4 ways in which the Burundi crisis is far from over

The government is calling on its 380,000 refugees to return home, claiming the country is safe. Why does no-one believe them?

Protests against President Nkurunziza’s third term in April 2015. Credit: Igor Rugwiza.

Since the start of 2017, the Burundian government has amplified its calls for refugees to return home. After nearly two years of crisis in which over 1,400 peopled are estimated to have been killed, the government insists the nation is now safe.

However, Bujumbura’s appeals have convinced few of the 380,000 people who have fled to neighbouring countries. On 15 February, when Interior Minister Pascal Barandagiye visited Nakivale camp in Uganda, for instance, many protested against his presence and message, insisting that they cannot return as long as President Pierre Nkurunziza is still in power and the violence continues.

“Many soldiers are dying now. They’re cutting their necks. They are torturing them. They are just killing. How can we trust there is peace when we see the deaths?” asked one young man, speaking to a Ugandan channel.

Shortly after the minister’s visit, news emerged that Uganda was readying to send refugees back to Burundi. But this position was later clarified, with the office of the Prime Minister reassuring that no Burundian was to be expelled or forcefully repatriated.

For the 34,000 Burundians in Uganda, this came as a relief. But why are Burundi’s hundreds of thousands of refugees so reluctant to return home?

1) The violence is still going on

As Burundi’s refugees have said on several occasions, the insecurity that led them to flee in the first place persists. News and images of civilians and soldiers being harassed, intimidated, tortured and even murdered continues to spread amongst exiles, largely through social networks.

Refugees fear that, if they return, they could also become victims of the repression that has targeted real or imagined opponents of the government, including officers who defected from the Forces Armées du Burundi, dubbed the ex-FAB.

Although the government has shut down independent radio stations and clamped down on the media, new forms of reporting and networks of sharing information have emerged. And through these, ongoing reports of abuse make clear that the violence continues.

On 9 February, for instance, police and ruling party youth – known as the Imbonerakure – arrested, in some cases violently, at least 30 people in the city of Makamba on the grounds that they did not have IDs. A day later, a local leader of the Frodebu-Nyakuri party in Kirundo province was detained and beaten by a group of Imbonerakure. Such reports are virtually a daily occurrence.

Moreover, the human rights situation has particularly deteriorated in the past month following an attack on the Mukoni military camp by unidentified armed men on 24 January. Since then, there has been an intensification of executions, torture and detention, mainly against ex-FAB. During reprisal operations following the assault, at least one former soldier was killed by the security forces and 15-25 arrested. And according to Ligue Iteka, a recently-banned local human rights organisation, twenty people were sentenced to up to 30 years imprisonment in an expeditious trial held on 26 January.

2) Little progress has been made in talks

The visit of Burundi’s Minister of Interior to Uganda last week coincided with a new session of dialogue mediated by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa.

This round of the Inter-Burundi talks was initially hopeful as it promised the participation of the main protagonists in the ongoing crisis and was meant to address, for the first time, “substantive issues”. But the talks were boycotted by the Burundian government, which argued that it cannot sit down with individuals under prosecution.

To show its hostility, organisations backing Nkurunziza called for demonstrations against the Arusha talks on Saturday. Protests took place in the capital and in some provinces, claiming the dialogue is illegitimate because of the participation of “enemies of democracy”.

In 2000, the signing of the Arusha Accords and ensuing ceasefire between the government and rebels created an environment in which more than 500,000 refugees felt safe to return. Until a similar political compromise is found today, few will consider taking that same journey home.

3) Nkurunziza is still at it

Burundi’s crisis began in April 2015 when President Nkurunziza declared his intention to run for a third term in office. Many believed this contravened the constitutional two-term limit but, amidst alleged heavy intimidation, the constitutional court deemed his bid legal based on the fact that Nkurunziza wasn’t elected by a popular vote for his first term.

Now, however, the government has reportedly begun work on a reform process that could lead to the abolition of presidential term limits altogether. According to the first Burundian vice-president, Gaston Sindimwo, the Council of Ministers on 15 February set up a commission to propose a draft amendment to the Constitution. If the reform is adopted, it would open the way for an unlimited reign for Nkurunziza and the ruling CNDD-FDD.

