From Ioannis Gatsiounis in Time, “Why All of East Africa is Watching Burundi’s Election”:
When Burundi goes to the polls on June 28, it will be the first of four countries in the East African Community (EAC) to hold presidential elections over the next eight months. Neighboring leaders and international observers were hoping the war-torn country would set a positive precedent for the others in the EAC — an intergovernmental organization intended to create political and economic link between countries that include Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania — and complete its transition to democracy in the process. But in recent weeks, an escalating series of political clashes and violent incidents has made it unlikely that Burundi will serve as a role model for the region.
The trouble began on May 24 when voters in the country’s local elections handed power to the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). Accusing the CNDD-FDD of fraud, the 13 opposition parties withdrew from the presidential race, leaving incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza as the only candidate.
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“Burundi is facing a serious crisis,” says Fabien Nsengimana, program coordinator of the Burundi Leadership Training Program. And it could endanger not only national but regional stability. Glancing at Burundi’s vital statistics, it’s hard to imagine that what goes on in the country could have such an impact — Burundi is landlocked, it’s one of Africa’s smallest countries and one of the world’s poorest, with little in the way of prized natural resources. Yet time and again the former Belgian colony has proved pivotal to east Africa’s security, serving as a crossroads for the illegal arms trade and a floodgate for refugees. It even played a part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, with strife between Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi igniting tensions across the border.
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Burundi is no stranger to political strife, but traditionally it would cut along racial lines, with Hutus pitted against Tutsis. But a 2001 power-sharing agreement has effectively rendered race a non-issue. Today, four of President Nkurunziza’s 12 ministers, including his vice president, are Tutsi. These days, unrest is fed by social inequality: undereducated and unskilled youth, high unemployment, and a scarcity of land in a country where the majority of people survive as subsistent farmers.
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