The central African nation of Burundi has a new president. Evariste Ndayishimiye, the current secretary-general of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, won the May 20 election with 69 per cent, and will succeed Pierre Nkurunziza, a member of the same party.
But concerns were immediately raised about many irregularities in the conduct of the election. Burundi’s Catholic bishops played an especially important role in raising concerns: they have a team of 2,716 election observers.
Bishop Joachim Ntahondereye, president of the Burundian bishops’ conference, said in a statement: “We deplore many irregularities with regard to the freedom and transparency in the electoral process as well as fairness in the treatment of candidates and voters.”
The alleged irregularities ranged from the stuffing of votes in boxes before polling day, to “dead voters” casting ballots, to the misuse of proxy votes from the housebound.
The Bishops in particular highlighted that pressure was exerted on electoral agents to sign results of ballot boxes in advance. They also said they had evidence that votes had been “cast” by deceased voters and refugees who are not registered to vote. Some administrators reportedly intimidated voters at voting booths, and some people voted more than once.
Other concerns include the exclusion of independent observers from vote-counting centres, intrusion into counting centres by unauthorised people and failure to guarantee a secret ballot.
The leader of the opposition, Agathon Rwasa, has launched a legal challenge to the result. But aside from the controversy, Burundian Catholics have said they are hopeful for the country’s future.
A Burundian priest, currently studying for a doctorate, welcomed the new political change in his home country. “The fact that the new man on the hot seat [president] is from a different faith background, Catholic, replacing one from the Evangelical background, is quite notable,” he said. “We look forward to see what this change has in store for us,” he stressed during a telephone interview with the Catholic Herald.
He added: “There is much we expect from the new political powers in the country, one of them being a return of the many Burundian refugees from abroad; another is an effective way to reverse the badly damaged image of the country’s human rights record.” The two issues, he said, have given Burundi a bad name, regionally as well as internationally.
Another student, who like other interviewees asked for her name not to be disclosed, told the Herald: “On one front, we, as Burundian people looked forward for a political change.” She believes the new presidency could signal such a change.
One Burundian in Nairobi said he is hopeful that the new political leadership in the country will work on the current ill-feeling between the political leadership and the Catholic Church in the country.
“This is of great concern to us as Catholics and the Burundians in general,” he said. “We hope our new man, who happens to be a Catholic, will see the need to prioritise the issue.”
Of Burundi’s estimated 12 million population, the majority are Christians – perhaps as many as nine in 10; and most of those are Catholics. But like its neighbour Rwanda, another landlocked country in the central African region, Burundi suffers from ethnic differences between the country’s major ethnic communities of the majority Tutsi and minority Hutus.
One of the Catholic Church’s major pastoral roles is preaching peace, unity and reconciliation among the Burundian people. They will be hoping the election controversy does not prevent that message from getting across.