Mass atrocities and crimes against humanity committed primarily by state agents and their allies continue to take place in Burundi, according to the September 2019 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi. The Commission, moreover, found that President Pierre Nkurunziza and many in his inner circle are personally responsible for some of the most serious of these crimes. They include “summary executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, sexual violence, and forced disappearances.”
The Commission has been investigating the Burundi crisis since 2016. Its findings mirror those of the International Criminal Court, which opened a separate investigation in 2017 based on “a reasonable basis to believe that state agents and groups implementing state policies … launched a widespread and systematic attack against the Burundian civilian population.” The persistence of such atrocities echoes Burundi’s 1972 and 1993 genocides and the brutal civil war that ended in 2005.
A Long Spiral Downward
The adoption of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement in 2000 created a comprehensive peacebuilding framework that, through an inclusive power-sharing formula, addressed the root causes of Burundi’s violent past. The framework ushered in a period of stability and hope, marked by two leadership transitions from President Pierre Buyoya to President Domitien Ndayizeye, each of whom ruled for 18 months before the transition to Nkurunziza in 2005. By this time, Burundi’s traditional political parties were functioning as multiethnic coalitions, marking a break from the divisive politics of the past.
Nkurunziza’s unwillingness to step down following his second term in office in 2015, as stipulated in the Arusha Accords and the 2005 Constitution, reversed this hopeful path and set off the current crisis. His decision to pursue a third term coupled with the resurfacing of the Hutu nationalist agenda of his ruling CNDD-FDD party triggered months of protests and a failed coup attempt in May 2015. It also set off a wave of defections and tit-for-tat violence in the military, targeted killings of civilians—often with ethnic undertones—and the launching of armed rebellions by three separate movements. It is estimated that around 1,700 people have been killed since 2015. The September 2017 Final Report of the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi, however, cautions that “no one can quantify exactly all the violations that have taken place and continue to take place in a situation as closed and repressive as Burundi.”
Despite the information shortage, ample evidence points to a worsening situation under the veneer of calm that the authorities have tried to project. The number of Burundian refugees has exceeded 400,000 (out of a total population of 10 million), making Burundi a “forgotten refugee crisis,” according to Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. At the same time, the state-sponsored militia, the Imbonerakure (“those who see far”), has been implicated in mass atrocities along with the police, intelligence, and elements of the military. Imbonerakure deployments follow a four-tier structure from the colline to the commune, province, and national level, mirroring Burundi’s administrative units. Its members are a major contributing factor of the continuing human displacement, especially in the northern, eastern, and southern provinces, where their presence is particularly entrenched.
The patterns of violence have shifted from overt abuses in 2015 and 2016 to more covert tactics that began at the end of 2016. Firsthand accounts captured in the 2017 UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi report indicate that atrocities since then have been committed in near-total concealment. Some involve killing victims in one location and dumping their bodies elsewhere, including in neighboring countries, to avoid detection. The 2019 UN report also confirmed numerous secret locations—including residences owned by senior officials—where torture, rape, mutilation, other forms of abuse, and killings occur on a regular basis.
These reports have been corroborated by media stories, local human rights monitors, and the testimony of Imbonerakure defectors. The 2018 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi confirmed the existence of mass graves in the Kanyosha and Mpanda collines of Bujumbura and in Bubanza and other areas. It also corroborated previous findings of lists of civilians and military members marked for execution.
Burundi has also witnessed a surge in disappearances. Since 2015, the United Nations has consistently received reports of forced disappearances in Burundi. Hundreds of cases are investigated and brought to the attention of the Burundi government each quarter. The Ndondeza (“help me find them”) campaign has disseminated more than 400 photos of missing persons since 2015.
“Despite the information shortage, ample evidence points to a worsening situation.”
