The political and humanitarian crisis in the East African country of Burundi has evolved along a dangerous and all too familiar pattern since President Nkurunziza won what is believed by some Burundians and the international community as an unconstitutional third term election in 2015. The 2015 elections had been widely criticized by the international community because of reports that violent harassment of voters brought on by the government and a formal boycott by opposition party members led to Nkurunziza’s fifty point marginal victory (69.41% of the total vote). Protests erupted following Nkurunziza’s presidential bid announcement in April 2015. The brutality of the government’s response led Amnesty International to condemn the illegitimate use of force stating that the “[treatment of] largely peaceful demonstrators and entire residential areas as part of an insurrection was counterproductive and escalated rather than defused protests.” Since then violence and fear have become existential to daily life in Burundi; a country already plagued by a disturbing history of ethnic cleavages, genocide, and corruption.
In 2016 Transparency International ranked Burundi the 17th most corrupt nation in the world out of the 176 countries surveyed. This ranking highlights Burundi’s poorly functioning institutions i.e. the police, judiciary and license administrators, as well as the manifestation of bribery and extortion as a means to navigate the highly polarized and biased government system that caters solely to those affiliated to the ruling party.
Since his campaign to consolidate power over the quasi-democratic state of Burundi, President Nkurunziza and his party, the ironically named National Council for the Defense of Democracy, have pursued various forms of new legislation that aim to negate the rights and liberties of Burundian peoples outlined by the new constitution of 2005 and the Arusha Agreement of 2000. In April of 2013 the National Assembly adopted a bill that sought to strengthen government control over the press. This bill severely altered the functionality of independent journalism by making reporters criminally responsible for publishing articles that “endanger domestic security” or the “moral and physical integrity of one or more persons.” The bill also mandated that journalists reveal their sources with each story they produce and limits their ability to write on topics that insult the ruling party or the head of state.
More recently, in May of 2017, President Nkurunziza issued an executive order that stated all unwed cohabitating couples have until December of this year to be married or else they will face severe legal consequences. The purpose of the President’s order is to assist in the moralization of Burundian society that he and his cabinet members feel is positively correlated with patriotism and an ordered country. Terence Ntahiraja, an interior ministry spokesperson said that marriage is the patriotic duty of Burundian citizens and that this law will ultimately assist in halting unsustainable population growth that has been driven by “illegal marriages and hundreds of schoolgirls getting pregnant.” For couples that manage to dodge the alter after the December deadline, they can expect to receive an estimated fine of 50,000 Burundian Franc ($29 USD). Any child born from an unofficial union will not be eligible to attend public school or receive state financed medical care as well. This policy has created an environment where the poor who cannot afford to get married or live on their own now cannot afford to live together and remain unwed. The implementation of this policy has resulted so far in mass state-led weddings that are being described by some as part of a “religious crusade.”
The government’s disregard for the basic human right of life is the foremost challenge to the Burundian people that has transpired since Nkurunziza’s third term bid. Mass killings, disappearances, and the use of rape and torture as government sponsored intimidation methods have proven to be both chronic and widespread. The pro-regime youth rebel group, the Imbonokure, is responsible for much of the violence against opposition party members. The Imbonokure raid neighborhoods where political rivals are rumored to live. Their blitzkrieg-like operations leave many community members dead in the streets-arms bound and severely mutilated. The Imbonokure, as sanctioned by the government, are also responsible for brutally beating and raping the family members of suspected opposition as a means to intimidate or dissuade offenses or human rights advocacy. As a result, nightly grenade attacks in residential areas usually launched by opposition party affiliates have become the norm in some Burundi villages. On July 11th four police officers were killed by grenade shrapnel. Days later, on July 16th, dozens of bystanders were injured by grenade launches in the Bwiza neighborhood, just three miles south of the capital, Bujumbura, and the United States Embassy.
