Ethnic and Political Violence Continue to Stain Burundi

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Burundi since the crisis began in 2015. Copyright: EU/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Two years into the crisis that has been tearing Burundi apart, the situation in the country remains grim.

Adama Dieng, the United Nations special adviser for the prevention of genocide, wrote a letter to the UN Security Council in March 2017 warning of the risk of “mass” violence. And in the same month, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein addressed global human rights issues, expressing particular worry over Burundi:

In Burundi, I am concerned that the democratic space has now been virtually extinguished. Grave human rights violations and abuses by security forces and the Imbonerakure militia continue to be reported, including increasing allegations of enforced disappearances, torture and mass arbitrary arrests [of opposition members]…Following the release of the report by the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi in September 2016, the Government of Burundi suspended its cooperation with my Office in Burundi pending ongoing review of our MOU.

The crisis began after President Pierre Nkurunziza made the controversial decision to seek a third term in office, “a move deemed illegal by the opposition as well as members of his own party,” explains Radio France Internationale:

Et elle a déjà fait des morts, de 500 (ONU) à quelque 2000 personnes tuées selon les ONG, des centaines de portés disparus et poussé quelque 400 000 personnes à l’exil.

There have been deadly consequences. Some 500 to 2,000 people have been killed, according to the UN and some NGOs, hundreds have been reported missing, and nearly 400,000 people have been exiled.

Nkurunziza’s re-election bid had a devastating impact on the trust between the administration and the population, immediately triggering several protests. The protesters claimed that a third term is a violation of the country's constitution which says no president can be elected more than twice.

Furthermore,  Nkurunziza also stated that he will do away with the 2005 Arusha accords, a peace agreement created to implement a power-sharing deal for political institutions and to integrate the various rebel groups into the state military, using an ethnic quota system to ensure more balanced representation. Those two issues provoked instant mass demonstrations, clashes with the polices, and the flight of large numbers of ethnic groups. The exodus was triggered by the permanent threat posed by Nkurunziza's youth wing, the Imbonerakure, who are implicated in political violence targeting opposition members.

According to the Radio France Internationale article, the government rejects these accounts despite the overwhelming amount of evidence, claiming they are part of a political agenda and an international plot to oust the current leadership.

However, a video that circulated on the internet in April 2017 features young members of the Imbonerakure singing slogans that encourage raping Tutsi women. The ruling party and the  Imbonerakure are ethnically composed in majority of Hutus. The other major ethnic group in the country is the Tutsis, whose tense relationship with the Hutus are at the origin of past conflicts in Rwanda and Congo.

On April 4, 2017, a blogger for the local news site Yaga, Spageon Ngabo, appealed for them to stop such behavior and focus on other challenges:

Quand l’Onu vous a taxés d’être une milice du parti au pouvoir, vous l’avez réfuté,  clamant haut et fort que vous êtes « des partisans de la démocratie, épris de paix, fortement attachés à la République et animés d’un esprit de tolérance,  victimes d’une campagne de diabolisation et de médisance »(nldr) . Sur ce, je voudrais de tout mon cœur croire que cette vidéo n’est que pur montage, car malgré tout, vous êtes mes frères et aux yeux du monde, l’image que vous donnez  affecte tous les jeunes du Burundi. Si je voulais vous prendre au mot, je vous demanderais pourquoi vous vous efforcez de donner raison à tous ces colons impérialistes qui nous traitent de sauvages.

Chers imbonerakure, le Burundi est un grand chantier, et les défis qui pourraient nous inspirer des chansons guerrières ne manquent pas: notre petit pays a une population estimée à 11,1 millions d’habitants dont 70% des jeunes pour  une superficie de 27 834 km². Nous avons un PIB par habitant de 315 $ avec un taux de croissance  de – 2,4 % en 2015 et un chômage qui va croissant. Nous sommes  parmi les pays les plus corrompus au monde, le deuxième pays le plus malheureux au monde d’après les Nations Unies, le troisième plus pauvre aussi en 2016.

When the UN accused you of being a militant wing of the ruling party, you denied it, claiming loudly that you were “peace-loving proponents of democracy with strong ties to the Republic and inspired by tolerance, victims of a campaign of demonization and slander.” I hope with all my heart that this video is purely for show because despite everything, you are still my brothers and in the eyes of the world, the image you project affects every young person in Burundi. If I were to take you at your word, I would ask you why you insist on providing ammunition to the imperialist colonists that call us savages.