Atrocities by state agents are not confined within Burundi’s borders. In 2018, the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) documented attacks, killings, and disappearances of Burundian refugees at Uganda’s Nakivale refugee camp. Most of the refugees IRRI spoke to said they recognized Burundian intelligence agents and Imbonerakure members, including some who had killed family members in Burundi. IRRI also documented complaints about threatening phone calls and text messages, as well as suspected Imbonerakure agents taking photos in the camp. Members of the Imbonerakure, furthermore, regularly cross the border into Tanzania to surveil and intimidate Burundian refugees in Nyarugusu camp, where most of Burundi’s refugees and exiles live.
Burundi’s self-inflicted political instability has directly impacted living conditions. Its economic growth shrank from 4.2 percent in 2015 to 0.4 percent in 2019 under the weight of high-level corruption and fiscal mismanagement. Since 2017, the government has been unable to pay civil servants on time, a source of public acrimony given that the state employs 80 percent of Burundi’s salaried workers.
Since 2017, the ruling CNDD-FDD has made “contributions” to the Treasury mandatory for every family—a widely unpopular move given the high levels of youth unemployment. Contributing to the economic downturn is a new policy introduced in 2018 that requires foreign aid groups and charities to provide the government with staff lists that identify their employees by ethnicity. Most groups chose to depart rather than comply, further disrupting service delivery.
Burundi’s health sector has been hit particularly hard by the political crisis. Only 500 doctors were still working in Burundi in 2017, according to the UN Children’s Fund. This is roughly half the total present in 2010. The effects are dire: 5.7 million cases of malaria—including 1,801 deaths—were reported in 2019. Those numbers dwarf the 1.8 million infections and 700 deaths reported in 2017, illustrating the progressive deterioration of Burundi’s healthcare system.
While the Region Looks On
The East African Community (EAC) is mandated to mediate the Burundi crisis, but persistent frictions among its members have rendered it ineffective and prolonged the conflict. Of particular concern is the escalating tension between Uganda, the chair of the Burundi Peace Talks, and Rwanda, the EAC chair. A December 2018 UN report found that Burundi, the DRC, and Uganda are now arming and training Rwandan rebels, adding another layer of strain to the already frayed relations between Rwanda and Burundi. A flare-up could have devastating regional consequences.
The AU has been equally ineffective. After abandoning its December 2015 decision to deploy a 5,000-strong protection force, again due to bickering by its members and a threat by the Nkurunziza government to shoot any AU troops entering the country, the AU sent 200 human rights monitors instead. However, they operate under tight restrictions imposed by the government, which largely confine the monitors to Bujumbura. Tellingly, they have never made their reports public due to fears that the Burundi government would expel them. Still, they are the only external monitors in Burundi since the expulsion of the UN Human Rights Commission. The BBC, Voice of America, and virtually all civil society and media organizations have also been forced out.
Six EAC summits failed to persuade the CNDD-FDD to attend talks chaired by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and mediated by former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa. Five negotiations were held between 2015 and 2018, but none of the talks were face-to-face. The CNDD-FDD instead initiated efforts to revise the 2005 Constitution in ways that dismantled key provisions of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. This was a major blow to the negotiations, given that their core objective was to use the Accords as the basis for resolving the issues that triggered the crisis, stabilizing the country, and preparing it for democratic elections in 2020.
In May 2017, Mkapa presented a fresh road map at the EAC Summit and issued a dire warning: “There is an impasse because the government of Burundi is reluctant to talk to its opponents. Currently, it is picking friendly stakeholders to talk to while ignoring the others.” He also reminded the EAC presidents of the “imperative need” for their “personal engagement” in getting the Burundi government to commit to a serious dialogue without preconditions. Mkapa, moreover, alerted the EAC presidents to the consequences of the CNDD-FDD’s constitutional revision efforts. “Whither the EAC-led mediation whose dialogue I am facilitating? For I fear the region will find itself before a fait accompli.” The Summit adopted the report but failed to convince the Burundi authorities to join.
