In the Spring of 2015, President Pierre Nkurunziza sought a 3rd term of his presidency, contrary to the 2 term limit set by The Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, otherwise known as the Arusha Accords, signed in August 2000 after protracted negotiations facilitated by former Presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Nelson Mandela of South Africa. It ended 12 years of civil war and cycles of massacres, including genocide, dating back to Burundi’s independence in 1960 (1).
President Nkurunziza’s third term bid was in defiance against this peace deal and was met with opposition from multiple parties and all ethnicities. A youth militia, The Imbonerakure, which means “those who see far”, are the ruling party’s youth wing, is fiercely loyal to Nkurunziza and have been carrying out targeted campaigns of intimidation and terror (2).
The group arose in 2010 out of disarmed fighters from the ruling party’s previous incarnation as a rebel group who never fully demobilised. “Former members of the CNDD-FDD never completely left the mentality of war to fully rejoin fully civilian life,” Burundi rights activist Vital Nshimiyimana told the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) (3).The Imbonerakure has some 50,000 members across the country, according to Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, Burundi’s most prominent human rights activist.
Leading Burundian peace activist Jean Claude Nkundwa said years spent fighting in the bush made youths joining Imbonerakure vulnerable to exploitation by politicians. “Some of them are promised jobs which they will never get because they are not educated anyway,” he told the (IRIN). Consistent testimonies indicate that Imbonerakure members operate under instructions from the ruling party and with the support of the national police and intelligence services, who provide them with weapons, vehicles and sometimes uniforms (4).
The supreme court of Burundi approved Nkurunziza’s mandate for a third term after some members of the court fled the country after receiving death threats. The international community deemed the third term illegal. Nkurunziza’s party claimed it was legal, due to the fact that his initial appointment as president after the war was not a result of a direct election.
Massive protests in the capital begun in April of 2015. Heavy crackdowns by police forces left the country in distress. Protesters did not agree with the president’s run at a third-term and a strong unity between ethnicities that had never been seen before was forged. On 13 May 2015, army general Godefroid Niyombare attempted a coup d’etat following the 2015 Burundian unrest. President Nkurunziza was at the time in neighbouring Tanzania attending the 13th Extraordinary Summit of the East African Community Heads of State, which had been convened to discuss the situation in Burundi. Nkurunziza quickly attempted to return to Burundi, but he was apparently unable to do so because rebel soldiers had taken control of the airport in Bujumbura. Nevertheless, the head of the armed forces, Prime Niyongabo, said on state radio during the night of 13–14 May that the coup attempt had been defeated, and he called on rebel soldiers to surrender. Loyalist forces remained in control of the state radio and presidential palace. Shortly thereafter, "heavy fighting" was reported around the state radio as it was attacked by rebel soldiers (5).
Nkurunziza's office announced the president's successful return to Burundi on 14 May, as army and police loyal to Nkurunziza regained control of much of Bujumbura. On 15 May, the government said it arrested Niyombare and two other leaders of the coup and would charge them with mutiny.
On May 15, 2014, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa was arrested in Bujumbura. After questioning, prosecuting officials charged him with endangering internal and external state security for remarks made on the radio 10 days earlier, and using false documents. The remarks and documents relate to allegations that young Burundians were being armed and sent for military training in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Human Rights Watch considers Mbonimpa’s arrest as harassment and repression of human rights activism (6).
Mbonimpa is an opponent of President Pierre Nkurunziza and opposed Nkurunziza's controversial bid for a third term in 2015. Mbonimpa was shot in Bujumbura on 3 August 2015 and suffered a gunshot wound to the face. On August 9th, Mbonimpa, who had, was flown to Belgium for further treatment. Although he survived, his son-in-law was murdered in October and his son was murdered recently. Some believed that the attack was intended as retaliation for the assassination of General Adolphe Nshimirimana, a key Nkurunziza ally who was killed on the previous day.
Members of the Imbonerakure militia and security forces have carried out numerous killings in the past few months, targeting in particular anti-regime demonstrators and human rights activists. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country. What was initially an issue of a third term, has inexplicably become an issue of ethnicities.
Last week, when the Burundi’s Senate president Reverien Ndikuriyo threatened to “pulverize” regime opponents who do not lay down arms before Friday’s deadline, many feared an imminent threat of genocide (7).
“Today, the police shoot in the legs… but when the day comes that we tell them to go to ‘work,’ do not come crying to us,” said Ndikuriyo. The loaded term “work” was a euphemism used in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide to describe the mass killings of at least 800,000 mainly Tutsi people by extremist Hutu militias. The language is unambiguous to Burundians and strikingly similar to that used in Rwanda in the 1990s before the genocide. Burundi shares the same Tutsi-Hutu mix as Rwanda (8).
With dwindling support and under pressure, the President’s party and the Imbonerakure have reverted to long-gone ethnic tensions in order to rally support for their regime. The regime’s current rhetoric echoes that of past genocides in Rwanda and Burundi. Concerns have arisen that the FDLR, a Rwandan rebel group who were involved in the 1993 genocide and are based in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, have found their way into Burundi and are being accommodated by Hutu hardliners. The accommodation of these militiamen and former rebels has the potential to wreak irreversible damage to not only the country, but the region. Instability and violence in Burundi has a likelihood of spreading to Rwanda, which has not experienced violence of this level since 1994, and the Congo. The East African Community The East African Community is a regional intergovernmental organisation comprised of the Republics of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, the United Republic of Tanzania, and the Republic of Uganda. The region’s progress is dependent upon the stability and prosperity of each member state. The heavy influx of Burundian refugees and the halt of the economy has wider consequences and repercussions for the region.
Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, has implored neighbouring Burundi not to repeat the ethnic violence that ended in genocide in his country in 1994. Regional and world powers have grown increasingly concerned that the security situation in Burundi could lead to civil war or mass atrocities, and that a deadline for the weekend of November 8th for Burundians to give up weapons would spark widespread bloodshed.
The protests last Spring offered a glimmer of hope of a nation forged by the freedom fight led by the young, impoverished, and empowered citizens of Burundi who refused to tolerate corruption. These were actions of civil society at its very best: co-ordinated, sustained, widespread and fearless. Far from the senseless ethnic bloodshed Burundi has known since its independence- a lasting consequence from colonial rule.
On April 26, 2015, with the murder of 15-year-old boy scout Jean-Nepo Komezamahoro (9), activist Pamela Kazekare launched Komezamahoro, a political movement that was responsible for the organization of multiple acts of civil disobedience, such as the 13 May Women's march and the assistance of protesters. A new generation of artists, humanitarians, and intellectuals were at the forefront of the movement that showed promising signs of change and progress. These drivers of change have been the targeted and hunted by the administration and have been met with the ultimatum of death or fleeing. Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa serves as a prime example but is just one high-profile instance of a regular suppression of activists in Burundi by hardline groups and the Nkurunziza government.
The introduction of ethnically charged rhetoric in the absence of these leading voices leaves the opposition on a weak platform with little to no leadership while the country slips into more violence reminiscent of the violence experienced during the genocides of the past. Strong condemnations of the violence in Burundi has been issued by the governments of the UK, USA (10), as well as the United Nations (11) and the International Criminal Court (12), but the ultimate inaction of these governments and international bodies prioritizes the politics of a sovereign nation before the wellbeing of the people. Ultimately, unless a strong opposition can put a stop to the violence in Burundi, hundreds of thousands may have to perish before the world takes action.