(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Burundi power struggle outlasts diplomatic flurry

    There’s been a flurry of high-profile visits to Burundi designed to find a settlement to the political crisis but little evidence yet that anything has been achieved.


    First came UN Security Council members, followed by US President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the Great Lakes Region. Then, last week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dropped in; and finally there was a visit from five African heads of state.


    Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza welcomed Ban with a promise to free 1,200 political prisoners (later extended to 2,000), and to re-open two independent radio stations.


    The African Union delegation, led by South African President Jacob Zuma, won a commitment for the deployment of 100 military monitors and 100 human rights observers to help reduce the political violence that has claimed more than 400 lives since April, when Nkurunziza sought to extend his term in office.

    But in reality, critics argue, the government is stalling.


    On the critical issue of negotiating with the opposition coalition known as CNARED, which the government describes as “terrorists” and “coup-plotters”, Nkurunziza didn’t budge.


    Instead, the authorities have unilaterally set up a National Commission for inter-Burundian Dialogue, known as the CNDI, to negotiate with people it finds more palatable.


    This effectively involves “engaging factions that broke away from mainstream parties to join what was left of Nkurunziza’s governing coalition” before last year’s election, said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University, Washington.

    The opposition and key sections of civil society argue that negotiations can only be meaningful if they bridge the divide between the government and an armed opposition, a growing chasm that threatens all-out civil war.


    “One can’t be a political party and judge,” said Leonce Ngendakumana, president of opposition platform ADC Ikibiri. “The negotiations must include those who are armed, including exiled coup-plotters.”


    CNARED, many of whom are in exile, is recognised as the main opposition umbrella by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, appointed by the East African Community to mediate in the dispute.

    Alex Fielding, senior analyst at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm, is also unimpressed with the government’s commitment on political prisoners. He regards it as a sop, to avoid the real issue of all-inclusive talks.

    “When you read the presidential decree about the prisoner release, it excludes all those accused of treason as well as those who committed crimes ‘in organised groups’,” he told IRIN.

    The opposition held out little hope of a robust position from Zuma and the AU visitors after a January summit chose not to back an earlier commitment by its Peace and Security Council to send 5,000 peacekeepers to Burundi.

    Related stories

    How Burundi’s political crisis has crippled its economy

    Burundi - nobody to the rescue?

    Uganda feels the strain of the Burundi crisis

    The government’s acceptance of military observers needs to be seen in the context of the AU’s failure to fully deploy since July last year. Only 32 observers have been allowed into the country, and only after much haggling over memorandums of understanding.

    “Given this history, it's important to note that the observers will not be able to do their job properly unless the Burundi government grants them the legal freedom of movement to travel and the political freedom to write independent reports,” said Paul Williams, associate professor at George Washington University.

    “My questions would be: what use are observers if they are not deployed in the full authorised numbers and they are not granted the legal mandate and political freedom to travel as they wish and do their jobs independently?”

    What then is next for Burundi?

    “In my view, the best prospects for peace in Burundi will require sustained regional and international engagement. At this point, the Nkurunziza government does not feel the need politically to engage the genuine opposition,” said Siegle.

    “While most regional and international diplomacy up to this point has been aimed at accommodating the Nkurunziza government, there is insufficient appreciation of the growing resignation among many Burundian citizens that armed opposition is the only way to be heard,” Siegle added.

    “This means the time window for reaching a political resolution is limited and shrinking.”

    Fielding, at Max Security Solutions, called for “a more active presence and forceful response by the AU and UN, with a credible threat of sanctions and peacekeeper deployment if the regime fails to engage in genuinely inclusive dialogue talks, rein in the arbitrary arrests that have become commonplace, and reopen the political space for dissident groups and independent media organisations.

    “That said, I remain sceptical about the success of such talks as the main opposition and rebel demand remains that Nkurunziza steps down, something that he will refuse to consider as long as he retains support in rural areas and the security establishment,” Fielding added.

    Steve McDonald, global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, did see a possible path out of the crisis.

    “For a breakthrough to occur, there needs to be a frank conversation between Nkurunziza and selected opposition members, facilitated by a trusted third party – which does not include Museveni – out of the public eye and with no press coverage,” McDonald told IRIN.

