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Rights Group: Police Must Stop Pre-Election Violence in Burundi

  • Michael Onyiego

Recent clashes between opposition and government supporters in Burundi have many worried that the upcoming elections could destabilize the country. An international human rights organization says that Burundian Police must take action or risk the legitimacy of the poll.

Tensions are high in Burundi after a confrontation between supporters of Burundi's main opposition party, The National Forces of Liberation or FNL, and the ruling party last week.

The incident took place in the northwestern village of Kinama, where the two sides apparently clashed at an FNL event. According to witnesses a grenade was thrown by a member of the ruling party's youth league and despite the presence of police and administrative officials, no effort was made to stop the violence.

The incident is the latest in an increasing number of clashes between Burundi's many political parties during the lead up to the country's national elections.

The violence is often carried out by members of the parties' youth wings, which analysts say are often armed and well organized for the purpose of confrontation. The groups have been growing in recent years, and could be a major destabilizing factor during the elections.

A recent statement released by New York-based Human Rights Watch said that violence committed by the youth groups is rarely investigated and perpetrators are never held accountable.

A researcher for Human Rights Watch in Burundi, Neela Ghoshal, says that if the police don't undertake serious measures to reign in the youth groups, more violence can be expected.

"Our concern is that the authorities aren't doing enough to put an end to this kind of violence and to hold individual perpetrators accountable," said Neela Ghoshal. "If the youth movements from the opposition parties feel that the forces of order aren't there to protect them, they are going to take security into their own hands. And if the ruling party feel that they can act in impunity, they will also use violence to accomplish political ends."

But many analysts also question the loyalty of the police.

Many policemen are former rebel soldiers who fought the government of Burundi in a civil war which ended in 2005. The war claimed the lives of over 300,000 Burundians and despite its transition to democracy, the country is still fragile.

Many rebel leaders during the war have since formed political parties. The rebel soldiers were integrated into the armed forces of Burundi after the war, but many remain loyal to their political leaders.

The elections will cap a 5 year transition to democracy, initiated by the peace agreements which ended the civil war. Burundians will vote in a series of local and national elections which will run from May to September.

According to Ghoshal, the Government of Burundi must ensure that justice is equitably enforced if the upcoming elections are to maintain credibility. But many analysts fear that the recovering nation will once again be plunged into violence when it heads to the polls.

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