SNAPSHOT: Burundi’s presidential election in May carries risks of localised violence but unlikely to threaten regime stability

SNAPSHOT: Burundi’s presidential election in May carries risks of localised violence but unlikely to threaten regime stability


  • Burundian voters will elect their next president on 20 May. Incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza will not run for re-election.
  • The ruling party – the Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie–Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD–FDD) – has nominated its secretary-general, Évariste Ndayishimiye, as its candidate.
  • The CNDD-FDD’s near-certain victory at the polls signals policy continuity, such as  repression of dissent, increasing security and compliance risks to companies with operations or looking to invest in-country, as allegations of human rights abuses and frustration of foreign NGOs’ activities are likely to continue to multiply over the coming seven years.
  • The political opposition has been seriously weakened through an intense repression campaign on dissent since the 2015 crisis. The main opposition party, Congrès National pour la Liberté (CNL) which was created in February 2019, is unlikely to realistically challenge the CNDD-FDD’s dominance, in large part due to systematic repression and frustration of its activities.


  • In 2015, Nkurunziza ran for a third term in office, which many opposition sympathisers and international democracy advocates deemed unconstitutional. This fuelled widespread public anger and violent protests, which were repressed with systematic and sometimes extreme abuse by the security forces and the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure. 
  • Since then, the Imbonerakure has intensified its harassment and intimidation of local communities and anything its members consider a potential threat to the party or regime. Over 400,000 Burundians, including many opposition supporters, have fled the country and live either in refugee camps in neighbouring countries or in exile in Europe.
  • The authorities have also systematically frustrated the operations of foreign NGOs and media critical of the regime, which has effectively muzzled the opposition.
  • The next government’s relationship with the international community will remain problematic. Ndayishimiye is not under current sanctions and has not been implicated in allegations of human rights abuses, and some have argued that his nomination is likely to improve Burundi’s relationship with the European donor community. However, he has been an active member of the ruling party’s military wing during the civil war in the 1990s, the FDD, for close to three decades, and has expressed hostility through jingoistic language towards foreign organisations, such as the United Nations and the African Union, specifically with regards to their plans to deploy personnel and investigate claims of human rights abuses or help restore security following the 2015 crisis. In September 2017, local news outlet IWACU quoted him as saying: ‘They are trying to deploy 228 police officers to arrest us and bring us to the International Criminal Court (ICC), we will fight and annihilate them in two hours.’ A year earlier, Ndayishimiye described the Imbonerakure as ‘polite’ and ‘dynamic’, dismissing accusations by the UN and foreign NGOs that the youth wing was committing human rights abuses.


  • There is a high risk of localised low-level violence leading up to the vote and in the weeks following the vote, should opposition parties challenge the validity of the results which is nearly certain to occur.
  • Widespread violence such as that seen in 2015 after Nkurunziza ran and won a third unconstitutional term in office in May and July 2015 is unlikely this time around, and the CNDD-FDD is highly likely to get a comfortable majority at the polls.
  • Nevertheless, localised incidents of violence, including fighting between supporters of the CNL and the CNDD-FDD is highly probable to continue. Since campaigning began on 27 April, there have been several such incidents. As of 5 May, at least 18 people have been injured since the beginning of the month. Flashpoints for such violence will be around CNL rallies, specifically in and around the commercial hub Bujumbura where support for the opposition is traditionally strong.
  • Over the one-year outlook, the new government is likely to continue to repress dissent or any elements it deems threatening to its stability, including foreign media and non-governmental organisations.
  • It will likely seek to improve relations with foreign donors, as the country’s foreign exchange reserves are critically low and slowing economic growth over the past two years will likely be negative by the end of 2020 due to the global macroeconomic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.