My dear Imbonerakure friends, Burundi is a grand work in progress with no shortage of challenges worthy of battle cries. Our small country measures 27,830 sq km and has an estimated population of 11.1 million people, approximately 66% of whom are under 25 years of age. We have a GDP of $800 per person with a real growth rate of -4.9% in 2015 along with unemployment that is sure to grow. We are one of the most corrupt countries in the world and, according to the UN, the second unhappiest nation on the planet. In 2016, the IMF named Burundi the third poorest country in the world.

On their French-language website, the ruling party CNDD-FDD declared that such actions ran counter to their ideals.

Documented human rights violations

Various organizations have been sounding the alarm on the situation in Burundi. In its World Report 2017, Human Rights Watch called attention to the ethnically motivated exactions made by the Imbonerakure throughout 2016:

Des membres des Imbonerakure et des policiers, parfois armés de fusils, de bâtons ou de couteaux, ont violé des femmes dont des parents de sexe masculin étaient considérés comme des opposants au gouvernement. Dans certains cas, les Imbonerakure ont menacé ou agressé le parent de sexe masculin avant de violer la femme. Ces femmes ont souvent continué de subir des menaces suite au viol.

Des Imbonerakure et des policiers ont violé des femmes qui tentaient de passer en Tanzanie, apparemment pour les dissuader de quitter le Burundi.

Des Imbonerakure ont mis en place des barrages routiers et des postes de contrôle dans certaines provinces. Ils ont extorqué de l’argent aux passants et les ont harcelés, et, alors qu’ils ne disposent d’aucune autorité en la matière, ont arrêté des personnes qu’ils soupçonnaient d’être liées à l’opposition. Ils ont également fait du porte à porte pour extorquer de l’argent aux habitants.

Members of the Imbonerakure and police, sometimes armed with guns, sticks or knives, raped women whose male family members were perceived government opponents. In some cases, Imbonerakure threatened or attacked the male relative before raping the woman. Women often continued to receive threats after being raped.

Imbonerakure and police raped women who attempted to cross into Tanzania, apparently to deter them from leaving Burundi.

Imbonerakure set up roadblocks and check points in some provinces. They extorted money, harassed passersby, and, despite having no powers of arrest, arrested people they suspected of having links to the opposition. They also went door to door, extorting money from residents.

Upon returning from a joint mission, the Worldwide Human Rights Movement (FIDH) and its Burundi counterpart announced that they had witnessed crimes that may fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC):

De retour d’une mission d’enquête menée au mois de mars 2016 au Burundi, la FIDH et ITEKA, son organisation membre au Burundi, avaient indiqué le 14 avril que “la nature des crimes constatés par la mission de la FIDH relèvent de la compétence de la Cour pénale internationale” et appelé la Procureure à « décider [de] l’ouverture à tout le moins d’un examen préliminaire sur la situation au Burundi qui est un État partie au statut de la CPI ».Nos organisations se félicitent d’une telle décision et espèrent que, au regard de la gravité des crimes commis et de l’absence de justice au niveau national, la CPI ouvrira rapidement une enquête sur les très graves crimes commis au Burundi.

Upon their return from a fact-finding mission to Burundi in March 2016, FIDH and its Burundi member organisation ITEKA reported on 14 April that “the nature of the crimes witnessed by the FIDH delegation could very well fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court” and called upon the Chief Prosecutor to “immediately open a preliminary examination of the situation in Burundi, which is state party to the ICC”. Our organisations appreciate this decision and hope that, considering the seriousness of the crimes committed and the absence of a national judiciary, the ICC will, without delay, open an investigation into the very grave crimes committed in Burundi.

ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced on April 25, 2016 that the ICC will conduct a preliminary examination of the events in Burundi since 2015. In an article on the French-language website,, Gabin Eyenga explained the process.

