Burundi crisis: The legacy of 2015 brings fear for 2020

For the past four years, April brings sorrow for many Burundians. Since April 2015, real and perceived critics and opponents of President Pierre Nkurunziza have been targeted in a brutal and systematic repression by the Burundian authorities. The decision by the ruling party, National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) on 25 April 2015 to present Pierre Nkurunziza as their candidate for the presidential elections was met with fierce opposition. Burundians from across the ethnic spectrum took part in mass protests against the move, which they saw as a violation of the constitution and the Arusha Accords that ended a decade of civil war in Burundi. Now four years on, and little more than a year to the next presidential election, this crisis is still inflicting suffering on many.

Detaining children and crippling the opposition

In March of this year, the arrest of six schoolgirls and one boy (who was released the same day) accused of doodling on President Nkurunziza’s picture in school books made global headlines. An online campaign and media attention led to their release, but the girls still could face up to five years in prison for “insulting the Head of State” as the charges against them were not dropped. In similar cases in 2016, dozens of school children were detained for defacing the President’s pictures in the textbook. Through these cases, the government is sending a clear message to its future generation that it does not and will not tolerate dissent of any form.

This crisis has had a major impact on the capacity of opposition parties to organize. When an opposition leader, Zedi Feruzi, was targeted and killed in 2015, many opponents fled the country. Members of the CNDD-FDD who opposed a third term in office for President Nkurunziza were forced into exile. The few opposition actors that remained in Burundi can barely hold meetings. Former rebel leader, currently First Vice President of the National Assembly, Agathon Rwasa, officially launched his new party National Congress for Liberty on 10 March. Earlier this month, the party’s authorities claimed that 130 of their members had been arrested and tortured by Burundian authorities since the official launch.

Unprecedented attacks on the civil society

The announcement by President Nkurunziza in June 2018 that he would not seek another term was a missed opportunity for the authorities to reopen civic space and defuse tensions ahead of the electoral process next year. Instead, the continued harassment, intimidation and deadly attacks on the opposition send a clear sign that the Burundian government is not ready to work toward an inclusive electoral process in 2020. 

After the unprecedented attacks against Burundian civil society organizations that played a critical role in the opposition to President Nkurunziza standing for a  third term, the government has turned its focus on international non-governmental organizations. The controversial  legislation of January 2017 that requires all INGOs to apply ethnic quotas in their hiring of national staff has been used to stop operations of at least three international organizations that had operated for decades in Burundi. The 60:40 ratio of ethnic quota requirement was a result of the Arusha Accords to ensure proportionate representation of the two main ethnic groups (Hutu majority and Tutsi minority) in State institutions. This constitutional provision was informed by the fact that successive former governments and the security forces had been Tutsi dominated. This is the first and only example of the quota being applied in the private sector.

Muzzled media and crackdown on opponents

Media and journalists continue to operate in precarious situations. The BBC and VOA are unable to broadcast in Burundi. In March, the VOA’s suspension was extended, and the BBC had its operating licence withdrawn altogether. The National Council of Communications also banned all Burundian and foreign journalists from providing information to both news outlet. After the attempted coup d’état on 13 May 2015, journalists and Burundian media houses were particularly targeted. They were accused of having worked with the coup plotters and supported demonstrations by relaying information about these events. Since then, scores of journalists have fled Burundi. At least three local media houses were attacked and destroyed by individuals believed to be members of the Burundian security forces. Some brave journalists are still reporting from Burundi, but the stakes are high. Jean Bigirimana, one such courageous journalist from Iwacu newspapers, has been missing since 22 July 2016.

For many victims of violence since April 2015, the continued crackdown on critics and opponents ahead of 2020 elections takes further away any hope for justice and accountability. Now should be the time for President Nkurunziza to do some soul searching on what his legacy ought to be, but no one is under any illusion that there will be meaningful change before his time in office comes to an end. Regardless, for those affected by the brutal repression since April 2015, we will never give up the search for justice and human rights. We will keep our candle lit through the Abacu [Our People] Campaign* to ensure that names, stories and aspirations of those who continue to suffer from this crisis are never forgotten. 

Abacu Campaign: In 2015, Amnesty International launched the Abacu (Our People) campaign to remember and honour victims of human rights violations in Burundi

This blog was first published in La Libre Afrique on 30 April 2019.