This would not only violate the spirit and letter of the 2000 Arusha Accords, but it would likely keep the hundreds of thousands of Burundians that have fled during the crisis to stay in exile. This possibility has raised concerns amongst regional facilitators who have vocally insisted that the current moment and context are not favourable for a constitutional amendment.

4) A humanitarian crisis back home

According to the UN Population Fund, three million Burundians – over a quarter of the population – are currently in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, including access to safe drinking water, food and health services.

This crisis is partly due to prolonged drought and torrential rains, which have destroyed crop yields, but it has been exacerbated by the deterioration of the social and economic conditions as well as sanctions imposed by donors and a reduction of the state budget.

For refugees in neighbouring countries, the prospect of returning and inflating the size of a population already struggling to survive is not an appealing one. Additionally, news of ongoing displacements due to hunger as well as instability reinforces their conviction that Burundi is not yet a safe country to which to return – despite what the government may insist publicly.

This article was jointly authored by a local network of peacebuilders operating in Burundi. They have asked to remain anonymous due to fears for their safety.

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5 thoughts on “4 ways in which the Burundi crisis is far from over

  1. False reporting by the hidden politicians under Human Rights organizations. Burundi is peaceful now. Refugees should go home

  2. After reading the article again, here are some of my comments.
    Liars, liars, pants are on fire! Used to sing kids in my neighborhood. No one has ever reported 1,400 deaths except those liars under cover of unanimous peace builders in Burundi. This is the double of the number which used to be cited by other war mongers to make the case. Even the 700 deaths already reported before by the other reporters against Burundi were not right. Burundians do not count the dead, because even one dead unnecessarily is too much.
    When Interior Minister Pascal Barandagiye visited Nakivale camp in Uganda, there was no protest nor demonstration against his presence. The message saying that they will return soon was voiced by some who are fed up with continuous disinformation in the refugee camps. Two main opposition leaders Alice Nzomukunda and Mathias Basabose have just joined former Presidents Sylvestre Ntibantunganya and Domitien Ndayizeye who currently live in Burundi after more than a year in exile. This is a sign and proof that peace and security are now a reality in Burundi. So, there is no more violence in Burundi. You can walk at anytime and anywhere in Burundi without fear.
    You said little progress has been made in talks? Yes, because the government is not willing to talk with the 13th of May 2015 coup plotters and makers that have to be prosecuted before any talk. But the government is ready to talk with anyone who was not implicated in that coup or not wanted by Burundian justice.
    Again, President Nkurunziza Pierre was constitutionally elected for 5 years term ending in August 2020. What do you mean by the subtitle “Nkurunziza is still at it”? And if the Constitution is amended by the people and ask him to run again, well, what do you call democracy? Isn’t the government of the people by the people and for the people? Unless you limit the meaning of democracy by two terms with or without the will of the people, you should be all right with my way of thinking of democracy.
    Finally, the humanitarian crisis you wish for Burundi is not yet declared by the responsible body unless you want to use it as a cash cow. Hunger noticed in some areas is not general and is still under evaluation, before it is declared humanitarian crisis so that the government would call for humanitarian assistance.
    Well, dear unanimous peace builders, do not use such natural phenomenon to make a point of your dirty wishes or wants. I understand that if the refugees go home, the covert politicians who pushed them to exile will have lost the case of transitional government they wanted to happen in Burundi and which is the real root cause of all these deaths evoked before and the regime change that the international community funded and defended.
    Burundi with God’s help prevailed and won against the Sindumuja and other Frondeurs now coveted in peace builders unanimous. My congratulations to Burundian leaders and people. Burundi should be an example to all African nations and all countries of the world which are still preyed by ghost monsters of neocolonialists.
    I invite refugee who wants to go home to come to evaluate the peace and security situation instead of listening to those politicians who induced them into exile with a pretext of genocide in preparation. Maybe there are those opposition politicians who were preparing for genocide. There will be no genocide in Burundi. No matter what situation would happen in Burundi. God bless Burundi and its people

