Two years after Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza plunged the country into turmoil, the regime shows no sights of easing up on a crackdown, which has forced hundreds of thousands to flee. In April 2015, President Nkurunziza sought a third term in office, effectively politically destabilizing the country in a move that continues to be felt today, both within and regionally. His move not only violated the country’s two term-limit, as set by the constitution, but it also violated a 2006 peace deal, which ended a dozen years of civil war. At the time, he claimed that his first term in office did not count as he was appointed after the war and not directly elected. More recently, he has suggested a possible change to Burundi’s constitution, which would let him run again in 2020.
During this period, President Nkurunziza’s ruling CND-FDD party has unleashed its feared youth wing, known as the Imbonerakure, who now reign with impunity across much of the country. According to Florent Geet of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), “the Imbonerakure have become the spearhead of the repression, they have spread out across the country identifying and harassing the opposition.” The United Nations has estimated that at least 500 people have been killed since April 2015, with aid groups warning that as many as 2,000 people have died. The UN rights chief condemned the youth wing in April for repeatedly calling for the rape and murder of opposition supporters, stating that it amounts to a “campaign of terror.”
The Burundian government however has rejected all of the UN’s reports on the violence and calls for inquiries, as well as a Security Council resolution seeking the deployment of 228 police officers. It has also attempted to play down the security issues, with the country’s first vice president, Gasont Sindimwo stating, “the crisis is behind us, security is assured, peace has retuned to Burundi and everyone is going about their business.” This however is in stark contrast to what opposition leaders as well as NGO’s have said, noting that this claim of “peace” is the result of brutal repression, which has left hundreds dead. Witnesses have also reported that the Imbonerakure often set up roadblocks to search vehicles heading north into Rwanda or south into Tanzania, arresting scores of “suspects.” One resident of the capital, Bujumbura, has disclosed that “the entire population is terrorised because anyone can arrest you in the street and you wont be heard from again,” adding that “the fear is so strong that sometimes a father wont dare ask the security services for news of his missing son.” A UN diplomat in Geneva has also reported that “the regime in Burundi has grown more radicalized, but it has taken advantage of the growing divisions on the Security Council as well as the paralysis of the African Union, which has allowed it to act with incomplete impunity.”
The political opposition, and many elements of civil society in general, have fled the country, making it even more difficult for a solution to the political crisis. An opponent of the regime has disclosed that the opposition has also been weakened by internal divisions and “inflated egos among some of us.” Furthermore, negotiations between the regime and the CNARED, an umbrella of opposition groups, have stalled despite international pressure and financial sanctions imposed by the European Union (EU). A foreign diplomat in Bujumbura has also disclosed that the government is worried about rebel groups forming in neighbouring countries, including the Republican Forces of Burundi (Forebu), which mainly consists of deserting police and soldiers.
The East African Community is planning a summit meeting in May, with many officials seeing it as the last chance to find a diplomatic solution to a crisis that has prompted more than 400,000 people to flee the country.
The United States embassy in Burundi has warned US citizens in the country of potential attacks from “regional terror groups” targeting Western interests.
Over the weekend (3 – 4 December), the US embassy in the capital Bujumbura warned American citizens of “heightened security concerns that regional terror groups remain actively interested in attacking US and other Western and local interests in Burundi.” In an emergency message that was published on its website, the diplomatic mission disclosed that it had received “specific information leading to concern about potential activity in early December,” including, but not limited to, the Kajaga neighborhood, which is located on the outskirts of Bujumbura. The statement went on to say “the embassy has now placed the neighborhood and associated restaurants and beach clubs off limits to embassy personnel until further notice.” US citizens who do visit these areas are advised to avoid large public gatherings, especially those with no visible security presence, review or enhance personal security plans and be prepared to enact those plans.
In a new report released by the police, more than 450 people have been killed in the country in unrest that began a year ago.
In the report, which was released last week, police disclose that “the report at the disposal of police shows that 451 people have been killed since the start of the crisis, including 77 police officers and 374 civilians.” The police report added that 59 of its officers had been jailed over the last year for “serious misconduct.” While the report did not detail their actions, opponents of the Burundian government have accused the police of violently suppressing protests and dissent. While the government has denied this, it does say that the police have pursued opponents who have taken up arms.
