Burundi’s embattled government tightens its grip
Agathon Rwasa, the first deputy of Burundi’s national assembly, says the ruling party’s narrative of a stabilized, peaceful country is laughable.
“If the situation is normal, [why] do we have to drag all these weapons to feel that we are safe? The high-ranking officials of this country cannot even move to attend international meetings.” Rwasa, a former opposition candidate for president, said.
The country descended into crisis in the spring of 2015 as the regime responded to an attempted coup and protests against the president’s bid for a third term with a brutal crackdown on demonstrators, journalists, and civil society.
The violence has since simmered into what International Crisis Group calls “low intensity warfare.”
But as the attention of the international community shifts away from Burundi, the government continues to tighten its grip on power by systematically denying the basic human rights of Burundians and cultivating an atmosphere of impunity and intense fear.
In October, President Pierre Nkurunziza announced Burundi’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court. Human Rights Watch called the decision a “major step backward.” On Tuesday, the Worldwide Movement for Human Rights (FIDH) released a 200-page report detailing “severe repression and genocidal dynamics,” calling for the United Nations to intervene in the face of “the use of propaganda based on ethnic ideology [and] the use of elite units and militias to suppress opponents.” And on Wednesday, charity group Medecins Sans Frontieres reported a massive surge in Burundians escaping to neighboring country Tanzania.
Despite two visits from the UN Security Council and one from Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the span of a year, attempts to send an international police force or UN observers have so far failed to pass.
Regional analysts are also concerned by a subtle but consistent use of ethnically-charged rhetoric by authorities and on local radio broadcasts. While the conflict is political in origin, ethnic divisions along Hutu-Tutsi lines have been manipulated from above, analysts worry, stoking fear that the country will descend into ethnic violence. Witnesses, who spoke with with VICE News on condition of anonymity, shared accounts of police and military targeting Tutsis in the capital.
One resident who was targeted by members of the regime’s militarized youth wing , the Imbonerakure, said, “they kicked me and called me ‘mujeri,’ a pitiful dog. It is the word they use for Tutsis.”
A spokesperson for the president dismissed these claims as lies.
In the capital Bujumbura, people are out in the streets and children have been back in school for months. But residents here say the crackdown hasn’t gone away, just underground.
In certain neighborhoods — where the protests took place last year — the military regularly patrols the perimeter. Police and police informants can be found on street corners. The Imbonerakure, terrorize those they deem as threats to the regime, without fear of consequence.
“Look at this traffic, the people on our roads. Tell the world everything is normal, a key presidential advisor told VICE News in October “We are passed our troubled times.”
But 23-year-old protester Damascene (his name has been changed for safety), has wounds that he says show otherwise. The cuts on his wrists and ankles — where the rope cut in as he was hog-tied and hung from the ceiling — are just healing.
Damascene joined the street protests last spring. As the government lashed out against demonstrators, his friends were killed in the streets. Others disappeared.
Months later, he spoke on an international radio broadcast about the targeting of protesters and human rights defenders.
In September, he was kidnapped by three well-known members of the Imbonerakure and taken to an empty house, north of the capital. He says the men interrogated him for hours, only cutting him down from the ceiling to continue the torture. He says they beat him with iron rods, and burned his hands and feet.
“They took my phone and began to check all the numbers in it. They asked me to explain every contact one by one. They said ‘Give me all the names of people who have been sent by Rwanda to destabilize Burundi. They asked me to give all the names who had been sent by human rights defenders to participate in our demonstrations.”
The men accused him of “plotting against the regime,” he says. “They called me a ‘stupid Hutu’ and a ‘Tutsi sympathizer’ but said at least I am a Hutu.”
He was released the next day and told his life was spared only because his mother is a known member of CNDD-FDD, the ruling party.
President Nkurunziza’s government has grown increasingly hostile to international intervention, most recently with the expulsion of UN human rights investigators following the release of an independent 9-month investigation in September. The report described the government’s role in “gross human rights violations,” including executions, torture, sexual violence, and arbitrary detention.
In typical fashion, the government denied the allegations. Senior presidential adviser Willy Nyamitwe dismissed the report as “lazy,” and called the accusations “rumors and gossip.”
“It’s a common attitude of the government to deny criticism issued by others,” Rwasa says. “There are abuses in this country. Just yesterday, there were corpses found with signs of torture.”
Despite growing international concern, the president — along with his CNDD-FDD party and regional allies –— insists peace has been restored to the country. In July, he called on the 300,000 Burundians who have fled the country since the crisis began to come home.
The recent dismantling of local journalism and human rights groups, along with the decision to withdraw from the ICC, has left torture victims like Damascene without hope of justice.
For Eric, a 32-year-old, Burundian appeals lawyer with Avocats Sans Frontieres (Lawyers Without Borders), the ICC decision was a warning shot. He represents 18 army soldiers, arrested and accused of “jeopardizing internal security.” All of them, he says, are Tutsis.
“It is bad omen to leave an international organization. It represents a sign of a risk of genocide…nobody will have the right to say what he sees [to international observers].”
One week after the ICC decision, the government withdrew the permits of several prominent national human rights organizations.
Residents in the capital and aid workers on the ground say Burundi’s slow, violent slide into autocratic rule is all but inevitable now. Given the current level of international engagement, UN sources said negotiations to resolve the crisis were “wrenching” and “mostly hopeless.”
Yet for Agathon Rwasa, there is nothing to do but wait.
“This regime will have its end. One day, all this will be over. Only then can everybody be free and safe.”