On 17 May 2018, the Burundian government organized a referendum to change its 2005 constitution. The new constitution that followed effectively allows incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza to seek two more terms in office – of seven years each. But in a surprise twist a month later, President Nkurunziza declared that he would not seek re-election at the next polls in 2020.
After the president announced on 25 April 2015 his decision to seek a third term, Burundians took to the streets by the thousands to protest against the move which many saw as contravening Burundi’s constitution and the Arusha Accords which helped end the long civil war in the country. The Burundian authorities responded with excessive force against the protesters – including using firearms.
Jean Népomuscène Komezamahoro, aged 16, was one of those shot. Jean Népo, as he was called by his friends, was killed by the Burundian security forces the next day, 26 April 2015. In 2007, he joined the Saint-Exupéry scout group in Cibitoke, a northern neighbourhood of the capital Bujumbura. In 2014, he took the scouts’ oath to live up to the ideals of the Scout Law – to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous and kind. Soon after he became the head of Aigle Rapid patrol (Eagle Scouts).
In a poignant testimony in June 2015, a witness to the shooting of Jean Népo by the police told Amnesty International that Jean Népo had not participated in the protests. The witness said Jean Népo was running away from the police when he turned back, stumbled on some stones and fell. He took his last breath on his knees on Buconyori Avenue in Ngagara neighbourhood, begging for his life, telling the police officer that he was not a demonstrator, before he was shot in the head.
During the 2015 election period, Jean Népo was nominated by his fellow boy scouts to become a peer educator in a project called Youth Education for the Culture of Peace, Tolerance and Conflict Resolution during the electoral period. According to a fellow boy scout who knew him, Jean Népo’s peers remember him as a problem solver. To his peers, Jean Népo was a brave, helpful and cheerful young man.
To his family, Jean Népo, was a treasure. The fourth child in a family of six, he wanted to become a priest or join the army like his elder brother, whom he looked up to and respected very much. These dreams were cut short on that fateful day of 26 April 2015.
If Jean Népo were still alive, he would be able to vote in 2020 and help shape the future of his country. He was robbed of this option, as were dozens of other children and adults killed during the 2015 election crisis.
Whether or not President Nkurunziza will keep his promise not to stand for re-election in 2020, his legacy has been tainted by this brutal repression of his real and perceived critics since 2015. He will be remembered as the president whose security forces not only failed to protect the population, but also turned their guns on them, taking young lives such as Jean Népo’s. His legacy will be of a broken justice system.
A report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi published in September 2018 found that serious human rights violations continue to be committed in Burundi. The 272-page report describes lack of accountability and lack of political will from the Burundian authorities to seriously address human rights violations.
As has become a ritual now, the Government of Burundi denies the allegations. But it is hard for the Burundian authorities to deny the killing of Jean Népo. When Amnesty International presented this case, among others, to President Nkurunziza’s then Communication Adviser and now Senior Adviser Willy Nyamitwe, he said that “children were given drugs to be on the street…”
There is still time to do the right thing. There is still time to ensure truth and justice for Jean Népo and many others who were killed or forcibly disappeared and for their families and loved ones. There is also still time to ensure truth and justice to those who were unlawfully detained and tortured for expressing different views from the ruling party in Burundi. With two years left to the 2020 elections, President Nkurunziza and his government must show that they have the best interests of Burundian people at heart and comply with their human rights obligations. The Burundian authorities must investigate and bring to justice the police responsible for shooting and killing Jean Népo, in cold blood, and all those suspected of responsibility for other human rights violations committed across the country.
For Jean Népo, and all others, we will continue to demand justice and accountability.
*Abacu Campaign: Amnesty International launched the Abacu (Our People) campaign in 2015 to celebrate and honour the memories of victims of violence in Burundi, and to demand accountability for crimes committed against them.