Burundi is not an electoral democracy. The country lacks representative institutions at the national level, in both the legislative and executive branches of government. Despite citizens’ ability to change their government democratically in 2005, serious electoral irregularities and repression during the May 2010 local elections led most opposition parties to boycott subsequent presidential and parliamentary polls. The 2010 presidential election was the first by direct vote for a five-year term, but without meaningful competition, the results lacked legitimacy. The president appoints two vice presidents, one Tutsi and one Hutu, and they must be approved separately by a two-thirds majority in both the lower and upper houses.
While the lower house of Parliament—the 100-seat National Assembly—is directly elected for a five-year term, locally elected officials choose members of the Senate, also for five-year terms. Each of Burundi’s 17 provinces chooses two senators—one Tutsi and one Hutu. Carefully crafted constitutional arrangements require the National Assembly to be 60 percent Hutu and 40 percent Tutsi, with three additional deputies from the Twa ethnic minority, who are also allocated three senators. In both houses, a minimum of 30 percent of the legislators must be women.
There are more than two dozen active political parties in the country, ranging from those that champion radical Tutsi positions to those that hold extremist Hutu views. Most are small in terms of membership. Many Tutsi have now joined formerly Hutu-dominated parties. The government appointed in September 2010 consists of members from the three political parties represented in the Parliament: the CNDD, UPRONA, and FRODEBU.Many political parties include groups of youths that are used for intimidation and violence against opponents. According to Human Rights Watch, both the ruling and other parties have occasionally employed coercive methods against rival parties and internal dissent.
Corruption remains a significant problem. A July 2010 Transparency International-Kenya report named Burundi as the most corrupt country in East Africa, indentifying the Revenue Authority and the police force as the two most corrupt institutions. The deputy head of Burundi’s main anticorruption organization, the Anticorruption and Economic Malpractice Observatory (OLUCOME), was assassinated in 2009, and the case went to trial at the Bujumbura Court of Appeal in Burundi in July 2010. A dozen suspects, including police, civilians, and demobilized combatants, were subsequently arrested and put on trial, which was ongoing at year’s end.
Freedom of speech is legally guaranteed. While journalists continue to engage in self-censorship and are occasionally censored by authorities, they have been increasingly willing to express opinions critical of the government. Radio remains the main source of information for most Burundians. The government runs a television station and a radio station, as well as the only newspaper that publishes regularly. Several private broadcast media outlets also operate, though most have a limited broadcast range. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Radio France Internationale, and the Voice of America are available on FM radio in the capital. There is an opposition press, though it functions sporadically. Print runs of most newspapers remain small, and readership is limited by low literacy levels. Access to the internet remains largely confined to urban areas.
Despite the recent emergence of a more pluralistic press, journalists have been arbitrarily arrested, harassed, or threatened on numerous occasions. In 2010, several domestic press groups stated that the content of the privately owned Rema FM, a pro-CNDD radio station, repeatedly abused professional norms by disseminating hate messages and identifying opponents by name and address. A journalist for Radio Publique Africaine was hospitalized in June after being beaten with bricks by police for writing an article covering police abuse. In July, an editor for the online newspaper Net Press was charged with treason after publishing an article warning that Burundian security forces lacked the capacity to effectively counter external terror threats against the country; he remained in police custody at year’s end. In response, the Federation of African Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, and the Eastern Africa Journalists Association criticized what they deemed a government-sponsored “campaign of intimidation against media.”
Freedom of religion is generally observed. For many years the ongoing civil strife and the Tutsi social and institutional dominance impeded academic freedom by limiting educational opportunities for the Hutu, but this situation has improved in recent years.
The constitution provides for freedoms of assembly and association, although members of human rights groups that criticize the government have been threatened with or subjected to surveillance. There is modest but important civil society activity with a focus on human rights. Constitutional protections for organized labor are in place, and the right to strike is guaranteed by the labor code. The Confederation of Burundi Trade Unions has been independent since its establishment in 1995. Most union members are civil servants and have bargained collectively with the government. Following a two-month strike by public and private secondary school teachers in early 2010, classes slowly resumed in Bujumbura and the provinces in May.
Burundi’s judiciary is hindered by corruption, a lack of resources and training, and executive interference in legal matters. Crimes, especially those related to political violence, often go unreported or uninvestigated. The current judicial system struggles to function effectively or independently, and cannot handle the large number of pending cases, many of which are politically sensitive. According to domestic and international human rights group, in the wake of the 2010 elections, Burundi’s National Intelligence Service resumed its practice of physically and psychologically torturing members of the opposition who had been arrested on a variety of dubious charges, including “threatening state security” and “participation in armed groups.” Prisons remain overcrowded, unhygienic, and at times life-threatening. A justice and reconciliation commission, designed to provide accountability for past abuses, has been agreed upon in principle, but had not been established by year’s end.
The 2009 penal codecriminalizes same-sex relationships. Women have limited opportunities for advancement in the economic and political spheres, especially in rural areas. According to a September 2010 report by the Center for Global Development, Burundi has made progress in only one of its 15 Millennium Development Goals: the promotion of gender equality. Albinos face a particular threat from discrimination and violence; eight murderers of Albinos were convicted and sentenced to prison in 2009; several additional albino murders were reported in 2010.