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Delay in Burundi’s presidential elections, Rwandan parliament wants referendum on Kagame’s third term

Burundi’s presidential election has been postponed by five days, and the first round will now be held on Tuesday, July 21. Authorities thus want to look as though they are meeting international diplomats halfway: the heads of State of the East African Community (EAC) had urged the presidency to push the poll back to July 30. The presidency said that it was impossible to delay the election beyond the 26th for constitutional reasons, as the constitution stipulates that the election must be held at least one month before the end of the current presidential term. President Pierre Nkurunziza’s term ends on August 26.

The opposition is not satisfied by the delay, but it has insisted since the beginning of the crisis that it only has one demand – that Mr Nkurunziza abandon his bid for a third term. Jeremie Minani of the Arusha Movement, a political and civil society platform, said that the new date was “unacceptable” and “could in no way legitimise an election that is fundamentally a sham election.” Mr Minani also pointed out that the presidency did not bother to announce a date for the second round, and said that this meant Mr Nkurunziza would fraudulently be declared the winner after the first round.

In the past week, the Independent National Electoral Commission (Ceni) announced the results of the legislative election held on June 29. Mr Nkurunziza’s National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) won 77 seats and an allied party won one, to 21 for an opposition coalition (even though the opposition was officially boycotting the election, its name was still on ballot papers). To respect the ethnic and gender quotas imposed by the constitution, the Ceni called a number of people on the opposition list to join Parliament, which they have refused to do.

On Friday, July 10, there was sustained shooting between the army and members of an unidentified armed group in Kayanza Province, near the Rwandan border. Eyewitnesses who spoke to RFI reporters say a group of 300 to 400 armed men in uniform crossed the border from Rwanda and took up positions in Rugazi sector. Burundian army units arrived in force and drove their adversaries into Kibira forest. On Friday night, at least 10 grenades were thrown in Bujumbura.

On Sunday, July 12, 31 members of the opposition National Liberation Front (FNL) were arrested in Munyinga Province in the north-east, after members of the Imbonerakure, the CNDD-FDD’s paramilitary youth wing, discovered a shipment of 10 AK-47-type rifles on the back of a motorcycle transporter. They alerted police, who searched nearby houses and discovered another 20 assault rifles. The arrests were made in connection with the discovery of the arms cache. There are some suspicions that the whole story was engineered by the CNDD-FDD to discredit the FNL.

Tensions remain extremely high in Burundi, and the presidential election will make no difference to the conflict dynamic. Although the renegade general Leonard Ngendakumana told France24 that the troops in Kayanza were rebel Burundian soldiers and that they had not crossed from Rwanda, we are not convinced. We have seen a risk of Rwandan military involvement for some time, and, if that is confirmed (or even only widely believed), the dynamic will escalate further, by threatening to drag Rwandan rebels based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) into the fray. The situation has important implications for the region, and we are watching it closely.

In other news, the Rwandan Parliament almost unanimously voted for a referendum to allow President Paul Kagame to run for president again in 2017. Both houses of Parliament – the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate – met on Tuesday, July 14, to approve the principle of an amendment to article 101 of the constitution, which currently provides that a president may only serve two terms in office. The vote follows Parliament’s receipt of petitions signed by over two million people (according to the speaker of Parliament, Donatilla Mukabalisa, although other government representatives have given figures as high as four million) asking Mr Kagame to remain in office.

The vote was not the formal vote to amend the constitution, which, as we understand it, will be the next step in the amendment process. Legislators were expressing their approval of a motion to initiate “consultations” across the country to hear more people’s views on the amendment. The overwhelming vote in favour of the motion – 79 out of 79 valid votes in the Chamber of Deputies, and 23 out of 24 in the Senate – means that the three-quarters requirement in the vote for a constitutional amendment will pass with ease. There was no debate, as such – rather the lawmakers competed for a chance to speak and to outdo each other in praising Mr Kagame for his achievements since the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took power in 1994 (Mr Kagame only became president in 2000, but was effectively running the country for the previous six years). The spectators’ gallery, too, was filled with applause and cheers every time an MP finished a speech.

We have seen a third term for Mr Kagame as more likely than not for some years, and have seen it as a near-certainty since the petition effort began in early May. We continue to think that a third term for Mr Kagame would be a good thing for Rwanda, and that the importance of term limits for good governance is exaggerated. Unlike Burundi or Burkina Faso, where an incumbent’s third term became an explosive political issue, the amendment in Rwanda will take place in a wholly legal way and will be formally irreproachable.

The Democratic Green Party (DGP) intends to challenge the constitutional reform before the Constitutional Court on the grounds that the petitions were coerced, but that effort will be futile. More important, from the point of view of long-term risk, is the effect of Mr Kagame’s suspicious and exclusionary leadership style, and the continued tightening of restrictions on civil society and the media. There will probably be some international criticism, but we do not think any real measures will follow. The development has no effect on our current evaluation of political risk in Rwanda.

 Francois Conradie (Political Analyst)

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