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Burundi: On the Brink?

AfricaFocus Bulletin
April 27, 2015 (150427)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"The prospect of a third term for President Nkurunziza calls into question the preservation of peace in Burundi. The president is risking it all by trying to force his name on the ballot, against the Catholic Church, civil society, a fraction of his own party and most external partners. The opposition's survival is at stake and the security forces are unsure how to react in case of violent crisis. The situation is much more serious than the failed 2010 elections: what lies behind this new electoral cycle is the upholding of the Arusha agreement as the foundation of Burundi's regime." - International Crisis Group

On April 25, the ruling party in Burundi confirmed the candidacy of President Nkurunziza for a third term. Demonstrations in Bujumbura beginning the next day have been met by a government crackdown, with initial reports of five killed. The media crackdown has intensified, with independent radio stations being closed. What may happen next is highly uncertain. But civil society activists as well as outside observers fear further escalation of violence. Given the low profile of Burundi on the world stage, they further fear that adequate international reaction will be too little and too late.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains brief commentaries on the recent situation in Burundi from the International Crisis Group, InterPress Service, and Reporters without Borders.

Links to additional recent sources

Facebook timeline of Burundi peace activist Jean-Claude Nkundwa

BBC report on Apr 26 protests

Ignatius Ssuuna, "How Fragile is Burundi's Peace," IRIN, Apr 22, 2015

Very clear summary of immediate background (in French), by Libérat Ntibashirakandi, Apr 26, 2015

U.S. State Department statement, "U.S. Deeply Regrets Burundi's Disregard for the Arusha Agreement," Apr 25, 2015

AfroBarometer reports from 2014 poll showing majority of Burundians support term limits / direct URL

Newly added (after Bulletin sent out by email)

Interpretative article by Filip Reyntjens

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Burundi, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Elections in Burundi: Moment of Truth

International Crisis Group
Apr 17, 2015

Executive Summary

The elections scheduled to take place between the end of May and August 2015 will be decisive for Burundi. The future of the present rulers (President Pierre Nkurunziza considers running for a third term) and, more importantly, the upholding of the 2000 Arusha agreement as the foundation for peace, are at stake. Popular protests and the precedent set by the fall of Burkina Faso's president suggest street confrontations will take place if President Nkurunziza decides to impose his candidacy. The return to violence would not only end the peace progressively restored since the Arusha agreement, it would also have destabilising consequences in the region and mark a failure in peacebuilding. To avoid this scenario, Burundi's partners, who have already expressed their concerns, should increase their involvement in the electoral process and prepare a gradual response depending on how inclusive the process will be.

With the upcoming congress of the ruling party, which is supposed to decide on its presidential candidate, and the 26 May legislative and local elections only a few weeks away, tension is rising and prospects for free and fair polls are slimmer by the day. While preparatory meetings held in 2013 and the return of opposition leaders to the country raised hopes of an electoral process based on dialogue between the regime and the opposition, there are increasing signs of a looming electoral crisis. The partisan use of state institutions, exactions committed by youth militia (the Imbonerakure), the lack of confidence in the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), strategies by the regime to reduce the inclusivity of the electoral process and the president's will to run again exacerbate tensions. The opposition wants revenge after its defeat in the 2010 polls, but it remains uncertain if its leaders will be allowed to contest the elections.

The prospect of a third term for President Nkurunziza calls into question the preservation of peace in Burundi. The president is risking it all by trying to force his name on the ballot, against the Catholic Church, civil society, a fraction of his own party and most external partners. The opposition's survival is at stake and the security forces are unsure how to react in case of violent crisis. The situation is much more serious than the failed 2010 elections: what lies behind this new electoral cycle is the upholding of the Arusha agreement as the foundation of Burundi's regime.

International actors are aware of the stakes and risks associated with the upcoming electoral cycle, and some neighbouring countries are closely monitoring the situation. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Tanzanian president, Belgian ministers and the UN Security Council recently came to Bujumbura; the Burundian president and his Rwandese counterpart met in Rwanda and a UN electoral mission (MENUB) was sent in early 2015. As some Burundians flee to Rwanda, the country's relapse into violence would be a pitifull outcome for the guarantors of the Arusha agreement and could fuel regional crisis. The reaction of Burundi's partners - especially the guarantors of the Arusha agreement - is not commensurate with the gravity of the situation. They must urgently mobilise sufficient resources and will have to get more involved to prevent rising tensions between supporters of the president and of the opposition and to avoid confrontation in the streets.