The crisis emerged when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced in April 2015 his plans to run for a third term in office. Despite criticism that the move violated the country’s constitution and a peace deal that that ended the civil war in 2005, he went on to win the elections in July. The president’s camp has maintained that a court ruling had declared the former rebel-turned-president eligible to seen another term. Over the past year, at least three rebel groups have emerged, one of them is led by army officers who launched a failed coup last May. The violence, which diplomats say includes tit-for-tat killings of pro-government supporters and political opponents, has so far largely been driven by political differences, however diplomats and residents of the capital city Bujumbura, which as seen the worst of the violence, have disclosed that there are growing signs of ethnically motivated killings. Burundi has an ethnic Hutu majority and Tutsi minority, the same split as in neighboring Rwanda, which was torn apart by genocide in 1994.
On Wednesday, the United Nations human rights chief disclosed that 31 people have been killed in attacks in Burundi this month, decrying an increase in violence in the East African country.
In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein disclosed that “some 31 people have been killed in attacks so far in April, compared to a total of nine people in the last month.” He added, “I fear that the increasing number of targeted assassinations will inevitably exacerbate the already extremely dangerous spiral of violence and unrest in Burundi.”
In the latest incident, which occurred Monday 25 April, gunmen killed a brigadier general who was a senior adviser to the vice president.
Tit-for-tat attacks between President Pierre Nkurunzia’s security forces and his opponents escalated a year ago when he announced a disputed bid for a third term in office, a bid that he went on to win in July. The UN has disclosed that more than 400 people have been killed since then and more than 250,000 have fled the country. Earlier this week, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that it would investigate the ongoing violence in Burundi.
It has been a year since Burundi plunged into chaos, however peace efforts remain deadlocked as the country remains divided and violence continues.
While the Burundian government is insisting that a year of unrest is at an end, with the capital Bujumbura relatively calm after a string of attacks, which included a failed coup in May 2015, tensions across the country remain high, with the international community warning of the risk of a new explosion of violence. Hundreds of people have been killed and a quarter of a million have fled the country in the wake of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial decision last April to run for a third term in office, a vote that he won last July despite opposition boycotts. According to presidential press chief Willy Nyamitwe, “after the election fever and the violence that accompanied this process, the situation has returned to normal,” adding that “now the time is to work for development and the fight against poverty.” On the ground sources have reported that after weeks of battles between security forces and those opposed to the president’s third term, the capital is certainly calmer, adding that the once near-daily grenade attacks have also decreased. While the government crackdown over the past year involved the brutal repression of street protests, today, security forces stem opposition more discreetly after rights groups reported dead bodies being found on the city’s street on an almost daily basis. Last month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein disclosed that reports have emerged that the use of torture has increased since the beginning of the year, adding that many people now “live in terror.” Diplomats have also disclosed that the crushing of the opposition has further undermined any respect for the law, with one official describing how “power is now in the hands of a small hard core,” mainly top generals close to President Nkurunziza since they fought together in the bush in the 1993 – 2006 civil war between the mostly Tutsi army and predominately Hutu rebel groups. The UN has reported that more than 400 people have been killed since the beginning of the crisis, adding that thousands more have been arrested and more than 250,000 have fled abroad. Rights groups have also indicated that torture and extrajudicial killings have become commonplace. Despite efforts to bring the opposition together under the main umbrella opposition group CNARED, whose leaders are in exile, it remains split and there seems to be minimal chance that there is a solution in the near future. The international community, while critical of what has happened in Burundi over the past year, has also been unable to find a real solution to the ongoing crisis, and the Burundian government seems to be exploiting these divisions. Despite repeated calls for “inclusive dialogue,” the government has remained defiant and has refused to sit down with the opposition in exile, which it accuses of being behind the violence. Without a concrete solution, the pressure across Burundi will continue to mount, with analysts already warning of a “potentially explosive situation” amidst the continued violence with fears that the conflict is increasingly based along ethnic lines.