Un examen préliminaire est un processus par lequel les renseignements disponibles sur une situation sont examinés afin de déterminer en toute connaissance de cause s’il existe une base raisonnable pour ouvrir une enquête au regard des critères posés pas le Statut de Rome. Cet examen « ne constitue en aucun cas une enquête, » Il la précède et la conditionne plutôt. Cette décision du Procureur de la Cour pénale internationale fait suite à la situation humanitaire au Burundi qualifiée de « très préoccupante en matière de droit humain » par le Sous secrétaire général des Nations Unies au Droit de l’homme, M. Ivan Simonovic.

… A l’issue de l’examen préliminaire de la situation au Burundi le Procureur rédigera des conclusions ou un rapport dans lequel on trouvera une première qualification juridique des crimes allégués relevant de la compétence de la Cour. Cet examen se fera sur la base des faits et des renseignements fournis à son Bureau. Il pourra également, conformément aux dispositions de l’article 15 paragraphe 2 du Statut de Rome,

A preliminary examination is a process in which all available information regarding a situation is examined in order to determine, in full knowledge of all evidence, if there is a reasonable basis for initiating an investigation according to the criteria set forth by the Rome Statute. This examination does not constitute in any way an investigation, but rather precedes and sets conditions for an investigation. The ICC Prosecutor has made this decision following the qualification of Burundi's humanitarian situation by the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic, as “worrisome.”

Once the preliminary examination of the Burundi situation is finished, the ICC prosecutor will draft her conclusions or a report on the legal classification of the alleged crimes that fall within the court's jurisdiction. The examination will be based on information provided to the ICC.

However, in October 2016 Burundi left the ICC. Jean Marie Ntahimpera expressed his disappointment in an article published by Yaga:

Je suis de ceux qui pensent que quitter la CPI est une mauvaise décision, qui ne fait que consacrer l’impunité des criminels puissants que les juridictions locales n’osent pas juger.

Mais ce que je regrette le plus, c’est que cette décision est taillée sur mesure. Le pouvoir de Bujumbura se dit : “Il faut tout faire pour nous protéger”.  En effet, il est dans une situation difficile. Contesté à l’intérieur, accusé de violations massives des droits de l’homme, acculé par les sanctions internationales, il est en mal de légitimité. Si la CPI se met à faire des enquêtes ou à lancer des mandats d’arrêt, ce sera un signe de culpabilité, même si, en théorie, la présomption d’innocence doit primer.  Laisser la CPI enquêter affaiblira encore plus la légitimité du gouvernement.

Mais nos dirigeants oublient l’essentiel : l’avenir. Une maxime très populaire dit qu’un homme politique pense à la prochaine élection, alors qu’un leader pense à la prochaine génération. Pour moi, si le pouvoir de Bujumbura pensait à la prochaine génération, il ne quitterait pas la CPI. Il est possible que dans 5 ou 10 ans ceux qui sont au pouvoir n’y soient plus, qu’ils soient remplacés par un autre pouvoir, beaucoup plus arbitraire peut-être (ce n’est pas mon vœu). A ce moment-là, ceux qui décident aujourd’hui de quitter la CPI, leurs enfants, seront peut-être les premiers à crier pour que cette cour vienne les protéger. Mais ce sera trop tard.

I am among those who think leaving the ICC is a bad decision, one that only reinforces the impunity of powerful criminals that local jurisdictions are afraid to pursue.

But, what I dislike even more is that this decision is situation-specific. The government in Bujumbura is thinking, “We must do everything to protect ourselves.” In short, they are in a difficult situation. Challenged from within, accused of massive human rights violations, burdened with international sanctions, the legitimacy of Burundi's leadership is in doubt. If the ICC launches an investigation or issues arrest warrants, the Burundi government will look guilty, even if, theoretically, the presumption of innocence should prevail. Allowing the ICC to investigate will further weaken the legitimacy of the government.

Our leaders are not thinking about the future. A popular expression says that while a politician thinks about the next election, a leader thinks about the next generation. In my opinion, if the Burundi government was thinking about the next generation, it would not leave the ICC. In five or 10 years, those in power now may be gone, replaced by others, perhaps much more autocratic (something I don't wish to see). Those who have decided to leave the ICC today may, one day, see their grandchildren calling for this court's protection. But, it will be too late.

Despite these tragic events, President Nkurunziza claimed, in a December 2016 public conference, that he could not refuse to seek another term if his people demanded it of him.

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