Alexis Sinduhije responds to the allegations made by the UN Group of Experts Report and demands an investigation into their methods
Since his release from a Tanzanian jail in February, Alexis Sinduhije has been keeping a low profile in France. As I wrote previously, his temporary custody in Dar es Salaam was mired in confusion as the Burundian government seemed to struggle with the extradition papers. They initially denied having anything to do with his arrest and then a week later claimed they had an international arrest warrant. His lawyers sprung him on a procedural point and Tanzania has remained silent on the matter. Burundi, meanwhile, claimed he was still a wanted man although this seemed to fall on deaf ears when Sinduhije passed through Uganda on his way back to France. Although Burundi claimed he was wanted for a murder, when he was released from his Tanzanian cell they also belatedly raised the allegations made against Alexis Sinduhije by the UN Group of Experts.
However, now an ‘anonymous’ member of the UN Group of Experts, the researchers who accused Sinduhije of involvement with militias in their report, has come forward to elaborate upon the issues that I raised.
The report had accused Sinduhije of being part of a network of armed opposition to the Burundian government and specifically, of being actively involved with FNL rebels in the DR Congo and fund raising for them. In response to a question by Jason Stearns about the credibility of the claims, the UN ‘Expert’ insisted that these claims had been verified in a number of ways. Firstly, that Burundian opposition groups came to the conclusion that in the light of the intense political oppression they faced from their government, the only way to get international attention was via armed rebellion as a means to motivate dialogue.
Second, Sinduhije, along with others, including Pancrace Cimpaye and the FNL leader, Agathon Rwasa, established and activated support networks for this armed rebellion which included the FNL rebels currently active in South Kivu in the DR Congo. The anonymous UN respondent reiterates that these allegations had been established through a number of sources including:
“interviews with a number of current FNL officers and combatants both in Bujumbura and in the Uvira territory, four arrested rebel collaborators currently in the Bujumbura prison, and four completely independent Burundian as well as international interlocutors in consistent communication with these political leaders.”
The UN respondent also offered the additional information, not mentioned in the report, that FRD rebel commander in Ruyigi, Colonel Pierre Claver Kabirigi, has also confirmed the involvement of Alexis Sinduhije along with other leaders, “in mobilizing for an armed rebellion, which included his forces, those of FRONABU-TABARA, the FNL and others.” He added that Pancrace Cimpaye had stated in an interview with the UN Experts that not taking up arms was: “ the greatest error that his political party, FRODEBU, had committed.”
Both Alexis Sinduhije and Agathon Rwasa have written letters to the UN Secretary General and his representative in Burundi denouncing the UN report. Sinduhije wrote: “They are totally false and unfounded allegations, …… I have no intention of resorting to armed struggle,” he further questioned how the Hutu rebel FNL, would accept him, as a Tutsi at its head. Agathon Rwasa meanwhile, called for the UN Secretary General to order a new investigation into the matter.
Now Alexis Sinduhije’s lawyers are demanding an investigation into the methodology used by the Group of Experts and their ‘false allegations’. They are also insisting on a retraction and “the necessary measures to restore Mr Sinduhije’s reputation”.
Certainly, those facing allegations in the UN Expert’s reports have the right to challenge the claims and request the consideration of counter-claims. Until the Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council rule on this report, the Special Representative of Ban Ki-moon in Burundi, Karin Landgren, responded by open letter to Rwasa saying “I welcome the fact that you have clearly indicated that you are not involved in the formation of a new rebellion in Burundi.” However, while Agathon Rwasa has a history of previous armed militancy, Alexis Sinduhije has gained fame both for his pacifism and attempts to bridge Burundi’s ethnic divides. This is the central mystery to the allegations in the UN report.
Sinduhije’s lawyer, Raoul Boulakia, said of the report’s methodology: “Reliance on some number of FNL agents does not amount to verification with sources “independent” of one and other, as the FNL is a hierarchical political-military group. Likewise reliance on more than one individual in the CNDD-FDD regime does not convert the government into more than one source.”
Burundi, with a population of around 8 million, is a tiny country compared to its neighbours, yet its post-independence history has been one of large scale protracted and bloody ethnic conflicts. More than a decade of civil war that began in 1993 between the army and mostly Hutu rebel movements, claimed not only the lives of hundreds of thousands of Burundians, but also caused massive displacement of people both within the country and across its borders. Burundi shares with its neighbour Rwanda, both the sad mark of genocide and a central location in the complex instability of the Great Lakes region. This is not only in terms of the shared ethnic divisions of Hutu and Tutsi, but also in the cross-border insurgencies and competing interests of the wider conflict in the DR Congo. One of the principle demands of the opposition movements was reform of the Tutsi-dominated army. The army, after repeated coups and assassinations of Hutu leaders, was viewed as the source of power and its reform as central to negotiations.
Although Burundi seemed to be finally making some headway on the path towards peace and power sharing, low-level militancy and extremism continued in the margins with groups such as the FNL splitting into factions and continuing to fight. In tandem with this, FNL activists were murdered or ‘disappeared’ with most observers pointing the finger at the state. Finally, in August 2008, President Nkurunziza met with the FLN leader Agathon Rwasa, and they agreed to hold regular meetings to resolve disputes. During the war the FNL had been accused of a variety of crimes including, attacks against civilians, the recruitment of child soldiers and afterwards, in 2004, participating with Congolese militias in a massacre at the Gatumba refugee camp.