[Recommendations (in English) also available at link above, as well as full report in French]

Opinion: Burundi - Fragile Peace at Risk Ahead of Elections

By David Kode

In this column, David Kode, a Policy and Research Officer at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, describes a series of restrictions on freedom in Burundi and, in the run-up to elections in May and June, calls on the international community - including the African Union and donor countries - to support the country by putting pressure on the government to respect democratic ideals and by condemning attacks on civil liberties.

[Edited by Phil Harris. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS - Inter Press Service. ]

Johannesburg, Apr 24 2015 (IPS) - Pierre Claver Mbonimpa is not permitted to get close to an airport, train station or port without authorisation from a judge. He cannot travel outside of the capital of his native Burundi, Bujumbura. Whenever called upon, he must present himself before judicial authorities.

These are some of the onerous restrictions underlying the bail conditions of one of Burundi's most prominent human rights activists since he was provisionally released on medical grounds in September last year, after spending more than four months in prison for his human rights work.

Mbonimpa was arrested and detained on May 15, 2014, and charged with endangering state security and inciting public disobedience. The charges stemmed from views he expressed during an interview with an independent radio station, Radio Public Africaine, in which he stated that members of the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, were being armed and sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo for military training.

The arrest and detention of Pierre Claver is symptomatic of a pattern of repression and intimidation of human rights defenders, journalists, dissenters and members of the political opposition in Burundi as it heads towards its much anticipated elections in May and June 2015.

The forthcoming polls will be the third democratic elections organised since the end of the brutal civil war in 2005. The antagonism of the CNDD-FDD government and its crackdown on civil society and members of opposition formations has increased, particularly as the incumbent, President Pierre Nkurunziza, silences critics and opponents in his bid to run for a third term even after the National Assembly rejected his proposals to extend his term in office.

Tensions continue to mount ahead of the polls and even though the president has not publicly stated that he will contest the next elections, the actions of his government and the ruling party clearly suggest he will run for another term. Members of his party argue that he has technically run the country for one term only as he was not "elected" by the people when he took to power in 2005.

Civil society organisations and religious leaders recently pointed out that Constitution and the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement - which brought an end to the civil war - clearly limit presidential terms to two years.

As the 2015 polls draw closer, state repression has increased, some political parties have been suspended and their members arrested and jailed. The Imbonerakure has embarked on campaigns to intimidate, physically assault and threaten members of the opposition with impunity. They have prevented some political gatherings from taking place under the pretext that they are guaranteeing security at the local level.

Civil society organisations and rival political movements have on several occasions been denied the right to hold public meetings and assemblies, while journalists and activists have been arrested and held under fictitious charges in an attempt to silence them and force them to resort to self-censorship.

Legislation has been used to stifle freedom of expression and restrict the activities of journalists and the independent media. In June 2013, the government passed a new law which forces journalists to reveal their sources.

The law provides wide-ranging powers to the authorities and sets requirements for journalists to attain certain levels of education and professional expertise, limits issues journalists can cover and imposes fines on those who violate this law. It prohibits the publication of news items on security issues, defence, public safety and the economy. The law has been used to target media agencies and journalists, including prominent journalist Bob Rugurika, director of Radio Public Africaine.

The government does not see any major difference between opposition political parties and human rights activists and journalists and has often accused civil society and the media of being mouth pieces for the political opposition, describing them as "enemies of the state".

In the lead-up to the last elections in 2010, most of the opposition parties decided to boycott the elections and the ruling party won almost unopposed. However, the post-elections period was characterised by political violence and conflict.

Ideally, the upcoming elections could present the perfect opportunity to "jump start" Burundi's democracy. For this to happen, the media and civil society need to operate without fear or intimidation from state and non-state actors. On the contrary, state repression is bound to trigger a violent response from some of the opposition parties and ignite violence similar to that which happened in 2010.

The international community and Burundi's donors cannot afford to stand by idly and witness a distortion of the decade-long relative peace that Burundi has enjoyed, which represents the most peaceful decade since independence from Belgium in 1962.

It is increasingly clear that the people of Burundi need the support of the international community at this critical juncture. The African Union (AU), with its public commitment to democracy and good governance, must act now by putting pressure on the government of Burundi to respect its democratic ideals to prevent more abuses and further restrictions on fundamental freedoms ahead of the elections.

The African Union should demand that the government stops extrajudicial killings and conducts independent investigations into members of the security forces and Imbonerakure who have committed human rights violations and hold them accountable.

