By Brian Obara
Burundi recently held a referendum whose results have shredded the delicate Hutu-Tutsi balance of power created by the Arusha Accords, the peace treaty that ended the Burundian Civil War in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed.
A majority 73 per cent of voters chose “Yes” to constitutional changes that, among other things, will allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for two more seven-year terms after his current mandate ends in 2020.
This result, underwhelming against initial predictions of a Rwanda-style 90 per cent mandate, still constitutes an audacious power grab by Nkurunziza. Since 2015, when he plunged his country into a crisis by running for a controversial third term, Nkurunziza has demonstrated his willingness to pay the price to be counted among Africa’s perpetual presidents.
That price has constituted of torture, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, sexual violence, beatings and the assassination of political opponents. An estimated 400,000 Burundians are exiled in neighbouring countries while within the country, the number of internally displaced people is estimated to be 176,000. The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a preliminary examination of the situation in Burundi on November 2015 in response to reports of widespread violence and killings by state and non-state actors.
Last year, judges at the ICC have authorised a wholesale investigation into crimes against humanity in Burundi on the strength of two UN Commissions of Inquiry reports as well as documents by various human rights organisations. The ICC’s interest in crimes in Burundi seem to have tipped its leader, Pierre Nkurunziza over the edge. Nkurunziza has used the machinery of the state to turn the screws on opponents and dissidents. Word from upon high is all options are on the table to silence any potential ICC witnesses, including kidnappings and extrajudicial executions. Fearing this, the ICC reportedly rushed to conclude investigations last year before the situation on the ground could get worse.
Everything turns on the Hutu-Tutsi dynamic in Rwanda and Burundi. Despite the apparent enmity between their leaders, there is an uncanny symmetry to the path Rwanda and Burundi have taken towards electoral authoritarianism. After carefully orchestrating plebiscites to review their respective constitutions, both Kagame and Nkurunziza can now, with a veneer of legitimacy, tentatively stay in power until 2034. Not content to only compromise the institutions in their own countries, Kagame and Nkurunziza have also taken aim at the International Criminal Court. Though Kagame has been the more strident, his and Nkurunziza’s sentiments on the ICC are of a piece.
Since assuming the chairmanship of the African Union (AU), Kagame has been even more outspoken about his dislike for the ICC. Despite his chequered history and questionable democratic credentials, Kagame tries his best to pass off as a modern-day philosopher king. Part of his repertoire is to wax philosophical to his guests in Kigali on the threat the ICC represents to Africa and how he was the first to see it:
“From the time of its inception, I said there was a fraud[ulent] basis on which it was set up and how it was going to be used. I told people that this would be a court to try Africans, not people from across the world. And I don’t believe I have been proven wrong,” said Kagame in April during a meeting with telecoms tycoon-turned-philanthropist Mo Ibrahim.
Though he has been less garrulous on the ICC, Nkurunziza’s actions have spoken for him. On October 27, 2017, Burundi became the first country to withdraw from the Rome Statute, the treaty that creates and operationalizes the ICC, after completing the requisite one-year wait. Though the ICC retains jurisdiction over crimes committed before Burundi’s exit from the treaty, the swiftness with which the withdrawal was carried out speaks to the resolve for Bujumbura to stymie any attempts at pushing for justice for victims of the excess of the government and its allies.
By all accounts, Burundi is inching closer to either an all-out civil war that could destabilize the whole region or it could be retreating and shrinking further into itself as Nkurunziza and his acolytes double down on domestic repression to prevent a power shift that could hasten their date with justice.
Burying evidence and silencing witnesses to forestall the ICC’s efforts to pursue justice for victims has the potential to turn Burundi, already a police state, into a hermit kingdom whose primary objective is to protect powerful perpetrators from justice.
A cascade of factors is contributing to Burundi’s continued isolation. Many of them have to do with the man calling the shots in Bujumbura.
For God so loved Burundi…
After Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh exited the scene, Nkurunziza has taken his place as the African leader most prone to public displays of piety. In fact, Nkurunziza’s public religiosity beats any competition by a mile. At his urging, a communiqué in March pronounced Thursday as a day of prayer “devoted entirely to the Lord” for members of the ruling CNDD-FDD party. He is a chapter-and-verse Bible-thumper who preaches on the side as Pastor Peter. Nkurunziza believes that he is ordained by God to pursue a special mission on earth.
What makes Nkurunziza special isn’t so much that he believes in God, but that he thinks God believes in him. His conviction, those close to him say, springs from his perception that God spared him in a close shave with death during Burundi’s long civil war.
Nkurunziza’s bifurcated belief system (good versus evil) colours the way he sees the world.
Because everyone must either toe the government line or be deemed to be working for Burundi’s enemies, the country has no place for an inquisitive, sceptical media. Several clued-in Burundian journalists, bloggers and lawyers refused to go on the record for this story out of concern for their safety. “It just isn’t safe right now for me to comment,” was a common reply.
The few who would comment on the record prefaced their remarks with the hard-won anecdotes forged in the crucible of an Orwellian nightmare. Pacifique Cubahiro’s account was the most chilling.
