By Millicent Zighe
The Constitutional Court of Burundi has upheld the election of president Evariste Ndayishimiye, dismissing the opposition’s request that the court overturn the results because vote fraud and voter intimidation marred the presidential election.
Burundi held General Elections on May 20 at a time the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor is investigating Burundian state agents and others for crimes against humanity they are alleged to have committed between April 2015 and October 2017.
“The constitutional court rules that the presidential election held on May 20 was regular, that Evariste Ndayishimiye is the president-elect,” said the seven-judge panel in a unanimous judgement.
The petition the Constitutional Court dismissed on Thursday was filed by the runner-up in the election, Agathon Rwasa. His May 28 petition alleged, among other things, that dead people were listed in the voters’ register affecting the credibility of the presidential poll.
According to Burundi’s constitution, the Constitutional Court’s decision is final. Before Thursday’s decision Rwasa had told The Associated Press news agency that he would take his petition to the East African Court of Justice should the Constitutional Court rule in Ndayishimiye’s favour. It is unclear whether such a legal move will affect the results of the Burundian presidential poll.
After the court rendered its verdict, Rwasa expressed disappointment in the decision but promised to respect the rule of law. In the same update, he backtracked on his earlier decision to take the case to the East African Court of Justice.
“We didn’t appreciate the decision but we have taken note of it. We won’t make any appeal to the East African Community as previously announced. It isn’t a court of appeal,” said Agathon Rwasa in an interview with Iwacu Press Limited.
On May 25, Burundi’s electoral body, the Independent National Electoral Commission (known by its French acronym, CENI), declared Ndayishimiye the winner of the presidential election, saying he won 68.7 per cent of the votes cast. Ndayishimiye was the presidential candidate of the Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense (CNDD-FDD), the ruling party. Agathon Rwasa, the candidate of the National Council for Liberation (CNL), was declared runner-up with 24.19 per cent of the votes. In total seven candidates contested the presidential election and the CENI said the voter turnout was 87 per cent.
Rwasa is not the only one who questioned the credibility of the May 20 presidential poll. The Conference of Catholic Bishops of Burundi also questioned its validity reporting that their observers at polling centres across the country witnessed electoral fraud and malpractice.
“We deplore the many irregularities regarding the freedom and transparency of the electoral process, as well as fairness in the treatment of certain candidates and voters,” said the head of the conference, Bishop Joachim Ntahondereye in an interview with The Associated Press news agency.
In a report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) at the start of official campaigns on April 27, violence, mainly against opposition members and independent voices, was recorded in at least a third of Burundi’s provinces. The abuse was mainly perpetrated by the local authorities, security forces and members of the Imbonerakure, a youth militia allied to the ruling party.
Access Now, an international non-profit, human rights, public policy, and advocacy group dedicated to an open and free Internet, also reported that Internet connectivity was disconnected to prevent people from monitoring and reporting cases of electoral fraud.
The Imbonerakure is among the groups the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) is investigating for their alleged involvement in crimes against humanity that the OTP allege occurred between April 2015 and October 2017. The crimes are alleged to have occurred when violence erupted in April 2015 after Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was going to seek a third term as president. Opposition supporters protested Nkurunziza’s move and the government clamped down on the protests.
According to the United Nations, an estimated 1,200 people were killed in that violence and 400,000 Burundians fled their country to seek refuge in neighbouring Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania as well as further away in Kenya and Uganda. Following that violence and the international outcry against it, the United Nations Human Rights Council set up in September 2016 a Commission of Inquiry on Burundi to investigate and monitor the human rights situation in the country. The commission continues its work to date.
In October 2017, the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber II granted the prosecution’s request to be allowed to investigate that violence in Burundi because in the chamber’s view there was a basis to believe state agents and groups together with members of the Imbonerakure may have carried out widespread and systematic attacks against civilians in Burundi.
The chamber limited the prosecution’s investigation to up to October 25, 2017 because by then Burundi had given its one-year notice to withdraw as a member of the ICC. The chamber said the prosecution could investigate allegations of crimes committed when Burundi was still an ICC member but not after the Central African country ceased to be a member of the court. Burundi ceased being an ICC member on October 27, 2017.
It is not publicly known what Ndayishimiye’s position is on Burundi’s withdrawal from the ICC. But he is reported to have initially opposed Nkurunziza’s quest for a third term in April 2015. At the time Ndayishimiye worked in the Office of the President. Since 2006 he has been a senior member of government working either as a Cabinet minister or as a presidential adviser.
Nkurunziza had been expected to contest the 2020 presidential poll, especially after he supported constitutional amendments that increased presidential powers and the president’s term of office to seven years, from five years. Those amendments passed in a 2018 referendum. At the beginning of this year, to the surprise of many, Nkurunziza did not seek to be nominated as CNDD-FDD’s presidential candidate.
Instead, Ndayishimiye was chosen as the party’s candidate. Despite Ndayishimiye’s close to 14 years working under Nkurunziza, he was not Nkurunziza’s first choice as presidential candidate. It is reported that Nkurunziza preferred Pascal Nyabenda, the President of the National Assembly, to be the CNDD-FDD presidential candidate. Burundi’s top generals, however, are reported to have supported Ndayishimiye’s nomination as presidential
Ndayishimiye will be sworn in for a seven-year term in late August, when Nkurunziza’s term expires.