As elections approach, Burundians fear a return to war

More than 12,000 Burundians have fled the country amid attacks and escalating ethnic tension

Burundian refugees wait for soap and blankets at the Bugesera Transit Center in Gashora, Rwanda, on April 10, 2015.
Stephanie Aglietti / AFP / Getty Images
Burundian refugees settle in a destroyed building in Gashora, Rwanda, on April 10, 2015.
Stephanie Aglietti / AFP / Getty Images

GASHORA, Rwanda — Like many of those taking refuge at the Bugesera Transit Center, Abdul Nizigiyimana fears he’s on the verge of reliving a 22-year-old nightmare.

In 1993, Nizigiyimana, a member of Burundi’s Tutsi minority, lost his parents and seven siblings during a wave of ethnically motivated killings that a United Nations inquiry determined were acts of genocide.

Today, as a 40-year old father of five, he’s one of more than 12,000 Burundians who have fled to neighboring Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo since the end of March as political tensions have flared in the small central African country. Like Nizigiyimana, most have left because of the imbonerakure — the armed and increasingly violent youth wing of Burundi’s ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). In advance of Burundi’s June presidential election, in which the incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza is likely to seek a controversial third term, many who oppose the Hutu president’s reelection have been threatened by imbonerakure youths wielding nail-studded clubs and AK-47s. To escape the imbonerakure, some have even attempted daring nighttime runs to the Rwandan border. A majority of those targeted are Tutsi, and say they’re being singled out because of their ethnicity as well as their political affiliation.

“My neighbors knew that I was against the third term, against the imbonerakure,” Nizigiyimana, dressed in a soiled gray tank top, an L.A. Dodgers cap and flip-flops, told Al Jazeera.

“A friend told me that I was on a list of people in my commune to be killed,” he said. “I started spending nights hiding in the forest, but eventually my wife told me it was time to run.”

Halted Progress

For a country with a deep-rooted history of ethnic and political violence, the exodus of Nizigiyimana and thousands like him is a particularly worrying development. A former Belgian colony, Burundi was ruled by a succession of Tutsi military leaders following its 1962 independence. After a failed Hutu uprising in 1972, the predominantly Tutsi army slaughtered at least 100,000 members of the Hutu majority, seeking to rid the country of Hutu “intellectuals.” In 1993, after Burundi’s first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, was assassinated by a group of Tutsi hardliners, the country again descended into a wave of ethnically motivated killings, as civilian mobs of Hutu unleashed their collective fury against Tutsi peasants. In the civil war that followed between the Tutsi army and several Hutu-dominated rebel groups, an estimated 300,000 people were killed before the signing of a cease-fire in 2003 between the government and Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD, the most prominent rebel faction. 

Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza poses on June 4, 2014, at the Westin hotel in Paris.
Francois Guillot / AFP / Getty Images

Nkurunziza, a Hutu elected president in 2005, has exceeded many expectations in his ability to consolidate peace. Armed with a new constitution, which guarantees significant representation for both Hutu and Tutsi in the army, police and all branches of the national government, he’s presided over a period that most Burundians say has yielded a noticeable reduction in ethnic tensions. Formerly balkanized into ethnic enclaves, Bujumbura, the country’s steamy lakeside capital, is now integrated. Urban Tutsi, once afraid to visit Hutu-majority rural areas, now travel freely about the country. Somehow, despite a government — and army — comprised of former warring parties, the 51-year-old president has deftly held the country together.

“The No. 1 goal of this regime has been stability,” said Jean Claude Nkundwa, a Bujumbura-based peace activist, who, like Nizigiyimana, lost much of his family in the 1993 violence. “If you consider where Burundi has come from, Pierre Nkurunziza has been extremely successful.”