  3. Burundi has become in these last two years a kind of punching ball for many authors, espacially junior researchers in social or political sciences seeking to submit their first paper, free lance journo interested in selling articles and global NGOs , the prefered tools to lobby and put pressure on Bdi Gov used by his really opposition: the European Union.
    Going back on this article, there some daily security or justice businesses that are now being considered as atrocity for Burundi whereas they are undertaken as routine in whole countries of the world
    -Do you realize that you consider IDs check as a crime ?
    -What does mean intensification of executions when you just tell us that one person was killed, he has been executed several times?
    -You put forward that prosecution targeted ex FAB military, just to quote for you Mr vice president”you will be held responsible of your evil doing first,before one notice you are ex Fab or whatever”. Do you need Arusha balance in robbery,burglary?
    -You assume no progress have been done in peace talks,you should recall that CNARED reported it self in Arusha, alongside CNDD and other parties. You wanted an agreement to be signed at this stage?
    -Humanitarian crisis. Every one except you know that december and january are called lean period regarding agricultural calendar,nothing is ripening in the fields at those dates, adding climate hazards ,food security was challenging for many households. Now that you want to push that cyclic fact in humanitarian crisis, just tell since december when we got the infrormation, your 3 millions in emergency need, did they get food or they are strong enough to resist 3 months of starvation?

