The ballot and the bullet: last month [June] the strife-torn central African state of Burundi held its first elections in over a decade. Tristan McConnell was there as the shooting and voting both took place. This is his exclusive Eyewitness report for African Business.

Author:McConnell, Tristan

From the southern Rwandan city of Butare to the Burundian border, the road is perfect. Industrious communal work gangs are still sealing the new tar and there is neither a single pothole nor a disintegrating verge as the road winds its gum tree lined way towards Kanyaru Haute on the frontier.


A policewoman in immaculate uniform flags us down checking for overloading, for a valid tax disc and driving permit and even for an emergency triangle.

The contrast could scarcely be starker as we cross into Burundi and begin the 115km afternoon drive to the capital Bujumbura on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika.

The uneven surface and gaping holes test the car's suspension while it seems that an obstruction waits around every corner--whether that is an uncleared rockslide blocking half the road, a crowd of party supporters dancing and waving flags in the street or yet another police checkpoint.

Unlike in Rwanda, here the dishevelled policemen give a cursory glance at our passports or driving licence, not particularly caring which, before getting to the point: "J'ai soif," he says with bloodshot eyes. He's thirsty. Can we buy him a beer?

It is the same thing every 15km or so. Never threatening, but always thirsty. Getting away from each roadblock without giving away handfuls of Burundi francs takes time, slowing our journey considerably.

By the time we reach Bugarama, about 40km from the capital, it is already after 4.30pm and all traffic must stop for the day. The AK47-toting soldiers manning the rock and wood roadblock are intransigent.

The next morning, having finally reached Bujumbura, one diplomat says with a smile, "Ah well, you see, we are in a war."

In two days, on June 3, we will be in an election, Burundi's first since 1993.

The precedents for this election are not good. In 1993, three months after the first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadye, was sworn in, voted for by the 85% Hutu population, he was assassinated by the Tutsi-dominated army.

This was followed with apparently premeditated speed by genocidal massacres of Tutsi civilians by Hutu militias, and reprisal murders of Hutus by the army.

Thus began 12 years of conflict that has claimed an estimated 300,000 lives and left the country an economic basket case and virtual no-go area.

With the incomparable diplomacy of Nelson Mandela, a timetable for political transition was agreed upon in Arusha, Tanzania, in August 2000 but it has proven an...

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