Passed without a viable opposition in May 2018, Burundi’s new constitution confirms Mkapa’s worst fears. It dismantles two-thirds of the provisions of the Arusha Accords, including the carefully crafted power sharing structure. The Presidency now has the power to overrule Parliament. Moreover, the delicate checks, balances, and quotas that regulated other government branches have been nullified.
This includes the security sector, which has been restructured so as to enable stronger CNDD-FDD control, violating fundamental precepts of military professionalism requiring the independence of militaries from politics. The ruling party had always been deeply suspicious of the Arusha Accords’ quotas, which ensured 50/50 representation of former Hutu movements (including the CNDD-FDD) and the mostly Tutsi ex-Armed Forces of Burundi (ex-FAB). The arrangement had contributed to one of the more effective security sector reform initiatives on the continent. However, since 2015, the CNDD-FDD has pursued an extensive purge of ex-FAB officers, with numerous being killed or abducted. A law introduced in 2017 bestows “reserve force status” on the Imbonerakure and places it within the military, describing it as “citizens militarily trained for this purpose by the Burundi army and veterans.”
“As the CNDD-FDD gears up for the 2020 polls, intimidation, disappearances, killings, and ethnic rhetoric are all on the rise.”
As the CNDD-FDD gears up for the 2020 polls, intimidation, disappearances, killings, and ethnic rhetoric are all on the rise. Lost in the Burundi tragedy is the irony that the trigger for the crisis was Nkurunziza’s pursuit of a third term in 2015. While not yet announced, Nkurunziza is expected to run for a fourth term (extended to 7 years under the new constitution) and is entitled to run for a fifth term in 2027. Reflective of the personality-based political structure he has cultivated, Nkurunziza was officially named by his party as “Supreme Eternal Guide” in March 2019.
Reversing Burundi’s Descent
Despite a veneer of stability, Burundi’s crisis rages on, taking a toll on civilian safety, political governance, economic and social development, and overall regional security. As with previous Burundian crises, reversing this downward spiral will require external engagement given the intense distrust and inequities in power domestically. A fresh peace process outside the EAC is needed, given the competing interests within the regional body. It should bring on board a wider group of African and international actors and build on Mkapa’s experience going back to the Arusha peace process. Surviving members of the Mandela and Nyerere mediation teams should also be consulted. The parties to a revamped peace process should involve representatives from all components of Burundi’s political environment, including the domestic and exiled opposition, and not just CNDD-FDD–approved parties.
Foretelling further exclusion, the scheduled 2020 elections are likely to undermine efforts to advance a peace process and should be postponed until a time that they would be jointly supervised by the AU and UN and inspire confidence in ordinary Burundians that the process would be free and fair. Given the CNDD-FDD’s intransigence to negotiate with the opposition, external actors should be prepared to apply additional pressure, including but not limited to targeted sanctions of the CNDD-FDD leadership.
The fact that the Burundi crisis is self-inflicted also means that it can be resolved. Moreover, a roadmap for this resolution, the Arusha Accords, has already been devised. The challenge for external actors is to get the Burundian parties back on that road.
- Paul Nantulya, “After the Referendum, a Drive to Dismantle the Arusha Accords,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Spotlight, July 20, 2018.
- International Crisis Group, “Burundi’s Dangerous Referendum,” Commentary, May 15, 2018.
- Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “Term Limits for African Leaders Linked to Stability,” Infographic, February 23, 2018.
- International Crisis Group, “Burundi: The Army in Crisis,” Report No. 247, April 5, 2017.
- Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “Dismantling the Arusha Accords as the Burundi Crisis Rages On,” Spotlight, March 13, 2017.
- Joseph Siegle, “The Political and Security Crises in Burundi,” Senate testimony, December 10, 2015.
- Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “Burundi: A Multi-Ethnic Political Experiment at Risk?” Spotlight, April 29, 2015.
- Nicole Ball, “Lessons from Burundi’s Security Sector Reform Process,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Africa Security Brief No. 29, November 30, 2014.
- Émile Ouédraogo, “Advancing Military Professionalism in Africa,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Research Paper No. 6, July 31, 2014.