The perpetuated human rights violations in Burundi have led to a mass exodus of people seeking refuge in neighboring countries. The United Nations refugee agency, NHCR, reported in July 2017 that the number of refugees fleeing Burundi reached 416,092. Tanzania and Rwanda have absorbed much of the burden of housing this large refugee population, however resources are dwindling and both governments are calling for more inter-Burundian dialogue and for stronger resolution efforts to be made by the African Union. President Nkurunziza addressed those who have chosen to flee Burundi during a joint speech with Tanzanian President, John Magufili. The men spoke at a refugee camp in west Tanzania, where they asked Burundian refugees to return home to a “Burundi [that] has gained peace and stability.” President Nkurunziza stated that he would not force anyone to return home to Burundi but highlighted the heightened economic relationship between Burundi and Tanzania that should assist in the reunification process. The two leaders confirmed that trade relations were prosperous between the countries and, as part of new economic agreements, the Tanzania government will be building a railroad that will run between Burundi and Rwanda. The refugee crisis that has been flowing from Burundi is being addressed without the help of the United Nations Council for Refugees, which reported that an additional 85,000 Burundians are expected to seek refugee status by the end of this year if current political and human rights conditions persist.
Another group calling for the return of refugees to Burundi is the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD), the primary government opposition party in Burundi. In an effort to seek East Africa governments’ support in the 2020 elections, the MSD published a list of demands with the hope that it will force the current regime to negotiate peace because of added international pressure. These demands included the return of all refugees to Burundi, a transitional government and a peaceful transition of power, the dissolution of the Imbonokure, and the reconstruction of private media. The MSD party has been suspended by the Burundian government many times since the failed coup attempt in 2015. In April of 2017 however, Burundian government officials announced the complete ban of the MSD party over rumors that the organization was recruiting young people to join an armed opposition group forming outside of the country.
Another alarming development in this crisis is the lack of corporation with the International Criminal Court (ICC) displayed by the Burundian government. In April of 2016 an ICC prosecutor initiated an investigation into the crimes against humanity that had been taking place since the spring of 2015. Months into the investigation the UN published a report that named government officials sponsoring unlawful crimes against civilians affiliated with the opposition. Infuriated with the UN and ICC’s tendency to “disproportionately target Africans,” President Nkurunziza signed a decree to formally remove Burundi from the ICC’s jurisdiction. Following Burundi’s departure from the ICC, the UN and EU voted to suspend all government aid to Burundi, which composed over half of Burundi’s yearly federal budget. On July 7th 2017, the UN voted to continue the suspension of monetary support because of Burundi’s failure to comply with UN requests for government oversight.
All non-governmental organizations have been banned or suspended by the government in the last two years. Within the last month, nine human rights organizations have started pressuring the ICC to conduct a full investigation into the political crisis in Burundi. These requests have been met with significant backlash from government leaders who are scheduled to meet in Arusha at the end of July for peace talks with major opposition party members facilitated by the East African Council. Burundian officials have maintained a consistent narrative-that their country has already created an environment that is open and welcoming to political discourse as well as media outlets that produce a “pluralism of information.” Officials have also said that the MSD’s request to institute a transitional government is outrageous and unnecessary because Burundi already has a democratically elected government. The MSD party has been forewarned by the government that while they are willing to negotiate peace the current regime fully intends to amend the constitution to eliminate all governmental term limits. President Nkurunziza’s spokespeople have also been quoted staying that if pressure from opposition groups persists, the government will eliminate all ethnic quotas in the legislature and military, disregarding the raison d’être of the Arusha Agreement.
Since the beginning of this conflict, UN and African Union leaders have called for more inter-Burundian dialogue to stop the violence that has driven out nearly half a million Burundian citizens. While this is a necessary step to resolve the conflict, it is not a sufficient strategy to stabilize the country and assure justice for the victims of these circumstances. The problems developing in Burundi have not had enough international attention as they have evolved since the 2015 elections. Not only have these issues been overlooked by major actors around the world, but they have also been largely ignored by fellow East African Council governments that are more so concerned with domestic issues. Tanzania has played the most active role in Burundian conflict resolution by accepting a majority of the refugees fleeing the crisis and facilitating talks between warring parties, but their policy towards to oppressive nature of the Nkurunziza regime has been one of appeasement and convenience. The Rwandan government has been accused of housing insurgent refugees and thus relocated 75,000 Burundian refugees to other countries and dissolved their support of the Nkurunziza regime. Kenya provided a large portion of African Union troops that were set to deploy to Burundi on a peacekeeping mission in December of 2015. These troops were denied entrance into Burundi by President Nkurunziza citing fear of a foreign occupation which amounts to an attack on Burundi’s national sovereignty. Kenya has had little involvement in the conflict since.
Photo source: United Nations News center
By Madison Stewart