Burundi’s current situation of relative peace, following years of ethnic-based civil war, may suggest that stability and democratic progress are increasingly within reach. But a closer look at how opposition political parties are treated and Burundi’s increasingly discouraging human rights record paints a different picture.
Since turbulent general elections in 2010, Burundi has inched ever closer to the kind of civil conflict that defined its past from 1993-2005 and brought the once ethnically-polarised country to its knees. While some observers considered the 2010 elections to represent a breakthrough in Burundi’s political evolution, a rather different narrative presents itself when considering the conduct of Burundi’s political parties following the elections.
As described in the EU’s 2010 electoral observation report, Burundi’s political parties faced internal divisions, lacked financial resources, and suffered indiscipline prior to the elections. Since the elections, however, these debilities have deepened and now threaten to jeopardise the parties’ legitimacy and permanence, as well as undermine the practice of multiparty politics in Burundi more generally.
Of Burundi’s 44 registered political parties, seven opposition parties won seats in the May 2010 communal elections, whose processes and results were disputed by several of Burundi’s main opposition parties. 12 such parties formed the Alliance of Democrats for Change (ADC-Ikibiri), which boycotted the subsequent legislative and presidential elections, allowing the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) and opposition party National Unity and Progress Party (UPRONA) to win the majority of legislative seats. And the incumbent, President Nkurunziza, won a virtually uncontested bid for re-election with a landslide 92% of the vote.
Following the ruling party’s dismissal of ADC-Ikibiri’s boycott as illegal, the government placed restrictions on opposition party members’ freedom of movement and association. Dozens of opposition party members were arrested and affiliates of both the ruling and opposition parties were found murdered. Fearing a similar fate, opposition leaders Agathon Rwasa (National Forces for Liberation, FNL), Alexis Sinduhije (Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, MSD) and Pancras Cimpaye (Front for Democracy in Burundi, FRODEBU) fled into exile.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and various Burundian NGOs have produced considerable documentation on politically-motivated crimes committed by government security forces and other government representatives during and following the elections. Such documentation reveals the ruling party's systematic persecution of opposition party members and affiliates, not to mention civil society activists, journalists and lawyers. At the same time, evidence is mounting that implicates several opposition party leaders and laymen in efforts to wage an armed rebellion against the Burundian state.
Reports of such activity surfaced in late 2010, some of which the UN Group of Experts (GOE) on the Democratic Republic of Congo substantiated in a report published last December. The GOE’s interviews of FNL combatants, arrested rebel collaborators, and independent sources reveal that elements of FRODEBU, FNL and MSD recruited over 500 combatants from South Kivu and Burundian refugee camps in Tanzania, and that FNL militants collaborated with notoriously predatory rebel groups in South Kivu such as the Mai Mai Yakutumba. The GOE cites a number of opposition political party leaders at the rebellion’s helm, including Agathon Rwasa (FNL), Pancras Cimpaye (FRODEBU), Leonard Nyangoma (National Council for the Defense of Democracy, CNDD), and Pascaline Kampayano (Union for Peace and Development, UPD).
Among the report’s most striking revelations were those incriminating Alexis Sinduhije, MSD’s 2010 presidential candidate, a 2004 Committee to Protect Journalists International Press Freedom Award winner, and one of TIME magazine’s ‘most influential people in the world’ in 2008.
Four mid-level officers in the FNL told the GOE that Sinduhije was responsible for raising funds and moral support for an armed rebellion of which he is purported to be one of the leaders. During a meeting in Dar es Salaam in August 2011, opposition affiliates say that ADC-Ikibiri's political leadership recognised Sinduhije’s “overall leadership” of the rebellion. According to FNL members, Sinduhije has successfully supplied South Kivu-based FNL combatants with funding, which has been supplemented by the FNL’s sales of gold and hardwoods extracted illegally from the DRC.
The GOE may be overly optimistic regarding the veracity of testimony by Burundian security and intelligence services whose downplaying of the rebellion corresponds with government officials’ attempts at face-saving by denying the rebellion; however, it acquired telephone recordings from the Burundian police that expose Sinduhije offering to pay a collaborator’s bail and ordering him to flee – actions that may further corroborate his leadership role.
In an abrupt turn of events last month, the Burundian government requested Tanzanian officials to arrest Alexis Sinduhije based on information contained in the GOE’s report and shaky allegations that Sinduhije had murdered the director of the World Health Organisation’s Burundi office. Lacking proof to substantiate the Burundi government’s claims, Tanzania released Sinduhije who is said to have travelled to Uganda following his release.
Although Sinduhije is still referred to as a “political activist” by some and as ADC-Ikibiri continues to be politically engaged at some level, the alleged support of armed rebellion by opposition party leaders has damaging implications. In a country where a great number of government officials and institutions lack legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Burundians, and where opposition political parties, media and civil society constitute the only remaining counterweights to an increasingly mono-party state, opposition parties will be more effective if they renounce the thuggery for which the ruling party government is well-known.
Critics are right to emphasise the need for greater oversight over the police and for the empowerment of Burundi’s newly-created National Independent Human Rights Commission. All the same, political parties must make corresponding institutional adjustments by disempowering militant elements in favour of those committed to peaceful political engagement and, ultimately, democratic progress.
Opposition parties will better serve their institutional and ideological interests by resisting the urge to take up arms, thus restoring their legitimacy among citizens and government reformers alike. Without such legitimacy, opposition parties’ calls for improved governance and increased political space will increasingly fall on deaf ears.
While opposition political parties removed from the armed struggle might normally fill the void of rebellious counterparts, a few such parties are experiencing institutional disorder of their own. By all accounts, opposition political parties will have to clean up their act if they seek to effectively counteract their government’s ongoing abuses of power and repressive political reforms.
While its depiction of the Burundian government’s pursuit of political inclusivity warrants inspection, the World Bank asserts wisely that “while there is cautious optimism after the elections, it remains necessary for national, regional and global partners to help consolidate peace and secure the development gains built over the past ten years”. If Burundi’s political parties fail to renovate themselves and government hardliners continue to erode political liberties, civil society and the media, Burundi's few remaining reform-minded politicians may be the country's only way of keeping its democratic consolidation hopes aflame.
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