on rules he had changed before the last election in 2015, the ruling party candidate this time is General Évariste Ndayishimiye.

Nkurunziza to retire

In early May, the government agreed to give President Nkurunziza a retirement gift of money and a luxury villa; but it is unlikely he will actually retire.

The Burundi situation roughly matches what happened in its neighbor, DR-Congo in early 2019 when long-term President Joseph Kabila essentially engineered his successor’s win. The only difference is that while Nkurunziza has chosen from within his ranks, Kabila had picked one of his rivals.

“Marred with increased violence”

So far, the campaign period has been marred with increased violence. On Thursday 14 May, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi said it was  “alarmed that the official electoral campaign for the […] elections of 20 May 2020 […] is characterized by an increase in political intolerance and numerous acts of violence and human rights violations.

With global travel suspended and most media focused on COVID-19, little has been reported on the ongoing violence, including a grenade attack on a bar in Bujumbura, the country’s former capital, reportedly owned by a member of the ruling party’s youth militia. Two people died in the attack.

Opposition has slim chances

The ruling party is depending on its youth militia, the Imbonerakure, to win the vote for General Ndayishimiye. Along with Nkurunziza’s firm grip on the country, the likely success of the opposition’s candidate, Agathon Rwasa, were already low. The 52-year-old Ndayishimiye, who has been sharing updates of his rallies on Twitter, is expected by observers to easily win the elections.

While the probity of the entire electoral process will undoubtedly be called into question, what is worrying the region more is the country’s lack of response on COVID-19.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Tanzania’s handling of pandemic raises eyebrows

The presence of two governments skeptical of COVID-19 in East Africa has rattled the region, as both are important in the trade routes from the Indian Ocean coasts. Uganda, the DRC, and Rwanda shared land borders with both countries.

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