Despite this progress, however, Nkurunziza’s popularity has long been in decline and ethnic tensions are beginning to resurface. Much of this is a consequence of Burundi’s limp economy. Unlike his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame, whose tight grip on power has helped keep a lid on corruption and enabled significant development since the end of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, Nkurunziza has been largely unable to eradicate high-level graft. Corruption, along with Burundi’s high population density, increasingly unproductive farmland and history of migration due to conflict, have combined to keep the majority of the country’s 10 million people trapped in poverty. As of 2013, according to World Bank data, Burundi’s per capita gross domestic product was just $267, the second lowest in the world. In 2014, the country ranked last in the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Global Hunger Index. According to UNICEF, 58 percent of Burundian children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition.

“The standard of living has decreased everywhere,” said Nkundwa. “It was even better during the war.”

In addition to his country’s economic woes, Nkurunziza’s rule has been blighted by what human rights groups say are an alarming number of politically motivated assassinations. Since 2010, the year of Nkurunziza’s re-election, Burundi’s Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH), a local watchdog, has documented more than 2,300 extrajudicial killings across the county — crimes frequently targeting opponents of the ruling party that almost always go unpunished. According to Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, the organization’s 66-year-old president, the perpetrators are typically members of the security forces or, increasingly, civilian imbonerakure.

Mbonimpa, one of the country’s best-known human rights defenders, was imprisoned for four months in 2014 after presenting evidence on national radio that Burundian authorities had been supplying imbonerakure with weapons and sending them for paramilitary training in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. A confidential U.N. cable, leaked last April, also alleged that high-level military officers had distributed arms and uniforms to the group, which is made up, in part, of demobilized ex-combatants. In many rural areas, the U.N. document noted, the group acts “in collusion with local authorities and with total impunity,” functioning as a “militia over and above the police, the army, and the judiciary.” Today, it’s common knowledge across Burundi that the country’s hills — some 2,600 in all — are each patrolled by a trio of imbonerakure armed with guns.

According to Teddy Mazina, a Burundian photographer and radio host who has closely documented the group’s militarization, Nkurunziza’s party has increasingly used imbonerakure as a “weapon” to combat his waning popularity.

“The CNDD-FDD never left the mind of war, the idea of struggle,” he said. “They are using the imbonerakure to scare people — to put pressure on the population to accept Nkurunziza’s third mandate.”

A Country on Edge

With the imbonerakure seemingly on standby, the mood in Bujumbura is now tense. Two months ahead of the scheduled presidential poll, much remains uncertain. Critically, Nkurunziza has not yet declared if he is planning to run, nor is it clear whether he’s legally allowed to do so. According to Burundi’s 2005 constitution, a president is elected by “universal direct suffrage” for a maximum of two five-year terms. Because Nkurunziza was elected in 2005 by a vote of the National Assembly, his supporters argue he should be eligible to run again. However, Burundi’s 2000 Arusha Peace Agreement, the main source on which the constitution is based, states that “no one may serve more than two presidential terms” — language his opponents have invoked to argue that he must step down.

As Burundians remain divided on the issue, Nkurunziza’s prospects of staying in power appear to be waning. In a January survey by Afrobarometer, an independent research group, 62 percent of Burundians polled expressed disapproval of a third term. In mid-April, hundreds of anti third-term demonstrators took to Bujumbura’s streets, prompting police to fire tear gas and water cannons. Since then, 65 protesters have been charged with “participation in an insurrectionary movement.”  As political tensions have risen, several internal and external stakeholders, including the African Union, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, key regional ally Tanzania and the highly influential local branch of the Catholic Church, have called for him to respect the spirit of the Arusha Agreement. In a development that has surprised many analysts, several prominent members of Nkurunziza’s party — including his former spokesman — have also announced their opposition to his candidacy. According to Nkundwa, the peace activist, many in the CNDD-FDD have likely realized that the president’s bid to stay in office is futile, and are beginning to withdraw their support in the interest of the party’s future.

