Artículo World Politics Review, 06.09.2019 Sam Mednick, periodista independiente y corresponsal de la AP en Sudán del Sur
Four years after President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a controversial third term, leading to widespread protests and a government crackdown that killed more than 1,200 people and forced 400,000 to flee, this small East African country is still in the throes of political turmoil. With new elections less than a year away, tensions are rising as the government tightens its grip. In a report released Wednesday, United Nations investigators warned of another wave of possible atrocities ahead of the election amid “a general climate of impunity” in Burundi, where Nkurunziza’s supporters portray him as a “divine” leader.
Even though Nkurunziza said he won’t run again next May, many Burundians are wary. Last year, the ruling party—the improbably named National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy—held a national referendum that approved changing the length of presidential terms from five to seven years, potentially allowing Nkurunziza to stay in power until 2034. Observers criticized the government for coercing people into voting for the change.
Violence has escalated in Burundi since the beginning of the year, when prominent opposition figure Agathon Rwasa registered a new political party, the National Congress for Freedom, which is now the main opposition group in the country. According to an exiled group of reporters known as SOS Medias Burundi, which anonymously posts on-the-ground journalists’ accounts on social media, party members have been arrested, beaten, disappeared and even killed by the authorities and its affiliated youth militia.
“Historically, there has been a crackdown on journalists, independent civil society and political opponents moving into electoral periods,” Lewis Mudge, the Central Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said.
“But these elections are different as most independent observers have already left Burundi. We are seeing the ruling party rachet up its repression every day.”
The government’s youth militia, known as the Imbonerakure, has been accused of stoking further unrest, including killing, torturing and intimidating anyone perceived of being associated with the opposition. In an interview with World Politics Review, two men who said they were members of the Imbonerakure—and whose names are being withheld to protect their identities—claimed the government ordered them to increase intimidation tactics and even authorized them to kill and detain people in the lead-up to next year’s vote.
“It will involve more violence,” said one of the members, who claimed he was a high-ranking officer within the Imbonerakure. “When the elections come, we have to increase strength and power to make people afraid of joining the opposition.” He said the ruling party was “intimidating people because they still want to lead the country.” While their claims and identities could not be independently verified, their accounts are consistent with what local and international rights groups are documenting.
In an interview in Bujumbura, Rwasa said he doesn’t believe there will be free or fair elections next year. He receives daily reports of members of his party being threatened. “People have been harassed, some have been put into jail,” he said. “Some have been released, some others are still in there.”
While the government is forcefully staving off its political opponents, it is also continuing to squeeze what little civic space is left in the country. In June, one of the last civil society groups operating in the country, Parcem, was shut down. There is suddenly little if any media freedom in the country. In March, the BBC’s operating license was permanently revoked over its airing of a documentary on alleged torture sites, while a previous suspension of Voice of America’s operations was upheld. Few international journalists are allowed into the country, and those who are face several challenges.
On a rare visit by a foreign journalist in July, I was denied entry to one town outside the capital by local officials, despite having a valid press pass, and told to request further permission from security authorities in Bujumbura. The officials cited negative coverage from another international outlet as one of the reasons for barring access to the town.
Local journalists worry that the lack of international coverage is making it harder to hold Burundi’s government accountable, as the situation over the past year has deteriorated.
“Compared to today, we had independent media to talk about hidden things, now there’s nobody here to talk about what’s happening,” said one journalist who didn’t want to be named. “We’re concerned Burundi will be like North Korea if it doesn’t change.”
Fearing for their own safety, journalists self-censor. Outlets are monitored for what they publish, and radio stations often told what not to air. According to local journalists, if they quote one of the few remaining opposition figures left in the country in an article, they must then quote two government officials. Reporters also find it difficult to get information on the ground because Burundians are too afraid to speak out.
“The main problem is that [the leaders] don’t understand liberty of expression,” Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, who served as Burundi’s president from 1994 to 1996, said in an interview in Bujumbura. “We realize the shrinking space to 2020.”
But Gaston Sindimwo, who serves as first vice president under Nkurunziza, doesn’t think the government is forcing journalists to write what it wants. Instead, journalists must abide by the rules of their profession, he said in an interview.
“Freedom of expression will never be 100 percent anywhere in the world, because everyone has his own interpretation.”
Sticking to the government’s narrative that Burundi is peaceful and calm, Sindimwo urged the international community to rethink its position toward the country. Following the violence of 2015, the European Union—Burundi’s largest donor—suspended its financial support and sanctioned several officials, as did the United States.
Yet rather than offer concessions or reforms, Burundi closed itself off. In 2017, it was the first country to quit the International Criminal Court. Last year, it shut down all international NGOs in the country for several months for not abiding by certain regulations, and earlier this year it kicked out the United Nations human rights office. GDP per capita slipped 3 percent in 2018.
The government is intent on portraying Burundi as a beacon of stability, even though it is facing desperate conditions. The country is currently grappling with both a malaria outbreak and a crippling drought. There are more than 5.5 confirmed malaria cases—half the country’s population of some 11 million people—according to the World Health Organization. Yet the government is refusing to officially declare an epidemic, which could provide it with more resources from the WHO and other international agencies. In April, the World Food Program assisted over 130,000 people affected by drought in the northern province of Kirundo. Based on the latest food security report compiled by the U.N. and other aid agencies, more than 1.6 million people in Burundi are in need of immediate food assistance. Burundi has the world’s highest prevalence of chronic malnutrition, with 56 percent of children stunted, according to the U.N. Yet the government rejected the report’s findings.
As next year’s election approaches, things may only get worse, especially if the ruling party doesn’t give space for opposition groups to compete without intimidation. In a report in June, the International Crisis Group was blunt:
“No one expects the vote to be free or fair. There is still a chance, however, that it could be more credible and peaceful, that both external and internal opposition figures could compete without fear of intimidation or violence and that some could win seats in parliament, thereby preserving a degree of pluralism in the country.”
“Such an outcome,” it added, “would at least help prevent Burundi from sliding into graver conflict and could later prove important to resolving the crisis.”