Burundi rights defender says the problem is political power not ethnic relations

Burundi should be proud of a man like Pierre Claver Mbonimpa who devotes his life to the service of his country but instead it has thrown him in jail, accused him of threatening national security and endangering diplomatic relations with neighbouring DR Congo.

His ‘crime’ was to denounce the continuing distribution of weapons to Burundian youths on Radio Publique Africaine, a respected national radio station during a talk show.

He also commented on reports that young men are being recruited, armed and sent to neighbouring Congo for military training by Burundian security in the presence of ‘elements of the Burundian army’.

Only a month previously Burundi expelled a senior United Nations official from the country after the UN published a report that alleged “weapons distribution to members of the youth league of the ruling party”

Mr Mbonimpa provided evidence to the security services in support of his radio statements when he was initially summoned by police. He was finally arrested at Bujumbura airport as he was leaving for Nairobi on May 16th.

Pierre Claver Mbonimpa is the president of Association Burundaise pour la Promotion des Droits Humains et des Personnes Détenues – APRODH (Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Prisoners) and is famous for his work challenging torture and defending prisoners rights.

APRODH also works in the prevention of sexual violence, as well as the protection of children in the criminal system. In 2007 Mbonimpa won a Martin Ennals award for his “deep committment and great personal risk.”

Authoritarian government

Pierre’s arrest is one in a long line of attacks against anyone who is seen to challenge the increasingly extreme authoritarianism of Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza in what the International Crisis Group has called: “”the worst crisis in Burundi since the civil war.”

In March the government suspended the principle opposition party, MSD, accusing it of ‘insurrection’ and the party leader, Alexis Sinduhije had to flee the country.

Sinduhije is famous for his work as a journalist who challenged ethnic divisions in a nation that had seen genocide and civil war. He was the founder of Radio Publique Africaine with Samantha Power, (now the US Ambassador to the UN), as a way to build peace between Hutu and Tutsi.

After a series of arrests by the security services he left journalism and formed the MSD party which along with five other opposition candidates boycotted the last elections accusing the the ruling party of vote-rigging.

Thirteen opposition parties had already challenged the results of the district elections despite the EU claiming the polls ‘met international standards’.

A report by the International Crisis Group claims that while opposition parties could provide some evidence of fraud they were unable to provide the “irrefutable proof” and some of them “privately recognised that they might have overestimated their audience.”

Most of the opposition party leaders including Alexis Sinduhije fled the country after the boycott. He returned two years later along with Agathon Rwasa, former rebel leader and head of the National Liberation Forces (FNL).

However, despite promises from the government that they could operate freely they were constantly harrassed, intimidated and their party members faced violence and arrest.

The youth wing of the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) has long been accused of operating like a militia with allegations of killings, beatings, rape, threats, and extortion.

A political problem not an ethnic problem

For years after independence, Burundi was domnated by a Tutsi minority until the first democratic elections when a Hutu, Melchior Ndadaye, was elected. He was assasinated within months which kicked off a war during which hundreds of thousands were killed.

This was repeated in 1994 when another Hutu president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was killed when the plane he was flying in was shot down in Rwanda – the event that sparked the Rwandan genocide.

It took years of peace talks, which many see as fundamentally flawed, before a power-sharing government was put in place and four years later Burundians voted in the government of Nkurunzisa.

While Nkurunzisa’s government has an ethnic distribution that includes both the Hutu majority as well as Tutsi elites it has embedded patrimonial power and corruption more deeply.

Burundi is ranked as the poorest country in the world where only two percent of the population have access to electricity.

Yet international donors have largely withdrawn their support and have been impassive despite evidence that the country is facing increasing violence and the peace process is disintegrating. As Burundi faces elections in 2015, President Nkururnzisa is attempting to change the constitution and seek a third term.

The governing party is increasingly hostile to journalists and has been accused of attacks and intimidation against civil rights groups.

Not only has Burundi been described as being awash with guns but the International Crisis Group says the post-war years have: “increased corruption and favoured the rise of an ethnically diverse oligarchy.”

Border crossings – evidence of paramilitary youth training?

Burundian journalists from the media collective IWACU say they have evidence that the claims made by Pierre Claver Mbonimpa are true.

According to them the ruling party youth wing, Imbonerakure, “are militarily trained in the Kilba area of Uvira, South Kivu”. IWACU say they carried out a survey in South Kivu amongst Burundian soldiers who have been in Congo for 3 years fighting Burundian rebel groups such as the FNL.

The Imbonerakure youths are allegedly also fighting opposition groups in Congo but IWACU say they then return to Burundi and, “have the mission to hunt down members of the opposition and intimidate the population to force the vote in favor of the CNDD-FDD.”

The borders between DR Congo and Burundi are extremely porous, Burundian armed groups operate in South Kivu and the UN Group of Experts state that Burundi is a major transit country for gold smuggled out of the DR Congo.

Burundi is an integral component of the countries that make up the Great Lakes region and any instability in the nation is likely to spill over the borders.

Conflicts in the region are often framed in ethnic terms but as Mbonimpa said during a speech at the 2010 Oslo Freedom Forum:  “The problem that plagues the country is not ethnicity, but politics.”

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