Further, Burundi's close development partners, particularly Belgium, France and the Netherlands, should condemn the attacks on civil liberties and urge the government to instill an enabling environment in which a free and fair political process can take place while journalists and civil society activists can perform their responsibilities without fear.

Burundi: Authorities target independent journalists in run-up to elections

Reporters without Borders, Apr 24, 2015

As Burundi's ruling party prepares to hold a congress tomorrow to choose its presidential candidate, Reporters Without Borders is worried about an increase in harassment of the country's privatelyowned media.

Harassment of journalists and news media is not new in Burundi, but there has been an increase in recent months. Covering politics has become a minefield for reporters due not only to the presidential election scheduled for 26 June, currently the main focus of attention, but also the legislative and municipal elections scheduled for 26 May.

The judicial system is letting itself be used to prosecute journalists on trumped-up charges. The leading target is Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), Burundi's most popular radio station, which is well known for being critical of the government. Its journalists are often the victims of abusive proceedings.

Yvette Murekasabe, the head of the RPA branch in the northern city of Ngozi, was charged in early April with defaming Jules Ndatimana, the provincial head of the ruling CNDD-FDD's youth wing, known as the Imbonerakure (Lookouts), after she reported that, at an Imbonerakure meeting, he had called for violence against those opposing a third term for President Pierre Nkurunziza.

At a hearing on 10 April, she refused to comply when told to identify her sources. On the morning of 21 April, she received another summons to appear before judicial officials later the same day but was unable to go because she was not in the city at the time.

Alexis Nimubona, an RPA reporter in the northeastern city of Muyinga, is being prosecuted on a charge of insulting the city administrator for reporting that municipal market traders were unhappy with his management of the market. He was threatened by Muyinga's police chief in February after a report about bodies being found in the River Rweru, on the border with Rwanda.

RPA director Bob Rugurika, who was held for four weeks in January and February in connection with his coverage of the murder of three Italian nuns, is meanwhile still charged with complicity in their murder.

He was previously targeted by the authorities for reporting that young Burundians were training in Sud-Kivu, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. He says he has been getting death threats ever since.

Serge Sindayigaya, privately-owned Radio Bonesha FM's correspondent in the southern city of Makamba, was questioned by a prosecutor all day on 9 April after reporting that weapons were being distributed to the Imbonerakure – a sensitive subject in the run-up to the elections, especially as senior police officers were said to be responsible for the distribution.

In the past year, no fewer than four journalists have been prosecuted or questioned by judicial officials in connection with reports about the distribution of arms to the Imbonerakure, which the authorities clearly regard as a sensitive issue. The four journalists were RPA's Eloge Nionzima and Bonesha FM's Alexis Nshekimana (in the northwestern city of Bubanza in April 2014), Alexis Nimubona in May 2014 and Bonesha FM's Hamissi Karihungu in the central city of Gitega in October 2014.

"Burundi is facing a decisive moment in its democratic history and we are worried by these judicial summonses, which have all the hallmarks of attempts to intimidate journalists who provide critical reporting on the authorities," said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk.

Radio Rehma, a pro-government radio station, has meanwhile been taking a tougher line since last month, often interviewing people whose comments verge on constituting incitement to violence. A guest on a programme on 6 April said: "I would like to warn these civil society people that we no longer need to build cemeteries and monuments on their land."

The station has not however been penalized or told to moderate its tone.

Kahn-Sriber added: "It is obviously important in the run-up to the elections for journalists to act responsibly and not broadcast inflammatory statements, but this rule must apply to all the media regardless of their editorial line."

Reporters Without Borders has also noted several recent attempts to intimidate journalists in a violent manner.

The home of Radio Isanganiro's correspondent in Bubanza, SpèsCaritas Kabanyana, was attacked twice on the nights of 15 and 16 April by unidentified persons, who threw stones and banged the roof with clubs.

Her coverage of illegal activity by the Imbonerakure (including possession of weapons and voter enrolment fraud) may have been the reason. Imbonerakure members had already tried to intimidate her in the past. The police are reportedly looking for those responsible for the attacks on her home.

Bonesha FM journalist Egide Ndayisenga was the target of a grenade attack as he arrived at his home in Musaga (in Bujumbura province) on the evening of 11 April. The grenade caused damage to the house but did not injure Ndayisenga, who thinks the attack was linked to coverage of the discovery of an arms cache in Kabezi. The head of the intelligence service and the local police chief were seen near his home on the night of the attack.

The next days and weeks will be decisive for Burundi, which is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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