Less than four months before the start of a new electoral cycle, rebel activity has resumed in the North of the country and in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. A UN spokesperson urges to “avoid the worst”.
In early January, clashes between the Burundian Defence Force and rebels infiltrated from the DRC took place in the Kibira forest, at 50 km North-East of Bujumbura. During the fightings which lasted five days, 105 rebels were killed and four others were captured in a group of 121 men, said Burundi military sources on the last 4 January. Only two Burundian soldiers died in the fightings. Accordingly, the rebels were well equipped with five rocket launchers, a 60 mm mortar, machine guns and over 100 rifles.
Opposition parties and civil society organisations however were critical about the conditions of the rebels’ deaths. These sources claim that harmless rebels which had been previously arrested and disarmed were executed, either with machetes or with bullets by “imbonerakure” militias of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) party. But such accusations of “a massacre” were denied by a Burundian army general.
Since the beginning of 2014, other attacks from the DRC took place in this area. A dissident group of the former military wing of the Parti for the liberation of the Hutu people (Palipehutu), the Forces of National Liberation (FNL) led by Aloys Nzabampema claimed responsibility for them. But curiously, this time, Nzabampema’s wing denied any involvement in the fightings, which sparked many speculations about other possible perpetrators. Sources close to President Nkurunziza pointed the finger at supporters of the journalist and opposition politician Alexis Sinduhije. But no evidence of the involvement of his party, the Movement for Solidarity and Development (MSD) has been provided so far. Officially, both the army and the police were still investigating by mid-January to determine which group organised the rebel incursion inside Burundian territory.
Whoever they are, the Burundian rebels are at any rate in a delicate position. Indeed, on the last 5 January, helicopters of the UN Mission for the Stabilisation of Congo (MONUSCO) attacked the positions of the FNL inside DRC on the heights of Uvira, near Lake Tanganyika and a few hours later, the Congolese army took control of their bases.
All these incidents are part of a more general context of rising violence ahead of the elections which will take place on the 26 May (local elections), on the 26 June (first round of the presidential election and parliament elections), on the 17 July (elections of senators) and on the 27 July (second round of the presidential election).
Even if undeniably, rebel forces have suffered significant setbacks over the last weeks, the lack of real chances for the opposition to win the contest, could fuel more violence. And the chances are dwindling as a result of the divide and rule tactics of the government which has managed to organize splits within the main opposition parties. One occurred in January 2013 within the FNL whose historical leader, Agathon Rwasa was ousted from the party during a congress organised with the government’s support. The authorities also backed a split within the main Tutsi-led party, the Union for National Progress (UPRONA) whose chairman, Charles Ntidije was replaced by Prosper Bazombaza in March 2014. Curiously enough, the latter was supported by the youth organization of President Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD party.
In fact, all potential rivals of President Pierre Nkurunziza have been removed from the presidential race. While Rwasa and Nditije have been marginalised within their own parties,
the President of the mainly Hutu Burundian Front for Democracy (Frodebu), Léonce Ngendakumana who exposed the behaviour of the imbonerakure militias in training camps in the DRC and acts of intimidation against the opposition, was sentenced on the 1st October 2014 to one year prison for incitement to hatred because he had accused the Imbonerakure to behave like the Interahamwe in Rwanda prior to the 1994 genocide.
In this context, even if the FNL or any other rebel group do not appear as being able to overthrow or even seriously threaten the power, the climate is nevertheless quite volatile. Frustrations caused by the lack of perspectives of democratic alternatives, could lead to desperate behaviours. President Nkurunziza’s will to remain in power may fuel these tensions. Current repression including the elimination of rebels seems to be an indication that he wants to run for a third mandate, although a draft amendment of the constitution to remove Article 96 which prohibits the exercise of three successive mandates was rejected in March 2014 by the Parliament. The public opinion is increasingly convinced that fraud will be organized on a large scale to rig the election. On the last 7 December, in a radio broadcast, the chairman of the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference, Mgr Gervais Banshimiyubusa warned against irregularities such as the distribution of false identity cards by CNDD-FDD militants.
The training of the imbonerakure militias in Congo camps and in Burundi’s Southern provinces of Makamba and Bururi, revealed to the UN Security Council may not bode well for the future. In early November, the UN special adviser of the UN Secretary General for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng made a call for dialogue and to guarantee public liberties in Burundi to “avoid the worst” in 2015. At the same time, Dieng made clear that the ruling party is not the only one to be responsible for this situation, even if the authorities do have the main responsibility to protect the population.
Indeed, CNDD-FDD militias do not retain a monopoly on illegitimate violence. In early January, the Belgian news agency Belga reported that three militants from the President’s party were shot dead in a bar, somewhere in Eastern Burundi, by individuals wearing military fatigues. Within this context, Vital Nshimirimana, from the Forum for the Strengthening of Civil Society expresses concern in front of the UN’s “hesitation, inaction and neglect” to act to avert the situation to deteriorate further. The Civil Society representative also expressed concern that neither the UN or the Bujumbura government haven’t done anything so far to dismantle the imbonerakure militias.