Burundi’s propensity for mass atrocities is rooted in a mode of politics that employs intensive and sectarian violence
By Paul Nantulya
A renewed peace plan?
EAC leaders will meet in Arusha, Tanzania today Saturday, May 20, 2017, where the Burundi crisis will take centre stage. The mediator and incoming EAC Chair, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, has called for a fresh consensus on Burundi.
In December 2015, while hosting the first round of consultations in Entebbe, he said that Burundians "could resolve their crisis in one afternoon" if they engaged in serious dialogue. "Some of you vowed not to talk to this or that person, but remember that I talked to Joseph Kony." He admonished Burundians for "undoing the gains of the August 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement by succumbing to "pseudo ideology" which he described as "sectarian thinking based on ethnicity." "You are making a mockery of yourselves and your fellow Africans before the world," he warned.
Nkurunziza's government withdrew from follow up talks in January to protest the presence of one woman representative at the table. Talks convened in Arusha in May stalled as the main exiled coalition, CNARED (Conseil National pour le respect de l 'Accord d 'Arusha et de l'Etat de Droit), was not invited as a bloc. Eventually some members trickled in but arrived too late to engage in meaningful discussions. The government accuses CNARED of involvement in the failed coup of May 2015 and issued arrest warrants against most of its members.
Mkapa pressed on with more consultations. In February 2017, he organised a fourth round of talks but the government side withdrew and instead sent ruling party members. As the session got underway rallies were organised in Burundi to denounce the presence of so called "coup plotters." The regime even called on the Tanzanian authorities to arrest several participants invited by the Facilitator. Mkapa then called on the EAC to convene an emergency summit to rescue the process.
What is Burundi's problem?
Burundi's propensity for mass atrocities is rooted in a mode of politics that employs intensive and sectarian violence—essentially terror—as a form of control. This runs much deeper than the mere pursuit by Nkurunziza of a third term. It left in its wake two genocides in 1972 and 1993 and a bloody civil war that killed 500,000 citizens and created three million refugees. This disturbing legacy where those entrusted with authority show no compunction in directing gruesome violence against civilians reflects a culture of impunity, poor leadership and glaring lack of ideological values. The Arusha Accords mediated by former South African President Nelson Mandela, brought an uneasy truce. However, the culture of impunity remained because leaders on all sides of the political divides sidestepped accountability and instead awarded themselves with blanket amnesties and political office through power sharing.
While regional and international policy efforts are focussed on the current crisis, they should recall that Burundi's troubles are symptomatic of a much longer progression of sectarian violence around key events in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2014. These centred on contestation between the ruling CNDD/FDD and its opponents. Eerily, the patterns of violence in each period are virtually identical---executions, abductions, enforced dissapearances, torture, public beatings, stabbings and even kidnappings for ransom. The run up to the 2010 polls was particularly bloody, with killings occurring almost daily as tensions flared between CNDD/FDD and its civil war rival, the National Liberation Front (FNL). At its height the entire opposition fled to exile, leaving Nkurunziza to run as the sole candidate.
Then in 2011 reports surfaced of an operation codenamed Safisha (to cleanse), targeting FNL and other parties, such as the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy. The Imbonerakure, (those who see far) was implicated in many of these atrocities that included assasinations, beheadings, bodily mutilations, rapes and stabbings, often conducted in public. According to several reports members of this state—sponsored militia conducted house to house searches, in some cases with prepared lists. This propensity for targeted violence has returned with a vengeance since the outbreak of the current crisis in April 2015. The bloodletting has plunged Burundi in turmoil.
The current situation
400,000 Burundian refugees are languishing in the region — a 20-fold increase since May 2015. One independent survey finds that 80% of them reported witnessing at least one killing before fleeing. Images of bodies strewn around, sometimes mutilated, hanging or with hands tied, regularly appear in regional newspapers. The UN recorded more than 200 dissapearances between October 2016 and January 2017. Local monitors recorded 424 since April 2015 and uncovered 76 dead bodies across Burundi between March and April 2017. Meanwhile 1.8 million malaria cases were recorded since the start of 2017---a staggering figure, given Burundi's population of 10 million. Both the World Health Organisation and the government have declared it an epidemic.
Ethnic incitement is rising. On April 18, video footage showed more than 100 Imbonerakure chanting: "we will impregnate them to give birth to more Imbonerakure." On April 23, similar chants were made at an Imbonerakure march in Bujumbura. Facing pressure, the government condemned the April 18 incident but the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, noted that it was not isolated. He cited six events in April in which ethnic incitement to murder and rape was made with senior leaders present. On May 10, a female member of the security forces circulated a message referring to Tutsis as "dogs who will be killed." More than 60 such recordings have been documented since November 2015, when the Senate President made his infamous call for ethnic violence.
In November 2016, the government conducted an ethnic census across the public service, raising fears of further polarisation. And this is to say nothing about growing divisions in the army, once seen as the crowning success of the Arusha Accords. Ever since the failed coup regime moves to enforce loyalty have been percieved to have particularly targeted Tutsi former members of the Armed Forces of Burundi (FAB), further eroding trust between them and the mainly Hutu former members of the Parties and Armed Movements (PMPA). Dozens of ex-FAB members have been killed or abducted and scores have deserted or defected. The army has also been rocked by multiple tit for tat killings and assasinations of high ranking ex FAB and ex PMPA officers. In January, UNHCR said it anticipated an increase in asylum applications from Burundian military members, as dozens have defected after peacekeeping duty.
Many fear that the ongoing reorganisation of the military command, including the creation of new services provides cover to incorporate the Imbonerakure into the army. The changes were accompanied by a sweeping constitutional review that discards key provisions of the Arusha Accords. Opponents say that while it is within Burundians' rights to review their founding documents, a constitutional review should only be undertaken in a situation of normalcy.
What should be done?
Burundi needs a fundamental political change, one that goes beyond power sharing. It is essential that the Arusha Accord's mechanisms of accountability for war crimes are updated with robust enforcement. All those implicated should be excluded from politics. There will also be need for reconciliation, drawing on traditional Burundian knowledge and norms.
For now, EAC leaders should lead a renewed peace process and make it clear to all that preconditions will not be tolerated. After peace is realised and refugees and exiles return home, there will be need for a genuine National Dialogue, for Burundians to reach broad consensus on the way forward that fosters true national ownership.
It should also be recalled that bloodshed has always marked Burundian elections. The winner of the 1960 independence poll, Louis Rwagasore, was brutally murdered two weeks before taking office as Premier. President Melcior Ndadaye suffered a similar fate in 1993. The 2010 and 2015 polls were violent affairs---notably the AU and EAC refused to send observers to the latter. All this means that legitimacy in Burundi is always contested. The EAC roadmap should, therefore, lead to a regionally enforced transition culminating in new elections that are funded, managed and supervised by the EAC, UN and AU.
The Imbonerakure and other irregulars should be disarmed and demobilised to reduce the violence and build citizens' confidence. This mission should be given to an African military force with a civilian protection mandate. During the talks hosted by Mandela, African leaders agreed that the social compact between the Burundi government and citizens had broken down and state actors were active participants in mass violence. This necessitated the deployment of African troops. Similar arguments informed the AU's December 2015 decision to deploy a peacekeeping force to Burundi, but the move was abandoned.
It is time to reconsider that decision given that the situation today is much worse than it was in 2015. East Africa should invoke the cardinal AU principle of non-indifference and act with pan Africanist solidarity and haste. This requires willingness to employ all available tools of national power to stop the crisis for the benefit of Burundians and their neighbours.
Writer has worked on Burundi since 1999