BUJUMBURA – A policeman and an opposition official died in violence marring the start of Burundi’s presidential election, already hit by opposition boycotts and protests over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term.
Blasts and gunfire echoed around the capital early on Tuesday in a nation grappling with its worst crisis since a civil war ended in 2005. It has faced weeks of demonstrations, a failed coup and clashes between rebel soldiers and the army.
Voters queued in some rural areas and districts of Bujumbura that are strongholds of Nkurunziza supporters. But there were only trickles of voters in other parts of the capital.
Opponents accuse Nkurunziza of violating the constitution by seeking another five years in office.
Western donors and African states, worried about tensions in a region with a history of ethnic conflict, urged Burundi to postpone the poll. The United States and European states have halted some aid to Burundi, one of the world’s poorest nations.
Nkurunziza, almost sure to win given the opposition boycott, cites a court ruling saying he can run again. The government said they had already delayed the vote as long as they could and promised a fair poll.
Presidential adviser Willy Nyamitwe blamed opponents and those behind protests for overnight violence, saying a policeman and a civilian were killed. “People do it to intimidate voters. They don’t want the voters to go to the polls,” he told Reuters.
Residents in Nyakabiga district, where the civilian’s body was discovered, identified the man as an official in the opposition MSD party and accused the government of killing him. A police source confirmed the victim was part of the opposition.
“We see the shooting last night as a kind of intimidation,” said 32-year-old Desire Kabaya in Nyakabiga. “There will be chaos after this election because the government that will follow will not be recognised by all the people.”
Diplomats and experts fear a slide into a deeper conflict drawing recruits from those who feel protests and an election boycott have not delivered political change.
Nearby, angry residents blocked one of the main Nyakabiga roads with stones. A group of women chanted “we need justice and truth” near the body before the Red Cross took it away.
Nkurunziza cycled to a polling station in his northern home village of Buye and queued to cast his ballot. Before pedalling off, he told reporters the election was to “allow the Burundian people to vote or to choose someone they believe in.”
Emery Ndayizere, 30, in Bujumbura said there was no point voting. “The elections are just a masquerade because only one party is competing,” he said.
Burundi’s electoral commission said opposition names were still on the ballots and any votes for them would be counted. The result could take several days to emerge.
Ferdinand, a 40-year-old voter in Bujumbura, said he would vote for Nkurunziza, a soccer fan who is often pictured rolling up his sleeves to work with people in the fields, because he had “a good programme of development for ordinary citizens.”
Opponents say the president’s re-election bid is undermining a peace deal that ended a civil war that pitted rebel groups of the ethnic Hutu majority, including one led by Nkurunziza, against the army, commanded at the time by the Tutsi minority.
The tension worries neighbouring Rwanda, which has the same ethnic mix and suffered a genocide in 1994 that killed 800,000, mostly Tutsis as well as moderate Hutus.