Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s full steam ahead in Burundi with regard to the presidential and parliamentary elections slated for May 20. As recent weeks brought news of the first recorded cases of the coronavirus in Burundi, they have also featured coverage of crowded campaign rallies. President Pierre Nukurunziza’s reluctance to impose policies aimed at stopping the virus from spreading is converging with his enthusiasm for democratic authoritarianism, putting not only Burundi, but Burundi’s neighbors at risk.
There is no suspense whatsoever surrounding the upcoming polls. After Nkurunziza’s run for a third term in 2015 was marred by serious violence, the state has been systematically and brutally eliminating all potential challenges to its authority. Civil society groups that haven’t been banned outright have been bullied into submission, and there is virtually no independent media left in the country. The ruling party’s militia, the Imbonerakure, intimidate and harass Burundians with impunity, even shaking them down for contributions toward the cost of the upcoming electoral exercise. The country’s leadership has chosen impoverishment and isolation as part of its campaign for total control, and it is clear to all that Nkurunziza’s hand-picked successor, Evariste Ndayishimiye, will emerge as the winner later this month in a climate that could not possibly be described as free or fair.
Burundi’s trajectory has been apparent for some time. But the pandemic now raises the stakes for neighboring states whose attempts to control the virus are threatened by Burundi’s insistence on moving ahead with electoral theater regardless of the public health risks involved. Regional organizations are supposed to be the venue through which neighbors can coordinate and deconflict their agendas, but Burundi continues to expose the weakness of the East African Community. Just as the EAC’s attempts to advance dialogue in Burundi did nothing to stave off the closing of political space, today the organization seems helpless at best as Burundi and neighboring Tanzania refuse to take COVID-19 seriously. In a region as volatile as the Great Lakes, it is not unduly alarmist to fear that the failure of regional institutions to manage threats may prompt some actors to take matters into their own hands, feeding persistent cycles of instability.