BUJUMBURA, Burundi — It’s a Sunday afternoon on the northern shore of Lake Tanganyika, and in a country lacking ocean coastline, the beach atmosphere could not be finer. Lazing on the white sand fringing the lake or sipping cocktails among the French accents of the Bora Bora beach lounge, a mix of foreigners and locals soak in the Bujumbura swelter — some cooling off in the lake despite the proximity of hippos and crocodiles.
As dusk approaches, a gentle breeze welcomes a growing crowd of beachside diners, and the sun begins to fade over the lake’s western edge until it disappears behind the hills of neighboring Congo.
Here, a 10-minute drive from the Burundian capital, few would guess this is a land just years removed from civil war — one home to an increasingly fragile peace in advance of this month’s presidential election.
Until recently, the June 28 poll — which falls inbetween district elections held in May and parliamentary elections in July — was billed as a herald of Burundian stability after decades of ethnic conflict. On May 10, Charles Petrie, an executive representative to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, told the U.N. Security Council that this densely packed nation of 9 million was “set to give an extraordinary example of political maturity.”
Yet in the wake of the May 24 district polls, won by the CNDD-FDD party of President Pierre Nkurunziza with 64 percent of the vote, opposition leaders have cried foul. Earlier in June, six opposition candidates accused Burundi’s electoral commission of failing to prevent fraud and announced they would boycott the presidential poll, saying they expect the vote to be rigged by the ruling party. This leaves Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader in power since 2005, as the only candidate and a shoo-in for a second term.
Though opposition leaders maintain they will not disrupt the polls with violence, analysts call the situation delicate. In what some fear is a sign of escalating hostility, Bujumbura was hit with a series of grenade attacks on June 12, the first day of the official presidential campaign. Citing security concerns, the government responded to the boycott announcement by banning all opposition from holding public rallies, a move some fear may backfire.
“This really puts the opposition in a corner as far as reaching supporters,” said Nyambura Githaiga, a researcher on Burundi at the Institute for Security Studies, a South African think tank based in Pretoria. “I remain optimistic that Burundians and their leaders will make every effort to consolidate peace. But the past security history of Burundi indicates there may be potential for conflict.”
Burundi, like its northern neighbor Rwanda, has a long history of ethnic-related violence.
In both countries — once ruled together as part of German East Africa and later Belgium-administered Ruanda-Urundi until the two were split at 1962 independence — power was traditionally concentrated in the hands of the minority Tutsi at the expense of the majority Hutu people.
In Burundi, a succession of Tutsi-dominated military juntas ruled for years following independence, conducting a wholesale purging of Hutu from the army and bureaucracy. In 1972, after a violent Hutu revolt, the army responded with a mass-slaughter of up to 200,000 Hutu, while hundreds of thousands of others fled into exile.
In 1993, bowing to international pressure, Burundi held its first multi-party elections, won by a Hutu, Melchior Ndadaye. Soon after, Ndadaye was assassinated in a failed coup by Tutsi hard-liners, prompting mass-killings of Tutsi civilians and sending half a million refugees across the Rwandan border.
In the civil war that followed between the Tutsi-led army and various Hutu rebel groups, an estimated 300,000 people were killed until a cease fire was signed in 2003 between the government and Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD, then the largest rebel faction. The following year, as part of a U.N.-backed peace agreement, the parliament adopted a new constitution, which led to the 2005 elections that brought Nkurunziza to power and relative calm to the country.
Yet only in April 2009 did the last of Burundi’s rebel groups, the National Liberation Forces (FNL), lay down its arms and register as a political party. It’s leader, Agathon Rwasa, who like Nkurunziza is a Hutu, was thought to be the president’s strongest challenger in the upcoming election. Now, he has joined his fellow opposition leaders in the boycott.
While European Union observers have upheld the validity of the district elections, and U.N. Secretary General Ban has urged opposition leaders to reconsider their boycott, the charges by Rwasa and others come as advocacy groups warn of an increase in political violence in the country.
On May 14, New-York based Human Rights Watch published a report documenting acts of violence initiated by supporters of several political parties — often by party-affiliated youth groups that contain large numbers of ex-combatants. On May 31, a grenade blast in eastern Muyinga Province killed a local leader from the opposition party Union for Peace and Development (UPD), while another party leader narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. UPD party spokesman Chauvineau Mugwengezo blamed the government.
“In both cases these are political crimes linked to the elections and ordered by the regime,” he said.
Back at Bujumbura’s lakeside, talk of politics is largely absent among European kite-surfers, couples sipping pina coladas, and local youths splashing at water’s edge.
Yet Vincent Nyandwi, a member of a traditional drum troupe performing at a beachside bar, says stability is critical to the economic rebound of a country that, according to the International Monetary Fund, has one of the lowest GDPs per capita in the world.
“We live off of tips,” said Nyandwi, dressed in a green and red toga, after drumming for a surprisingly sparse audience. “Nowadays there are more tourists than before, but it is still difficult for us to make a living.”
When asked about the upcoming poll and whether Burundi may finally see sustained peace, Nyandwi hesitated before responding.
“Only if God wishes,” he said.