AKRON, Pa. — In the African country of Burundi, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and its local partners are supporting efforts to monitor voting and election conflicts, hoping to minimize violence during an already tense series of elections this summer.
Burundi’s election season started in late May and will continue through September, with at least five elections scheduled during those months. These elections are the first since all rebel groups laid down their weapons in 2008, officially ending the country’s 15-year civil war.
Conflict and violence already have affected the first half of the elections. Twelve major political parties, who used to be rebel groups during the civil war, contested the results of the May elections, which gave 64 percent of the vote to the ruling party, The National Council for the Defense of Democracy - Forces for the Defense of Democracy.
As a result, the 12 parties boycotted the June 28 presidential election, urging their supporters to stay home. About 60 grenade attacks were reported, killing eight people and wounding more than 50 before the presidential election on June 28. The ruling party and the former rebels have been blamed for the attacks.
Nevertheless, election monitors reported a relatively peaceful election in which incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza was re-elected with a 77 percent voter turnout, according to the National Election Commission.
In spite of the stated distrust of the May election results, Rebecca Mosley, an MCC representative in Burundi, said election observers remain hopeful that their ongoing work will ultimately help all political groups accept the results. Mosley and her husband, Paul Mosley, who is also an MCC representative, are from Fallston, Md.
Before the elections began, MCC and its partners joined with other historic peace church organizations to form the Quaker Peace Network (QPN). The group recruited and trained more than 200 election observers to work at polling stations on the election days.
“The presence of election observers may actually discourage incidents of election fraud,” Rebecca Mosley said. Election fraud could spark renewed conflicts, she said.
In addition, the QPN has joined Amatora mu Mahoro (Elections in Peace), a large national, ecumenical network that recruited and trained election-period monitors. Taking a broader view of election monitoring, Amatora’s monitors map any incidents of violence and note positive signs of peace.
Amatora mu Mahoro has hand picked key people, including some from QPN, from every corner of the country to report violent incidents or peaceful initiatives. Mapping incidents helps Amatora mu Mahoro better understand causes of violence and to work at resolving conflicts before they get out of hand.
MCC Burundi is a small program, but it has been able to connect local grassroots peace activists — from university peace commissions to elders of village reconciliation councils — with the national efforts of Amatora mu Mahoro.
“In this way, the national network has access to reliable local information and people of integrity in remote corners of the country,” Mosley said, “and local peacebuilders are empowered to play a role in the national effort to solidify peace in their country.”
MCC Burundi also is advocating, through Amatora mu Mahoro, for the National Election Commission to intervene in situations where violence has escalated. The QPN is offering to provide mediators.
The election stakes are high, said Mosley. If the opposition parties do not agree to join the legislative elections at the end of July, they and their supporters will have no elected officials to speak or express a minority viewpoint. They may choose to return to the bush and declare war on the ruling party once again.
The QPN and other election observers hope that their neutral observation of the presidential election eventually will allow the 12 political parties to accept the election results, Mosley said. “More substantial information could help pave the way for compromise by both sides.”
Burundi, as one of the 10 poorest nations in the world, desperately needs a sustainable peace, Mosley said, in order to concentrate on much-needed progress in education, health care, agriculture and development of infrastructure. MCC has worked in Burundi/Rwanda since 1994.