Burundi: Pierre Claver Mbonimpa has recovered but questions remain on who wanted him dead

You need to be in good shape to keep up with Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. He walks fast and navigates the streets of Brussels like he has lived there all his life. Not long ago, Mutama (the Elder, the Wise one), as many refer to him, had a halo-vest strapped around his head to support his neck and spine and neck as he recovered from injuries suffered during an attempt on his life on 3 August 2015 in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura.

Pierre Claver tells Amnesty International that on that fateful morning, he had received many phone calls asking him where he was and whether he was alive, to all of which he had replied that he was safe and sound. That afternoon, he went for a meeting with a delegation of observers from African Union who were investigating allegations of distribution of arms to members of the general public. Pierre Claver had hesitantly agreed to the meeting with the AU delegation. As he left his office en route to the meeting, he remembers seeing a suspicious motorcycle carrying two individuals parked outside.

The attack

It was at 5.30pm that he later left his office to return to his home in Carama, a suburb about 14km north of Bujumbura unaware of what horror awaited him. The attackers struck with 2 km left for him to get to his home. He told Amnesty he remembers asking his driver, “Isn’t that the motorcycle from earlier on at the office?”

He recognized one of the men on the motorcycle as a National Intelligence Service (SNR) informant from Kinama, a neighbourhood in the north of Bujumbura, before losing consciousness. He had been shot four times. One bullet struck his neck and cut his vocal cords. 

He underwent multiple surgeries, first in Burundi, then in Belgium with surgeons operating on his mouth, nose, and the fourth and fifth vertebrae of his spinal cord. For four months, he wore a halo-vest, a 3.5kg metallic brace, to immobilize and protect his neck and spine. During these days he could not eat, drink or sleep properly. It took him one and half years to complete his treatment, but his doctors say he will never fully recover his voice.

On 6 November 2015, while still admitted in hospital, Pierre Claver learnt the shocking news that his son, Welly-Fleury Nzitonda, had died in police custody following his arrest in Bujumbura. This only a month another of his relatives, his son-in-law Pascal Nshimirimana, had been shot dead outside his home in Bujumbura.

Protests against the third term

In the lead-up to the May 2015 elections, many Burundians had raised concerns against President Pierre Nkuruziza’s plan to seek a third term. According to the now defunct 2005 Constitution and the Arusha Accords which ended a decade-long civil war in Burundi, it was prohibited for anyone to be president for more than two five-year terms. On 25 April 2015, the ruling CNDD-FDD and nominated Pierre Nkurunziza as its candidate.

Civil society organizations mobilized against this decision with thousands of protesters taking to the streets. Pierre Claver Mbonimpa was at the centre of these unprecedented protests, and the authorities did not like his bold and firm stand. Two days after Nkurunziza’s candidature was announced, Pierre Claver was arrested at the Maison de la Presse in Bujumbura, and detained at the SNR’s headquarters before being released the following day.

A chilling message to critics of the government

The attempt on Pierre Claver’s life, one day after the assassination of Gen. Adolphe Nshimirimana, a close ally of President Nkurunziza and a former head of the SNR, was seen by many as an act of revenge against those opposed or perceived to be opposed to the government.

The attempt to silence Pierre Claver was an attack against civil society. It sent a chilling message to critics that they had a choice: Stop reporting on human rights violations and abuses in Burundi, or risk death.

The Burundian government condemned the attack against Pierre Claver and an investigation file was opened at the Prosecutor’s office. Today, both the alleged shooter and the driver of the motorcycle are missing or presumed dead. It is believed that the suspected shooter was killed during a targeted attack in a bar in Bujumbura. According to Pierre Claver, the driver fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and his fate and whereabouts remain unknown. Since then, there has been radio silence from the Burundian authorities on the investigations into the attack on Pierre Claver and what happened to those who tried to end his life.

Despite the vicious attacks on Pierre Claver and his close family, he is still standing. He has not given up his fight for a better future for his fellow Burundians. From Brussels, he continues to lead APRODH, the NGO he founded, which is now banned in Burundi.

Many have given up hope that the current government can provide accountability for grave human rights violations and abuses. Yet the cost of remaining silent is continued impunity and lack of justice for the people of Burundi, as well as continuation of the ongoing cycle of violence in the country.

The justice system in Burundi is broken and needs mending now.  

Join Amnesty International in calling on the Burundian authorities to address the culture of impunity. *Abacu Campaign: In 2015, Amnesty International launched the Abacu (Our People) campaign to remember and honour victims of human rights violations in Burundi