Burundi political parties started campaigning for next month’s presidential elections despite opposition accusations of intimidation and the ongoing global coronavirus crisis.
With one death and 15 COVID-19 cases found in minimal testing, authorities are pressing on with the May 20 vote for a successor to President Pierre Nkurunziza, an ex-rebel leader in power since the end of civil war in 2005 that killed 300 000 people.
Nkurunziza ran for a third term in 2015 in a move the opposition said violated terms of a peace deal. The move triggered violent protests and a failed coup in the East African nation of just over 11 million.
Since then, nearly half a million people fled, the economy nosedived and low-level political violence simmered.
Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD party is fielding Evariste Ndayishimiye, a retired army general who heads the department of military affairs in the president’s office.
His foremost opponent is opposition party CNL candidate Agathon Rwasa, a deputy chairman of the National Assembly and also a former rebel leader.
Unlike other nations, Burundi has not restricted gatherings or internal travel due to coronavirus, so campaigning should proceed unimpeded.
Rights groups and opposition parties say CNDD-FDD youth wing members, known as “Imbonerakure” – or “those who see far” in the local Kirundi language – attacked foes, while governmentthreatened and arbitrarily arrested journalists and activists.
A UN report last year accused security forces and the ruling party of gang rapes, torture and killings.
CNL also accused police, intelligence services and officials of killings and enforced disappearances of members.
“Some perpetrators of unspeakable acts are officials of the ruling party and its allies, public officials who are members of the ruling party, youth members of the party in power and workers of the Intelligence Service or police,” Therence Nahimana, CNL’s spokesman, told reporters.
Nahimana said more than 200 CNL members were detained and party members’ property, crops, houses and other assets destroyed.
Burundi government spokesman Prosper Ntahorwamiye told Reuters in a WhatsApp message he had no comment. Government previously denied accusations of rights violations.
Between January and March, Ligue Iteka, an exiled Burundian rights group, documented 67 killings, including 14 extrajudicial executions and six disappearances.
“These elections will be accompanied by more abuse, as Burundian officials and members of the Imbonerakure use violence with near-total impunity to allow the ruling party to entrench its hold on power,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Five other candidates are vying for the presidency, including the first vice president Gaston Sindimwo and former president Domicien Ndayizeye. Parliamentary and municipal elections will be held at the same time.
Rights groups are concerned repressive governments may exploit the coronavirus crisis to crack down on opponents and consolidate power.
Elsewhere in Africa, Tanzania, Ivory Coast and Guinea are due to hold elections this year.