Bujumbura – The United Nations closed their political mission in Burundi on Friday after two decades of peace-building following civil war, but amid criticism they leave as tensions grow ahead of elections next year.
Burundi, a small nation in Africa’s Great Lakes region, emerged in 2006 from a brutal 13-year civil war, but its political climate remains fractious in the run-up to presidential polls in six months’ time.
Speaking after a flag lowering ceremony at the UN Office in Burundi (BNUB) base, Burundi’s Foreign Minister Laurent Kavakure said the closure was a “historic moment” that marked the country’s transition from a post-conflict state to “the next stage of development”.
At its peak, the UN had about 5 500 peacekeepers in the country, but as the mission mandate changed and work was wound down, it was left with just 50 largely political officers.
UN aid agencies remain in the country, one of the poorest in the region.
But civil society groups and opposition politicians opposed the withdrawal, saying it was premature with democracy still under threat.
President Pierre Nkurunziza, in power since 2005, is expected to run for a third term in office despite opponents’ claims that that would violate Burundi’s constitution.
Relations between the BNUB mission and the government were also difficult.
Bujumbura earlier this year expelled a BNUB officer over a leaked UN report that claimed the government was arming young supporters ahead of elections. The government denied the allegations.
Top UN political official Jeffrey Feltman warned the country faced tough times ahead.
“There are still many challenges, and more efforts are still needed to ensure that all in Burundi contribute to the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law,” he said.
Ex-rebel turned politician Agathon Rwasa, who led the former guerrilla National Liberation Forces (FNL), said it was wrong for the UN mission to leave.
“It is a premature departure because remember the political tension that we have experienced in recent years was defused thanks to the intervention of BNUB,” he said.
“Unfortunately, they leave as we approach the elections – and in the light of what is happening with the many irregularities observed – I do not know what will happen,” he added, saying he feared “the worst”.