Cubahiro, a correspondent for Voice of America (VOA), was reporting politically motivated killing of 26 people in Cibitoke Province days before the May 17 referendum. Because of their frequency and the danger involved, many political attacks go unreported. The few attacks that do make it into local and international news reports are the result of the bravery of journalists like Cubahiro.
On the day he was reporting on the killings in Cibitoke, Cubahiro ran into youths from Burundi’s infamous Imbonerakure (or those who see from far). The Imbonerakure are the ruling CNDD-FDD party’s answer to the Hitler Youth. Rowdy, murderous and unaccountable, they were a huge factor in helping Nkurunziza win a controversial third term in the 2015 elections . They were put to similar use during the referendum. The Imbonerakure are no respecters of borders either. They believe in attacking Nkurunziza’s perceived enemies within and outside Burundi’s borders. Attacks on Burundian refugees by suspected Imbonerakure have been reported at camps in Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC.
Listening to Cubahiro gives one a sense of the Imbonerakure’s unfettered power. Though police allowed Cubahiro and his crew to film in Cibitoke, the police officers left only to return five minutes later with youth who were, in Cubahiro’s words, “visibly Imbonerakure”.
“The Imbonerakure were angry. One of then said I must erase all the images and leave the premises. I asked why I should obey his orders and he got even angrier and wanted to rough me up. Finally, I decided to hand the camera over to one of the officers,” said Cubahiro.
They were then bundled into a four-wheel drive vehicle and taken to a police station. At the police station Cubahiro was forced to hand over the memory card from his camera before he and his crew were released. By the standards of Burundi’s current media environment, this was an extremely fortunate outcome. Other journalists have fared worse. Jean Bigirimana of the independent Iwacu newspaper is still missing almost two years after members of Burundi’s notorious intelligence services picked him up
Éloge Willy Kaneza, knows the dangers that come with being a Burundian journalist all too well. He is one of the founders of SOS Media Burundi, a social media savvy collective of Burundian journalists that came together after the clampdown that followed the attempted May 13, 2015 coup d’état. Kaneza says the situation has detoriorated since.
“Things have gotten very difficult on the ground. The regime still considers journalists, especially independent ones, as opponents and collaborators with western countries, who are qualified as enemies of the state,” he said.
“I would add that what shows the seriousness of the problem is the closure of BBC and Voice of America for six months. It is worrying because these two media sources normally give both sides time to express their opinions,” he added.
Because he is forever in mortal combat with the “dark side”, Nkurunziza’s world view is shaping matters big and small. Whether on the football pitch (he christened the club he plays for “Hallelujah”) or in his duties as president (he increasingly uses dark religious tones to woo supporters and chastise Burundi’s perceived enemies. The latter are a galaxy of bodies he disagrees with (like the European Union, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry and the ICC) or prominent Tutsis (like Rwandese President Paul Kagame) and former Burundi President Pierre Buyoya).
For Gilbert Bukeyeneza, the referendum was part of an elaborate plan to pre-emptively circle the wagons in case the ICC comes calling with indictments:
“I think in their minds staying in power is the best way to escape the ICC. That’s why they are doing everything they can to retain power by every means possible. But I think it is a strategy that is bound to fail,” said the prominent blogger.
However as the respected constitutional lawyer Wachira Maina, a one-time Kagame advisor, writes in the TheEastAfrican, Nkurunziza’s referendum antics, though perfectly mirroring Kagame’s own playbook, risk pulling the two countries into war:
“There is an armed rebellion coming. That has two dangers: One, it has the potential to suck in Rwanda. And President Paul Kagame never starts things he cannot finish.”
It would be curious if the two countries mostly rabidly opposed to the ICC’s existence turned out to be the biggest advertisements for its continued importance in the world. However, there is another possibility and it hinges on whether the ICC will issue indictments for senior officials in Burundi’s government. Being the sly operator that he is, Kagame might use that opportunity to build a rapport with Nkurunziza based on their mutual dislike for The Hague court. So short of friends, it is hard to see Nkurunziza spurning Kagame.
What does the future hold?
Many Burundians are agreed about what comes next: More clampdowns and isolation. Cubahiro’s reckons that the voting patterns in the referendum could be put to deadly use by the ruling party cadre who are determined to root out any remaining opponents to Nkurunziza’s rule: “After the vote, the will of the CNDD-FDD to keep power is manifest,” he says,
“Today, the localities that voted against the proposed amendment to the constitution are known and risk reprisals; and will be considered as strongholds of the opposition. In the ruling party, I think there are also members who risk being pushed out of business because they have not been too vocal about this change.”
For Cubahiro, there is no question that Burundi is now a one-party state: “We are moving towards monopartism, which is built around the person of Nkurunziza. A system that will weaken other parties and that will be more rigid. Building the country around a single man will make it easy to crush any dissonant voice without worrying about the challenges from citizens.”
The Arusha Accords were an all-hands-in affair for East Africa and were supported by the international community. For Bukeyeneza the most striking thing about the referendum is it has exposed Burundi’s isolation.
“There were no observers from the EAC, AU, EU or UN. The fact is that the crisis in Burundi will now escalate and the only victims will be Burundians because the country does not interest anyone any more.”
Even as North Korea demonstrates how difficult the transition from “hermit kingdom” to “full-fledged member of the international community” can be, Burundi is making a retreat that could take decades to reverse.