Ethnic and Political Violence Continue to Stain Burundi

Two years into the crisis that has been tearing Burundi apart, the situation in the country remains grim.

Adama Dieng, the United Nations special adviser for the prevention of genocide, wrote a letter to the UN Security Council in March 2017 warning of the risk of “mass” violence. And in the same month, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein addressed global human rights issues, expressing particular worry over Burundi:

In Burundi, I am concerned that the democratic space has now been virtually extinguished. Grave human rights violations and abuses by security forces and the Imbonerakure militia continue to be reported, including increasing allegations of enforced disappearances, torture and mass arbitrary arrests [of opposition members]…Following the release of the report by the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi in September 2016, the Government of Burundi suspended its cooperation with my Office in Burundi pending ongoing review of our MOU.

The crisis began after President Pierre Nkurunziza made the controversial decision to seek a third term in office, “a move deemed illegal by the opposition as well as members of his own party,” explains Radio France Internationale:

Translation|Original Quote

There have been deadly consequences. Some 500 to 2,000 people have been killed, according to the UN and some NGOs, hundreds have been reported missing, and nearly 400,000 people have been exiled.

Nkurunziza’s re-election bid had a devastating impact on the trust between the administration and the population, immediately triggering several protests. The protesters claimed that a third term is a violation of the country’s constitution which says no president can be elected more than twice.

Furthermore,  Nkurunziza also stated that he will do away with the 2005 Arusha accords, a peace agreement created to implement a power-sharing deal for political institutions and to integrate the various rebel groups into the state military, using an ethnic quota system to ensure more balanced representation. Those two issues provoked instant mass demonstrations, clashes with the polices, and the flight of large numbers of ethnic groups. The exodus was triggered by the permanent threat posed by Nkurunziza’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, who are implicated in political violence targeting opposition members.

According to the Radio France Internationale article, the government rejects these accounts despite the overwhelming amount of evidence, claiming they are part of a political agenda and an international plot to oust the current leadership.

However, a video that circulated on the internet in April 2017 features young members of the Imbonerakure singing slogans that encourage raping Tutsi women. The ruling party and the  Imbonerakure are ethnically composed in majority of Hutus. The other major ethnic group in the country is the Tutsis, whose tense relationship with the Hutus are at the origin of past conflicts in Rwanda and Congo.

On April 4, 2017, a blogger for the local news site Yaga, Spageon Ngabo, appealed for them to stop such behavior and focus on other challenges.

Translation|Original Quote

When the UN accused you of being a militant wing of the ruling party, you denied it, claiming loudly that you were “peace-loving proponents of democracy with strong ties to the Republic and inspired by tolerance, victims of a campaign of demonization and slander.” I hope with all my heart that this video is purely for show because despite everything, you are still my brothers and in the eyes of the world, the image you project affects every young person in Burundi. If I were to take you at your word, I would ask you why you insist on providing ammunition to the imperialist colonists that call us savages.

My dear Imbonerakure friends, Burundi is a grand work in progress with no shortage of challenges worthy of battle cries. Our small country measures 27,830 sq km and has an estimated population of 11.1 million people, approximately 66% of whom are under 25 years of age. We have a GDP of $800 per person with a real growth rate of -4.9% in 2015 along with unemployment that is sure to grow. We are one of the most corrupt countries in the world and, according to the UN, the second unhappiest nation on the planet. In 2016, the IMF named Burundi the third poorest country in the world.

On their French-language website, the ruling party CNDD-FDD declared that such actions ran counter to their ideals.

Documented human rights violations

Various organizations have been sounding the alarm on the situation in Burundi. In its World Report 2017, Human Rights Watch called attention to the ethnically motivated exactions made by the Imbonerakure throughout 2016:

Translation|Original Quote

Members of the Imbonerakure and police, sometimes armed with guns, sticks or knives, raped women whose male family members were perceived government opponents. In some cases, Imbonerakure threatened or attacked the male relative before raping the woman. Women often continued to receive threats after being raped.

Imbonerakure and police raped women who attempted to cross into Tanzania, apparently to deter them from leaving Burundi.

Imbonerakure set up roadblocks and check points in some provinces. They extorted money, harassed passersby, and, despite having no powers of arrest, arrested people they suspected of having links to the opposition. They also went door to door, extorting money from residents.

Upon returning from a joint mission, the Worldwide Human Rights Movement (FIDH) and its Burundi counterpart announced that they had witnessed crimes that may fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC):

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Upon their return from a fact-finding mission to Burundi in March 2016, FIDH and its Burundi member organisation ITEKA reported on 14 April that “the nature of the crimes witnessed by the FIDH delegation could very well fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court” and called upon the Chief Prosecutor to “immediately open a preliminary examination of the situation in Burundi, which is state party to the ICC”. Our organisations appreciate this decision and hope that, considering the seriousness of the crimes committed and the absence of a national judiciary, the ICC will, without delay, open an investigation into the very grave crimes committed in Burundi.

ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced on April 25, 2016 that the ICC will conduct a preliminary examination of the events in Burundi since 2015. In an article on the French-language website,, Gabin Eyenga explained the process.

Translation|Original Quote

A preliminary examination is a process in which all available information regarding a situation is examined in order to determine, in full knowledge of all evidence, if there is a reasonable basis for initiating an investigation according to the criteria set forth by the Rome Statute. This examination does not constitute in any way an investigation, but rather precedes and sets conditions for an investigation. The ICC Prosecutor has made this decision following the qualification of Burundi’s humanitarian situation by the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic, as “worrisome.”

Once the preliminary examination of the Burundi situation is finished, the ICC prosecutor will draft her conclusions or a report on the legal classification of the alleged crimes that fall within the court’s jurisdiction. The examination will be based on information provided to the ICC.

However, in October 2016 Burundi left the ICC. Jean Marie Ntahimpera expressed his disappointment in an article published by Yaga:

Translation|Original Quote

I am among those who think leaving the ICC is a bad decision, one that only reinforces the impunity of powerful criminals that local jurisdictions are afraid to pursue.

But, what I dislike even more is that this decision is situation-specific. The government in Bujumbura is thinking, “We must do everything to protect ourselves.” In short, they are in a difficult situation. Challenged from within, accused of massive human rights violations, burdened with international sanctions, the legitimacy of Burundi’s leadership is in doubt. If the ICC launches an investigation or issues arrest warrants, the Burundi government will look guilty, even if, theoretically, the presumption of innocence should prevail. Allowing the ICC to investigate will further weaken the legitimacy of the government.

Our leaders are not thinking about the future. A popular expression says that while a politician thinks about the next election, a leader thinks about the next generation. In my opinion, if the Burundi government was thinking about the next generation, it would not leave the ICC. In five or 10 years, those in power now may be gone, replaced by others, perhaps much more autocratic (something I don’t wish to see). Those who have decided to leave the ICC today may, one day, see their grandchildren calling for this court’s protection. But, it will be too late.

Despite these tragic events, President Nkurunziza claimed, in a December 2016 public conference, that he could not refuse to seek another term if his people demanded it of him.



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