On the 18 April 2009 Agathon Rwasa officially demobilised and one month later the Senate approved the appointment of a number of FNL officials as ambassadors and provincial governors. However, elections due in 2010 meant the process was not whole-hearted on either side and the government was accused of directing violence and political repression and extra-judicial killings against FNL members.
Throughout this turbulent time, Alexis Sinduhije was leading a very different life, first as a journalist for National Radio and Television and then as the editor of a weekly newspaper. He worked with Search for Common Ground to help set up Studio Ijambo in 1995, which was aimed at countering partisan reporting, hate speech and propaganda. A project that was as radical as it was brave, for a Burundi that was torn to shreds in an ethnically manipulated war, it recruited multi-ethnic teams to provide balance and accuracy. In 2001 he founded Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) as a means of encouraging peace between Tutsis and Hutus. Opening employment to both Hutu rebels and Tutsi soldiers, Sinduhije told the CPJ “I wanted to humanise the relationships between the ethnic groups in Burundi and set an example of former enemies working together to build peace.”
In 2007 Alexis Sinduhije decided to leave journalism and move into politics. He founded the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy – MSD – and announced his intention to run for the presidency in 2010. Right from the start he faced obstruction and repression from the Burundian State, with simple things such as registering the name of his party becoming farce as the government claimed a monopoly of the word “Security” forcing Alexis to change it to “Solidarity”. In November 2008 things took a more sinister turn as he was arrested along with 37 others during a raid on his party’s headquarters. Accused of threatening state security, he then spent the next few months in jail while the charges were changed due to lack of evidence, to “insulting the president”. In March 2009 he was finally acquitted and released.
Alongside this obstruction of Sinduhije, the political climate in Burundi became more repressive in general as the government harassed journalists, carried out arbitrary arrests of opponents, and the youth groups of the governing CNDD-FDD carried out what human rights observers referred to as quasi-military state-sanctioned intimidation.
Indeed, Human Rights Watch accused ‘International actors’ of not paying adequate attention to human rights violations and while they responded strongly to the arrest of Sinduhije, they showed “much less public concern about human rights violations affecting ordinary Burundians…..”. Opposition activists faced politically motivated murders, beatings and intimidation including anonymous phone calls and text messages, while property was burned and looted.
In May 2010 the Electoral Commission announced that CNDD-FDD had won 64 percent of the vote in the local elections leading the opposition parties to unite under the banner of the ADC-Ikibiri (l’Alliance des Démocrates pour le Changement au Burundi), to collectively denounce ‘massive electoral fraud’ and call for the abolition of the commission. When their demands were ignored they boycotted the national elections allowing the ruling party to garner 91 per cent of the vote. Several ADC members were arrested at which point the rest either went underground or left the country. Alexis Sinduhije wrote at the time that “the international community, obsessed with stability has turned a blind eye to all these manoeuvrings and abuses of human rights and of freedom of expression; they chose a rigged election managed by a police state rather than a vibrant democracy where the opinions of all are respected.”
Since then, the political situation in Burundi has deteriorated, violence has escalated and journalists continue to face threats and detention. Corruption and extortion, political assassinations and grenade attacks have punctuated the fragile peace. In 2011 more than 35 civilians were shot in a massacre in a bar in Gatumba and the government banned reporting on the story. Several media organisations defied the ban and while the government pointed the finger at FNL leader Agathon Rwasa, many observers blamed the Burundian National Intelligence Service. Alongside all this has been an increase in the activities of Brundian armed groups in the eastern DR Congo and the rise of a new rebel group, the Fronatu Tabara.
Raoul Boulakia argues that it is misleading to treat Burundi’s intelligence agency as a reliable source of evidence against Sinduhije without any acknowledgement of its role in political repression or of the CNDD-FDD’s history. He also points to the long history of the FNL’s conflict with the government. “It is incredible that these sources were relied upon uncritically, with no other corroboration, by the authors of the report.”
Certainly the report produced a strange photograph (annex 26) as part of its ‘evidence’, purporting to be Sinduhije on the telephone with a caption that states: “to an FNL collaborator in Rumonge, Burundi, concerning operations to prepare for the arrival of combatants from South Kivu.” Quite how the UN Experts deduced the conversation from a photograph is never explained. Raoul Boulakia says: “The absurdity of the caption implies a single-minded determination to publish allegations, no matter how thin the pretext.” He comments that the photograph doesn’t even resemble Sinduhije and that: “It is incomprehensible that a Group of Experts should be so negligent in its haste to publish allegations.”
Rarely is the methodology of the reports by the UN Group of Experts challenged – they are published annually in the DR Congo and are taken as a key source of information on rebel groups and their dealings with the Congo’s natural resources and other criminal activities. The most famous challenger to their content was Rwanda’s Paul Kagame who rubbished the 2010 UN Mapping Report that identified Rwanda’s RPF as possible genocidaires for the slaughter of thousands of Hutus in Congolese refugee camps in 1996. The difference being that there are many disparate and credible witnesses to the Hutu slaughter while the ‘evidence’ against Alexis Sinduhije is sketchy at best and certainly derives from highly contestable sources. If Sinduhije’s lawyers succeed in discrediting the allegations it will call into question the entire edifice of UN Group of Experts reporting in the DR Congo. For sure there is more to come……….