A President breaks the law

As the world’s second poorest country, it is unsurprising that Burundi is plagued with corruption and unrest. After its President broke constitutional laws and decided to hold a third term in office, it could be the beginning of another civil war. 

Burundi’s violent Civil War ended ten years ago, claiming over 300,000 lives. Its new constitution ruled that no President could run for more than two terms. However, in April last year, President Nkurunziza announced his decision to run for a third term in office. He was challenged in the courts but they ruled in his favour – there are reports suggesting the judges were heavily pressured. His decision sparked another bout of widespread unrest.

The growing unease in the country reached a peak on 11th December 2015, as activists and protesters were murdered in their homes in Bujumbura, the country’s capital. Those murdered were not brought to the local morgues, but taken away on government vehicles. Recently, the crimes of the Burundian governments have come to the media’s attention once more, after five suspected mass graves were discovered outside of the capital. They could contain the bodies of those killed in December.

While the Bujumbura police insist all of those killed were directly involved in attacks on military installments, local witnesses insist this isn’t the case as some of the victims included children. Could the government and police be complicit in continued crimes against their people?

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What about ordinary citizens in Burundi?

President Nkurunziza has disregarded the constitution. His people live in a growing atmosphere of fear, especially if they are not part of his politically dominant CNDD-FDD party. Already, those opposing the regime were harassed, abused, interrogated, or threatened. Since Nkurunziza’s re-election, hundreds of his political opponents have been imprisoned. Police operations are regularly followed by arrests, extortion and executions.

For those living under the strict regime, life is wrought with political and fiscal difficulties. As the political situation worsens, the government’s reluctance to cooperate with international organisations has led many investors to withdraw funding. The UK government is one of several to sever diplomatic ties, despite potential for a fruitful trade relationship. Healthy economic development is unlikely and businesses are suffering. 

Another refugee crisis

Hundreds of thousands of residents are fleeing to neighbouring Tanzania in hopes of a better and safer livelihood. Despite risking abuse, arrest or even death if caught, the people view it favourably over the constant harassment by the state police and CNDD-FDD party. These refugees not only face disruption of their livelihood, but governments of the neighbouring countries face pressure to support these refugees. This is not playing out well, with stories now coming to light about Rwanda of training refugees, among them children, to oust President Nkurunziza. 

Once in Tanzania, many have joined refugee towns such as in Nyarugusu in North-West Tanzania. This houses approximately 90,000 Burundians, and is supported by the UN Refugee agency. But as more refugees arrive, the agencies and government of Tanzania are struggling to cope, and resources are running low. 

An uncertain future 

President Nkurunziza’s reluctance to follow the constitution and allow open political discussion does not show promise for future improvements in Burundi. International outcry has encouraged action towards intervention in Burundi, although nothing tangible has appeared. There have been further investigations into the mass graves – satellite imagery has been evaluated, and a team of magistrates is researching the allegations. Human rights organisations have also been mandated to investigate violations in Burundi. Yet they cannot begin because of the lack of response from Burundian authorities.

Amnesty International has recommended the suspected grave sites be secured by the Burundi government. This would allow investigation into the possible victims’ cause of death, and their identity. The next step is to allow the victims to be returned to their families for a proper burial. Burundi could be subject to a trial under international law for human rights violationsAmnesty has also called upon international organisations such as the African Union Peace and Security Council to investigate the suspected mass grave sites with urgency. 

Although these investigations could provide closure on a truly horrific event in Burundi’s history, without the cooperation of the Burundi government it will be extremely difficult to investigate the human rights crimes that may have been committed. The current situation in Burundi causing thousands to flee goes beyond a single event. The lack of stability and safety in the country is not something that will be fixed with a single investigation. Possibly these international organisations need to intervene further within Burundi, although without the cooperation of the government this could quickly become hostile. To try and improve the situation for Burundians will go beyond these investigations and requires evaluating a political system that undermines the democratic façade and allows a man with minimal popular support to remain in power.

This article was written by Melissa Ross

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