Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza has defied internal and external pressure to hold talks with the opposition and end a one-year political crisis which started when he extended his term despite a constitutional two-term limit.
Security forces have been able to subdue rebel groups, which fought security services in the capital few months ago albeit at a high human cost and serious human violations. Some rebels are laying low in the countryside awaiting the next round of fighting while others have retreated to the bush, at the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, from where they make incursions in the country.
They include Red-tabara, Burundi Republican Forces, Forebu, and FNL-Nzabampema. The Burundi government has sought assistance from the DRC army to flush out FNL fighters from Rukoko forest, on the Burundian side of the common border and parts of eastern DRC.
Rejection of talks, deployment of observers
Buoyed by the military upper hand, the Burundi government has rejected all calls for talks with the opposition in order to normalize the situation in the country. It says it cannot hold talks with people who tried to overthrow Nkurunziza’s government last year and that peace prevails on every inch of the national territory.
President Nkurunziza’s government has not yielded much on the issue of deployment of foreign human rights observers in the country. It has flatly rejected the deployment of UN policemen in the country and made sure the few AU rights observers already in the country not only do not do their job but also remain in insufficient numbers to be able to carry out their duties.
The government, the ruling party, the National Assembly and the Senate rejected the July 2016 UN Resolution 2303 on the deployment of 228 policemen to Burundi “to monitor the security situation and to support Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).” In a statement, the then president of the ruling National Council for Defence of Democracy-Forces for Defence of Democracy, and current Speaker of the National Assembly, Pascal Nyabenda, said: “As the representative of the Burundian people, the Burundian National Assembly joins the government of Burundi in rejecting any provision of the 2303 resolution with regard to the sending of any force to Burundi.” The Senate backed the lower house’s position saying that the UN had failed to take into account the improved security situation.
Despite the Burundian government equating the absence of war with the prevalence of peace in the country, the UN Committee Against Torture, in its August report, concluded that the rights situation had considerably deteriorated since the beginning of the crisis related to the third term of President Nkurunziza. The report spoke of extrajudicial killings, torture, forced disappearance of political opponents, sexual violence by security forces and ruling party youth also known as Imbonerakure.
Burundian analysts say the government is concerned by what foreign observers would unearth if they were allowed in. There have been reports of more than ten mass graves already identified, the existence of unregistered torture houses managed by government security agencies, the disappearance of hundreds of people who were arrested by state security organs but whose bodies have ended up in rivers and forests.
Uproar over genocide denial
Francois Delattre, France representative to the UN Security Council, hailed the adoption of resolution 2303 saying that lessons should be drawn from the Rwandan 1994 genocide. However, in a statement issued on behalf of his party, Nyabenda denied there had ever been genocide in neighbouring Rwanda and alleged that the genocide was meant to usurp power from the majority Rwandan Hutu population, which they wanted to repeat in Burundi.
Nyabenda’s speech caused outrage in Burundi, in the region, especially in Rwanda, and beyond the African continent. In a statement, the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, said Nyabenda’s statement “could be interpreted as genocide denial” and could inflame ethnic tension in Burundi and the region. There are Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, Burundi, eastern DRC, Tanzania and Uganda.
Experts say the international law puts at par a genocide perpetrator with a genocide denier and Nyabenda could be arrested if he travelled outside Burundi. After realizing the seriousness of the statement, Nyabenda, issued a personal statement in which he clarified that the genocide denial was a position of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, not his. He has since lost his position as party leader, for another reason, but is still the Speaker of the National Assembly, which makes him the country’s number two. Through his spokesman, Nyabenda said he had “signed on behalf of the CNDD-FDD party and has never, explicitly or implicitly denied the Rwandan genocide which took the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent victims.” Tutsis fear that denying the Rwandan genocide is tantamount to denying the crimes which are taking place today and that could open the door for genocide in Burundi.
Human rights violations continue unabated
Despite the government stating every time it has an opportunity that there is total peace in the country, there has been no let up in violation of human rights. Women are still being raped by security forces and youths of the ruling CNDD-FDD, People are still disappearing, security forces are still rounding up hundreds of people every week from their homes on mere suspicion that they demonstrated against the government, corpses are still being seen floating in rivers and fresh mass graves discovered by the population.
According to the local rights organisation, Iteka, in August 2016 alone, 541 people were arrested arbitrarily, 52 killed, more than 28 were tortured and inhumanly treated. There were also more than 28 cases of enforced disappearances while more than 31 people were injured in various attacks.
The government is also cleansing the army of Tutsi soldiers, in violation of the Arusha Agreement which set up ethnic proportions within security forces They are being arrested, kidnapped and killed, forcing some to join the rebels. Some Tutsi soldiers serving in UN or AU peacekeeping operations have sought asylum in foreign countries instead of returning home. At the same time, the crackdown on the media continues unabated. In August, security forces arrested a journalist of a leading newspaper, iwacu, in Muramvya Province. No one has seen him again to date. Two corpses were seen floating in Maragarazi River but the government refused to allow autopsy on the bodies and rejected that materials from them be tested for DNA. Most journalists are now in exile.
Crumbling economy, pessimistic mediator
However, although Nkurunziza’s government seem insensitive to political pressure, the withholding of assistance by donors may deprive his large security machinery and the hundreds of thousands of militiamen disguised as party youth of oxygen. In August, the government had to deploy policemen to guard every forex bureau in the capital following the plunging of the Burundian franc from 1700 francs to the dollar to almost 3000 francs to the dollar. It accused them of sabotage by pushing down the local currency. With scarce foreign currency, the Central Bank allows only the import of essential commodities such as petrol for the capital, medicines and fertilisers. Pumps are dry at up-country petrol stations and some parts of the capital. The Belgian minister for development cooperation, Alaxander De Croo, rejected the call by the Burundian minister of foreign affairs, Alain-Aime Nyamitwe, to resume financial assistance that was suspended in October 2015. He said that the Burundian government did not allow the deployment of 228 policemen decided by the UN Security Council and had also refused to hold talks with the opposition.
“In Burundi, there is no more freedom of expression, association or gathering”, De croo added, concluding that “in these circumstances we see no reason to reconsider our decision”. Belgium is the first aid donor to Burundi.
The report of the mediator in the Burundian crisis, former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, to the East African Community Heads of State in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam, portrayed Burundi’s future as gloomy. After thanking the EAC heads of state for appointing him to “attempt to facilitate the inter-Burundi Dialogue”, Mkapa said he had used the word “attempt” because of ”what I have gathered as to be the root cause of the crisis and the difficulties that I have encountered.”
Several Burundian analysts concluded that the mediator had accepted defeat even before starting his job. In May this year, the Burundian government pulled out of talks only after the inaugural day, after objecting to the presence of some opposition members. (K.L.)