BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AP) — Ten grenade attacks, including a blast near the European Union election observer office, have suppressed voter turnout in this tiny East African nation Monday as the country voted for president in a contest with only one candidate.
Voters trickled into polling stations across the country as Burundians feared more violence would erupt during the voting process, officials said. The thin turnout stood in sharp contrast to the winding lines seen during district elections in May.
Incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza is the lone candidate after six others dropped out earlier this month, citing intimidation and rigging by the government during district elections. The presidential election is the first in years, made possible when rebel groups demobilized last year to bring an end to the country’s 16-year civil war.
The nation has seen more than 40 grenade attacks the last several weeks, blasts that killed five people. Another ten blasts occurred over the last 24 hours before the vote. No injuries were reported.
“During the earlier elections we had huge queues of voters,” said Floribert Nizigimana, head of the Nabagera polling station in the opposition-held Cibitoke district. “Today it seems people are scared.”
National Police spokesman Pierre Channel Ntarabaganyi said the Sunday night grenade blasts included one near the headquarters of the EU election observer mission to Burundi. No damage was reported.
Tensions have been rising since early June when six opposition candidates pulled out of the presidential election and cried foul after the ruling party won in district elections. European Union observers said the district elections met international standards.
“So far across the country the number of voters is much lower than last month’s district elections,” said Jean Marie Vianney Kavumbagu, president of the nationwide Civil Society Coalition for Election Monitoring. “That is down to the fear and insecurity and the opposition call to boycott the polls.”
Monday’s polls, which will be followed by legislative elections over the next few months, are the biggest test for Burundi’s fragile peace since the country’s last rebel army, the Forces for National Liberation, laid down its arms.
Fears of a resurgence of conflict have been further inflamed by the disappearance of Agathon Rwasa — the former FNL chief turned prominent opposition leader — who has not been seen publicly for a week. Attempts by The Associated Press to reach Rwasa on Monday were unsuccessful. Alfred Bagaya, the vice president of Rwasa’s party, said he does not know where Rwasa is.
The ruling presidential party, the opposition and the former rebel group have also been trading accusations of stockpiling weapons and arming youth groups in a bid to either prevent or force voters going to the polls.
Burundi and neighboring Rwanda have a bloodstained history, the result of politicians fomenting violence between Hutus and Tutsis — the two main ethnic groups in these countries — to consolidate power. Burundi’s civil war had been fought mainly between Hutu rebels and a Tutsi-dominated army, and resulted in the deaths of more than 250,000 people.
Observers say Burundi risks becoming a de facto one party state, an outcome feared by international donors who have pumped over $40 million into setting up the elections.
A former rebel, incumbent president Nkurunziza rose to power after a 2005 election as a candidate of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy — Forces for the Defense of Democracy party.
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