Burundi is Part of a Forgotten Crises


 Photo source: Guardian

 By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Blood had flowed through the streets of Burundi, in recent memory, but the world, largely, is not aware of it. During the reign of Pierre Nkurunziza, which was an extended fifteen year authoritarian rule, a series of political crises were set off that displaced thousands of people to neighbouring countries.

Nkurunziza would be best remembered, not as a devout Christian, or as a rebel leader in the past, but for his last five years, since 2015, during which he won a third term in office that his critics called unconstitutional. Infact, he was eyeing to stay in power till 2034 through a referendum. The power grab marked mass protests, a failed coup, and a crackdown on civilians that soon morphed into a humanitarian disaster: more than four hundred thousand people were displaced to Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, although Tanzania holds around sixty percent of the caseload.

Bodies were often found in the streets of Gitega and Burundi’s other major cities. In murkier circumstances, people were also rumoured to be killed in rural areas, and the crises had been far more graver than 2015. Some events involved victims being killed at one location, and then dumped elsewhere, including in neighbouring countries, to avoid detection. As per a UN 2019 report, there were confirmed numerous secret locations, including residences owned by senior officials, where torture, rape, mutilation and other forms of abuse and killings were rampant. The members of National Council for Liberty, the opposition party members, were also being arrested, although less frequently than before.

As per a Guardian article written by Emma- Graham Harrison: ‘most refugees had travelled at vigils, through scrub and forest, to avoid militias hunting would-be defectors, who they brand traitors. Some of the people they intercept were sent back with a warning, but many were assaulted and murdered.’

Many of those held or butchered in government prisons believed that they were grabbed off the streets by security forces and militia, who claimed to be hunting for rebels. These raids became so common that in some areas young men would stay inside their homes for weeks at a time. The other common form of public violence, which played out, included various raids on homes, usually on the pretense of looking for illegal weapons. The security forces had even used bayonets to slash and stab the gruesomely detained. Several had recounted that militias tied tubs of water to men’s penises with a short string, and then forced them to stand up and down, making their genitals strained by the weight.

There were also enforced disappearances. As per Africa Data Centre, Burundi has also witnessed a surge in disappearances. Since 2015, the portal reported that the United Nations had consistently received concerned reports, as hundreds of cases had been investigated, and brought to the attention of the Burundi government each quarter. The Ndondeza (help me find them) campaign had disseminated more than 400 photos of missing persons since 2015.

Atrocities by state agents are not confined within Burundi’s borders. In 2018, the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) documented attacks, killings, and disappearances of Burundian refugees at Uganda’s Nakivale refugee camp. Most of the refugees IRRI spoke to revealed that they recognised Burundian intelligence agents and Imbonerakure members, including some who had killed family members in Burundi. IRRI also documented complaints about threatening phone calls and text messages, as well as suspected Imbonerakure agents taking photos in the camp.

The legality of Nkurunziza’s presidency for third term had been a complex issue that needs unraveling. For his renewed incumbency, Nkurunziza removed the references of the 2000 Arusha Accords, by revising the 2005 Constitution, which ended the Burundian Civil War between 1993 to 2005. The amendment dismantled two thirds of its provisions. The accord was an agreed set of principles, but the ruling CNDD-FDD party claimed that some of the Arusha provisions were null and void by the Global Ceasefire Agreement. Infact, it was never a party to Arusha Accords, and always held a view that it was not bound by its resolutions.

However, what might seem tragic was Nkurunziza's sudden death in June 2020, which ultimately halted his ambitions. It had made Evariste Ndayishimiye’s the new president, a former army general, whose peers include hardline politicians responsible for continuing accounts of violence, suggesting that the prospect of change remains improbable in the east African country.

Fast forward, the situation is still grim. However, Ndayishimiye had tried to start a new wave of democratisation and women empowerment, by including five women and an ethnic minority Batwa politician for the first time. Even if he had reformist intentions, including tackling down corruption, Ndayishimiye would still have to juggle the interests of different CNN-FDD factions, including the group of powerful military generals, who supported his candidacy.

Since 2015, the CNDD-FDD had also pursued an extensive purge of ex FAB officers, with numerous being killed or abducted, as per an article written in Africa Centre by Paul Nantulya. A law introduced in 2017 also bestowed ‘reserve force status’ on the Imbonerakure, and placed it within the military, describing it as ‘citizens militarily trained for this purpose by the Burundi army and veterans.’

As per another article written by Lewis Mudge at Human Rights Watch, an audio recording made in April-May 2019 had made rounds on the social media. It described a police officer threatening government’s opposition: ‘if you want to disrupt security, I’ll finish with you there, and if you’re with your wife and children, you’ll go together.’

Burundi Human Rights Initiative also divulged revelatory details through a January 2020 report and its officials had commented: ‘serious human rights violations continued in 2019, but were often hidden and quickly covered up, making it difficult to establish the circumstances in which they took place.’

On the other hand, UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Burundi warned in September 2019 that security forces, local authorities, and Imbonerakure members, were creating ‘a climate of fear and intimidation of all persons who do not show their support to the ruling party’. The commission had been investigating the Burundi crises since 2016. It’s findings are in lieu with a separate investigation done in 2017 by the International Criminal Court.

According to an article in The New Humanitarian, written by Sam Mednick, even some Burundians, even those aligned with the government were trying to leave. The ruling party’s youth militia, the Imbonerakure, whose name in local Kurundi language mean ‘those who see far’, alleged that the government had ordered them to increase threats on anyone, who were perceived as being affiliated with the opposition. One of the members, who had concealed his identity, had witnessed forty murders, and several rapes at the hands of Imbonerakure, over the past two years.

As a retaliation in October 2019, the Burundi rebel group RED-Tabara, based in eastern Congo, claimed responsibility for an attack in northwestern Burundi, hinting that it was a new wave of resistance aimed against the state.

To make matters more forlorn, Burundi was also infested with malaria, with around 5.5 million cases, out of the population of 11 million, as par with the Ebola outbreak in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, but the country received far less attention. However, instead of opening doors to health workers and their operations, the administration restricted health information to humanitarian partners. Although, the administration called it as a lie.  

Alongside malaria, Burundi was also suffering the impact of a drought induced food crises. The government didn’t endorse the World Food Programme 2019 report, which found out that more than fifteen percent of the population needed immediate food assistance, with around three hundred thousand people at emergency levels. The country even has world’s highest prevalence of chronic malnutrition, with more than fifty percent of children stunted, as per the data of UN. The economy had been also in tatters with a growth rate of -7.2 percent. There has been a need of investment in the agricultural sector, due to miserable yields, as most of the rice is imported from Pakistan. The foreign cash has also dried up.

Human rights defenders and journalists are, meanwhile, still behind bars, or face intense pressures inside the country. In 2018, a leading activist, Germain Rukuki, was sentenced to 32 years in prison for ‘rebellion’, among other charges. His appeal was then postponed immediately. There were also allegations of forced contributions for the 2020 elections, reflecting that the abuse in Burundi is going in the dark.

In the underfunded and desperately crowded camps, of neighbouring Tanzania, mostly concentrated in the northwest, the refugees, who fled the crises, have no plans to go home. However, there is a cut to their basic rations, restrictions on their livelihoods, and periodic threats of forced repatriation. Lately, there had been a plan to repatriate some 20000 Burundian refugees living in Tanzanian camps, but at the same time, there is also a need for creating conditions, for their imminent safe return. 

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