Opposition activists gather in downtown Bujumbura on April 17, 2015, to protest incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza's expected bid for a third presidential term.
Esdras Ndikumana / AFP / Getty Images

However, with many of the president’s key allies unlikely to waver, the party — and Burundi — could soon find itself in crisis. Should Nkurunziza and others close to him be removed from power, Nkundwa believes that they could risk prosecution for a host of alleged crimes that have taken place on his watch, including acts of high-level corruption, politically motivated killings, and the trafficking of weapons to regional rebel groups, including the DRC-based Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Nkurunziza loyalists, who also fear being marginalized, are unlikely to go down without a fight.

Given this context, large-scale violence could be triggered whether or not Nkurunziza contests the election, and it could originate from any of a number of possible sources. Recent maneuverings by several prominent opponents, including longtime opposition leader Agathon Rwasa and former CNDD-FDD stalwart Hussein Radjabu — who escaped from prison with outside assistance in March — suggest that they could be preparing to exploit a coming crisis. Furthermore, should the country descend into chaos, the army, which remains widely respected, might be compelled to intervene. This could inflame the situation even more, as the military loyalties are split — the head of the army, for example, is perceived to be in favor of a third term while the minister of defense is not.

“Whatever happens, the army will be divided,” Mbonimpa said. “It’s difficult to know who will stabilize the situation.”

What is clear, however, is that whatever happens, the increasingly militant imbonerakure will pose a significant barrier to peace. Believed to be highly loyal to the president and his allies, the group is likely to mobilize in response to any third-term threat — not unlike how the Rwandan interahamwe, the civilian group responsible for much of the killing in the 1994 genocide, sprang into action after the assassination of former Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana.

According to Mazina, one key difference is that while the Rwandan violence was predominantly ethnically motivated, the imbonerakure are likely to hunt down anyone perceived to support the Hutu president’s main opponents. This puts Burundians of all ethnicities — Hutu, Tutsi and Twa, the country’s small and historically marginalized third group — at risk. Nonetheless, despite the fact that Nkurunziza’s most prominent challengers are Hutu, both analysts and those who’ve fled to Bugesera say that his supporters have increasingly scapegoated Tutsi for growing threats to his continued rule. The goal, Mazina says, is to give the imbonerakure a more clear-cut sense of mission.

“These guys on the ground can be manipulated very easily,” Mazina said, referring to the imbonerakure. “And the most powerful slogans the party has to use are ethnic. They’ve been telling people that if Nkurunziza is not elected again it will be like giving power back to the Tutsis — which is not true.”

“Now they have an illusion of power, that they are the kings of their local areas,” he added. “It can be very dangerous.”

Back at the Bugesera Transit Center, Nizigiyimana and others who have fled the country deliver a similar assessment. Those who spoke to Al Jazeera cited a variety of reasons for leaving: some were threatened by imbonerakure directly. Others, like Nizigiyimana, were tipped off to danger by friends. One older woman, unable to hold back tears, said a mob of imbonerakure had come to her home, abducted her three sons, and forced them to join their group. Many say they were targeted because they are Tutsi. One man, a farmer named Jean Bosco Rugani, reported that he was told to return to Ethiopia, where, according to some theories, the Tutsi people are believed to have originated.

With limited international engagement in the country, Rugani and others fear that their warnings of coming violence could turn out to be in vain. Although the U.N. deployed an electoral observation mission to Burundi in January, there are currently no international peacekeepers on the ground and the reaction of Burundi’s partners, according to a report released last week by the International Crisis Group, has not been “commensurate with the gravity of the situation.” Should the country descend into violence, many in Bujumbura suspect there could be an intervention by Rwanda, which has already amassed troops on its southern border and, given the past slaughter of its own Tutsi minority, has grave reason to be alarmed by the prospect of ethnically motivated conflict in its own backyard.

Whatever happens, though, those marooned in Bugesera say they are frightened for their family members who remain back home.

“My wife tried to follow me to the border but she was stopped by the imbonerakure,” said Nizigiyimana, noting she’d been beaten by police and was recovering in the hospital. “Three of my children are still there, too. I’m worried they won’t make it.”

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