Africa's Other Contest

06/28/2010 03:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When it comes to Africa, at present, the international media seems to only have eyes for one contest -- the soccer World Cup in South Africa.

There is, however, another contest taking place on the continent, which unlike the World Cup only has one contestant. On June 28h Burundi, a country of nearly 10 million people, will go to the polls in our Presidential election with the choice of only one candidate.

Africa has suffered so many false dawns, so many missed opportunities, when a success story such as the soccer in South Africa is underway it is understandable that the media would wish to focus upon it. However, the contest in Burundi -- or lack of it -- as distant as it may seem to many people in the US, matters.

The recent history of Burundi is the "missing" part of the Hutu and Tutsi story which has so devastated the Great Lakes region: Rwanda, our better-known neighbour, suffered a genocide in 1994 which saw nearly one fifth of their population killed in just 100 days, the effects of which are still being felt by those who lost family, those who perpetrated the crimes, and by those displaced into the eastern DR Congo. For Burundi, also a nation of Hutus and Tutsis, our inter-ethnic violence, concurrent with the events in Rwanda, continued through a catastrophic civil war until 2005, when former rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza was elected President as part of a series of polls in that year which returned Burundi to constitutional democratic rule. I became Vice President.

The hope of these elections, which did so much begin to heal the wounds of the civil war, have been undermined by President Nkurunziza's government in which the sound management of state finances and human rights have not been respected, and from which I resigned from my position of Vice President in 2006.

Some four years later regional elections this May were so riddled with interference by the Government that all thirteen registered opposition parties, including the Alliance for Democratic Renewal (ADC), which I lead, agreed to put aside ethnic and regional tensions and together withdrew our candidacies for the Presidency, including my own. Now the thirteen opposition parties united under a single umbrella organisation, the Alliance of Democrats for Change in Burundi, have called on the Electoral Commission to hold the local elections again, but they have refused.

Africa's record of democracy is weak. "Big men" with small ambitions have too often led this continent. However, in recent years the record of parties of government contesting genuine and hard-fought elections against their opponents and peacefully handing over power when they lose -- in Ghana and Senegal, for example -- has been improving.

However the new unity of the Burundi opposition is been matched by ferocity of the government in its crackdown on our activities. Several weeks ago my arrest without charge along with other opposition leaders is evidence of this. On Sunday I was stopped from boarding a plane at Bujumbura Airport and my boarding pass and passport confiscated by the police who said they had orders to take my papers and prevent me from travelling, but without providing any reason why this order had been given. Only days ago, a meeting of the united opposition leaders in an opposition office in Bwiza was broken up before it even began by the police using teargas against people as they arrived. When the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon visited Burundi in early June, we were barred from entering the streets, leaving our homes, and cars belonging to our supporters confiscated, further restricting our ability to travel.

Despite the silence from the UN, we do count on international support from the Africa Liberal Network (ALN) and Liberal International who have expressed solidarity with our campaign for democracy in Burundi. The ALN President, Dr Lamine Bâ, who is also Minister for International Cooperation in the Government of Senegal, called on liberal parties from around the world to stand by us at a recent meeting in Berlin attended by the Democratic Party and also UK Liberal Democrats (part of the British Government's ruling coalition) who assist in supporting the Network.

When it comes to African elections much of the international media focus this summer will be on Rwanda also with an upcoming Presidential Election. However, the long-term stability of the Great Lakes Region, so divided for too long as it has been between Hutu and Tutsi, is just as much in the hands of Burundians as it is Rwandese. We have come so close to unity before: if the Government of Burundi wishes to lead the country on a path to sustainable development they must take a different road, and support rather than undermine independent democratic institutions and political and civil rights.

Burundians deserve so much better than this. I have served in this Government, but resigned in protest at its corrupt nature, and as a patriot, I want to see Burundi follow the progress social and economic development of our other partner nations in the East African Community, not regress. I want Burundians to have a true choice in an election that is open and fair, not corrupt and fixed. The actions of our Government have at least united the opposition despite our many ethnic and political differences. However, we will not be contesting the Presidential Election when the Government ignores the hard-won rights of the Burundian people to choose their leader. So, as you watch the exciting contest that is the World Cup in South Africa, remember that other matches taking place in Africa are not being nearly as fairly fought.

Alice Nzomukunda is the former Vice President of the Republic of Burundi and now leads the opposition party the Alliance for Democratic Renewal.