  4. Dear Emmanuel,
    I read with great interest your comments on this article. You are absolutely right to defend Nkurunziza, the CNDD-FDD and their militia Imbonerakure. I wish you could grant the same freedom to those who do not share your views to express themselves, perhaps it would be a beginning towards the restoration of civil and political rights deprived of all those who do not share the ideals Than the CNDD-FDD since April 2015.
    I am Burundian, living in Gitega, Mushasha neighborhood. I absolutely understand the fear of this brave network of local peacebuilders. They can not reveal their identity because they would have the heads cut in less than 24h. The regime cannot tolerate whoever is telling the truth about the terrible atrocities happening on a daily basis. Can you tell me where is Marie Claudette Kwizera of the Iteka League? Where is Jean-Bigirimana from the Iwacu Journal? Have you read the interview of the poor widow who has not seen her husband for 7 months? Where are the Shabani brothers kidnapped by the documentation last December? Let me stop here because the country counts hundreds of disappeared people whose hopes of finding are virtually nil.
    I would like to draw the attention of readers to the strategy of Nkurunziza’s regime. It consists essentially of presenting the country as peaceful country where everything is going well, where ‘peace and security prevail across 99% of the territory’. And the regime sell its propaganda through channels like Ikiriho, National Radio and TV, REMA FM and other media close to the ruling party and via a new ‘civil society’ whose main mission is to call the Burundians to go down in the streets every weekend to denounce any report or article on the situation prevailing as well as the so-called ‘enemy’ countries. Any reporting, documentary or inquiry of the human rights situation or civil and political freedoms is virtually impossible. This is applicable to foreigners and to nationals. Any organization or individual who dares to do so does it at their own risk. The main independent media and civil society organizations are now in exile, but they are courageously continuing to collect and document the facts.
    – The figure of 1,400 deaths: this figure comes from a detailed documentation of the crimes committed by the regime since April 2015. It is a collaboration between local sources, doubly verified and confirmed by the organizations of defense of the human rights monitor the daily situation. By destroying independent radio stations on May 14, 2015, Nkurunziza and his lieutenants believed that they were silencing any discordant voice or capable of reporting the facts on the ground. But they forgot that we are in the 21st century or any fact that happening in any corner of the country is communicated in less than an hour with sounds and images. Otherwise, in your opinion, how did one manage to know the recent incidents within the prison of Rumonge? How are we informed about the para-military training of Imbonerakure in Karuzi? How is the continuous harassment of Imbonerakure in Kayogoro or Busoni is reported live? Quite simply, because there are many citizens who relay information. And sometimes, this info is revealed by the same Imbonerakure or members of the system in place. Do you think that everyone agrees with the abuses committed? Most of them are tired and even disgusted with these crimes. Today they chose to collaborate and alert, hoping that this collaboration will lighten their judgment when the day comes to answer for these crimes. Wait and see.
    -Barandagiye spent a very bad day on 15th of February in Nakivale. The refugees made it clear to him that as long as a bloody regime is rulling Burundi, they will not return home. And what a shameful lie to dare declaring on National TV that the protest against him was a week before? Who does he intend to manipulate? Frankly, he should immediately resign for having dared to lie publicly about the fact that he was subjected to an unprecedented rejection while he was relaying his lies and propaganda to the refugees who survived his regime. Again, the technology of the moment no longer allows lies. Those of Rwanda and Tanzania await him firmly, if he ever dares to go there. Everything is documented and shared in real time. The sounds and images of the refugee’s demonstration against Barandagiye are available and were spread over internet.. Ask the media in Kampala, including the NBS, they will show you the archive footage. And you will see that the current campaign for returning back is waste of time and resources. The killers and torturers are still there. Many thanks to the Ugandan government, who quickly understood their cries of distress and decided to grant them asylum. Thanks to the Government of Tanzania and UNHCR for granting asylum to Calixte, an EAC official who was threatened with eviction two weeks ago . The great internal and external mobilization finally convinced them that Burundi is a country with high risk for the refugees returning back. Uganda and Tanzania have joined Canada and Holland, which have decided not to deport asylum seekers, but rather to give them protection, recognizing the risks and threats facing them.
    You talked about Alice and Mathias, who recently came back. That is true. But when and why did they leave the country? Do they decide to return because peace and security is guaranteed in Burundi ? On the contrary, these two politicians, as well as Ntibantunganya and Ndayizeye, have got a guarantee of protection from the authorities. And no ordinary citizen can compare with them. And in case you listened to them, the two former heads of state have warned that the time has not yet arrived for the return of the refugees and that the protection they receive is not assured to any refugees who ventures returning. Rwasa Agathon, the first deputy speaker of parliament, said less than two weeks ago he feared for his safety, despite the protection he enjoyed. Do you know how the number of militants being harassed, detained and rough-handled by the administration in collaboration with the Imbonerakure? How many were killed in the ‘Safisha’ operation? Dear Emmanuel, open your eyes and acknowledge that there is still much to do to restore stability and convince those in exile to return.
    -Large-scale massacres are unlikely for the moment due to the vigilance of the citizens and the refusal of politico-ethnic manipulation and the international community since the horrible remarks of the president of the senate calling to “work” (killing in the terminology of the Imbonerakure) any person not a member of the CNDD-FDD in November 2015. Faced with the outcry that these words raised, the regime trembled and fell in its ardor. Currently, its strategy is the individual elimination targeting ex-FAB and opposition figures who are still in the country. It is the strategy ‘kamwe kamwe’ that the government is presenting today as remarkable progress. This is what the ambassador of Burundi to the NU sells so that the international community releases its pressure on the regime. But think again. Nkurunziza and its militias destroyed the RPA, Bonesha, Isanganiro and Renaissance, but they did not annihilate the millions of Burundians who abhor the crimes committed on a daily basis. These are the brave citizens who deliver the news and denounce the abuse of the regime.
    – Lack of progress in Arusha. This is a reality and it will always be the case as long as the regime refuses to negotiate with the real opponents. Very surprising, Nkurunziza wants to select with whom to negotiate, forgetting that he is part of the conflict. Nkurunziza forgets that until 2012 he was condemned to death because of the killings he was responsible between 1995 and 2003. Why was he accepted at the negotiating table? The EAC Heads of State will soon analysis this matter and tale coercive measures against any actor who is blocking or opposing dialogue. The hope of the Burundians is that they can bring their peer back to reason and accept the sharing of power and the guarantee of security for all because Burundi does not belong to the CNDD-FDD.
    – Humanitarian crisis. It is certainly due to the drought that affects all of East Africa. Kenya and South Sudan have already declared that it is a national disaster and are actively seeking assistance from the international community. But Bujumbura refuses to admit this terrible reality and reach out to the same donors it denounces on a daily basis. In Burundi, the crisis is aggravated by the sanctions that have plagued the regime since March 2016 because of the massive violations of human rights. Ironically, while the government is ashamed, MPs have just asked the same government to abandon the exorbitant taxes to alleviate the misery of the people.
    – Finally, people are for the moment taken hostage by a bloodthirsty regime concerned solely with preserving its power. Burundian are suffering in silence but are very attentive to every fact and gesture of oppression. Still a little while, things will change and those who reign in masters today will answer for their crimes that have been carefully documented. Remember that it is not by destroying the independent radios that a whole people is reduced to silence.

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