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Tensions Threaten to Bubble Over in Burundi

Violent repression of political opposition and retaliatory attacks by anti-government groups are threatening Burundi's fragile peace.
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An operation to disarm rebels from the now ruling CNDD-FDD in 2005. Photograph by UN Photo/Martine Perret.

Bujumbura, Burundi:

In August 2005, ending 12 years of civil war in which over 300,000 lost their lives, Pierre Nkurunziza was elected as Burundi’s president. Since then, President Nkurunziza and his National Council for the Defence of Democracy and Forces for the Defence of Democracy party (CNDD-FDD) have presided over relative peace in the country, though tensions have remained simmering below the surface.

However, incidents of political killings have increased since elections in 2010 and many fear a large-scale re-escalation of violence in the country.

Ruling party attacks

According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, whose release in Burundi the government attempted to block, scores have been killed in political attacks conducted by both the ruling party and opposition groups since 2010. The UN Security Council documented 61 killings in 2011, while local human rights organisation Association for the Defence of Human Rights and Prisoners' Rights (APRODH) believe there were 125 extra-judicial killings between just May and August of last year.

According to HRW, the violence, which peaked in mid-2011, largely takes the form of “tit-for-tat attacks” between the members of the ruling CNDD-FDD and the opposition National Liberation Forces (FNL) who target each other’s supporters.

Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch writes: “We saw the systematic targeting of former rebel combatants and members of the political opposition. Many of those who refused to succumb to pressure to join the CNDD-FDD have paid with their lives”.

Many families of victims also blame the government, pointing to security forces, intelligence services and the Imbonerakure, the CNDD-FDD’s youth wing.

Sophie Akimana, a widow from Bujumbura, described to Think Africa Press, how “my husband was arrested by the police in collaboration with Imbonerakure and put onto a bus. A few days later he was found castrated”.

Similarly, Bonaventure Niyoyankana, leader of the Union for National Progress party (UPRONA), says the Imbonerakure behave “like rabid dogs towards political opponents”.

Léonce Ngendakumana, former speaker of the Burundian Assembly and leader of the Democratic Alliance for Change (ADC-Ikibiri), a coalition of political opposition, claims that “all this killing and intimidation is sponsored by the CNDD-FDD government”. He also suggests that “more than 500 people have been killed” and that “the killings that we are facing in Burundi have a genocidal look, because they aim at a specific category of people”.

Retaliatory killings

Authorities routinely blame bandits for the rise in attacks, and police spokesperson Elie Bizindawi denies complicity in extra-judicial killings, instead insisting that police only target dangerous militant groups. “People that are sometimes killed are affiliated to armed groups,” says Bizindavyi.

Additionally, opposition groups have not only been victims but responsible for violence themselves. Inamahoro Claudine, a Burundian human rights activist, argues that “when young people of the ruling party participate in paramilitary activities and arrest members of political opposition under the supervision of the local administration, we should perhaps not be surprised at victims’ calls for revenge”.

Léonce Ngendakumana, leader of the Front for Democracy in Burundi party (FORDEBU), for example, says “we won’t let Imbonerakure kill us as if they were right” and vows that, if the president fails to stop the killings, “we [will be] organising our young people to refuse to be killed”. According to Ngendakumana, “the Imbonerakure participate in military training in public places. They replace the security forces throughout the country, arrest innocent people and kill them under total impunity”.

Official denial

In June, a commission was set up to investigate the recent violence but thus far, results have been disappointing. Valentin Bagorikunda, Burundi’s prosecutor-general, says “the inquiry found no case that meets the definition of extra-judicial killings”. He also warned human rights groups against making unfounded allegations.

According to Pacifique Nininahazwe, president of the Forum for the Reinforcement of Civil Society, one of Burundi’s main civil society groups, “this is a big deception”.

Burundian government spokesperson Philippe Nzobonariba also announced that “those who are claiming a dialogue may go to the Permanent Forum of Political Parties”, which purportedly aims to address deficiencies in Burundi’s democratic system, but many see the body as part of the ruling party.

Time for talks?

Amidst the rise in attacks, the government’s apparent reluctance to prosecute those responsible and the growing culture of impunity in Burundi, many fear renewed rebellion and return to civil war.

Burundi’s main opposition, the National Liberation Forces, became an official political party in 2009 after years as a Hutu rebel group, but following the post-election violence in 2010, some members of the FNL have taken up arms and launched attacks into Burundi from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A member of FNL anonymously claimed that many supporters of FNL leader Agathon Rwasa have joined their former battalions, something that has also been reported by local citizens.

If the FNL return to violence, Burundian democracy and security will be greatly threatened, and many in Burundi fear that unless President Nkurunziza engages with Rwasa, Burundi could slide back into full-scale war.

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