    “To date, the international community, including the AU, have been telling Nkurunziza who he needs to engage and what the outcome is to be, i.e. an abrogation of his third term as president.  That is a non-starter,” he said.

    “I do not think that Nkurunziza's goal is a return to mass, inter-communal violence. So he can be engaged. But how that is done is the critical element.”


    Burundi power struggle outlasts diplomatic flurry
    As meaningful talks elude the troubled east African nation, war fears grow
  • How Burundi’s political crisis has crippled its economy

    The crisis that erupted in Burundi in April 2015 following Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a controversial third term as president has claimed more than 400 lives and caused more than 230,000 people to flee the country, according to the UN. But it isn’t just citizens who have suffered - the economy is in a bad way too.

    Alexandre Nyabenda works as a trader in a shop in Cibitoke, one of the so-called “contested areas” of the capital Bujumbura, which are really just the hotbeds of opposition to Nkurunziza that have seen most political unrest.

    Nyabenda, who has been working there for the past six years, told IRIN that trade had really suffered as a result of the instability.

    “Before the crisis … I was taking in around 120,000 francs ($76 dollars) of revenue each day,” he said. “Since April 2015, just to get 40,000 francs ($25) a day has been a real struggle.”

    The fall is explained by the fact that so many customers fled the country as Burundi descended into violence. Those who have stayed don’t have the same purchasing power so the quantity of goods sold has markedly declined.

    “A father who was buying two kilos of rice and two kilos of beans every day to feed his five children and his wife is now buying only half a kilo because his domestic helper, his wife and his children have fled into exile,” explained Nyabenda.

    “A grenade was thrown near my restaurant”

    Things are even worse for Sinkazi Kevin, 32, a coal seller in Cibitoke who has gone practically bankrupt due to the tough economic times.

    “Before this crisis I was selling at least six to 10 sacks of coal a day, but now I’m only selling one,” Kevin told IRIN, clearly angry. “There are no buyers! People have fled, and restaurant owners who were good potential clients before are now doing hardly any business, or have even closed their restaurants.”

    Micheella Kanyana was forced to close her small restaurant in Cibitoke because the unrest and insecurity was too great to carry on.

    “A grenade was thrown near my restaurant. I was already scared. Next, our customers, who were the motorcyclists, the taxi bike drivers, they stopped coming. And then our coal suppliers, our food suppliers were too scared to come to our area. This is why I closed my restaurant,” Kanyana told IRIN.

    “I asked three restaurant workers that I had taken on to return home for fear of seeing them arrested or killed because they were all young,” she added.

    Even the prestigious University of Burundi, the only academic institution in the country with resident accomodation is not immune from the economic crisis. It recently suspended providing breakfast for its boarding students.

    “The price of beans has gone from 1,200 francs (76 cents) before the crisis to 1,800 francs ($1.15) today. Rice has gone from 1,100 francs to 1,700 francs a kilo,” said Anatole Nzinahora, head of the university management, explaining that they simply didn’t have the means now to feed students three times a day. 

    According to him, the suspension of a morning meal will allow the management to at least feed the students sometimes, in a period when some of the school’s food suppliers are hesitant to deliver.

    Rents in relatively calm districts of Bujumbura have risen as a consequence of their perceived stability.

    “I lost my job because of the crisis. My wife no longer works,” Jean Marie Ndaruhayinda, the owner of a house in Gasenyi in northern Bujumbura, told IRIN. “The only income I have is rental income. Because my house is in Gasenyi (a calm area), I have had to double it from 150,000 francs a month rent to 300,000 francs a month.”

    As for Audace Ndayisaba, the owner of a house in the “contested area” of Mutakura, his tenants left his houses seven months ago.

    “I built small houses for tenants,” he told IRIN. “In total I was easily earning one million Burundian francs ($637) a month in rental income. Now, all the tenants have gone elsewhere because of the security situation. So I am earning nothing and I don’t even have a nightwatchman to look after the premises because of insecurity.”

    Bleak picture 

    Prospects for the Burundi economy are not good. Annual GDP growth for 2015 was -7.2 percent, and it is set to fall further with insecurity, a deteriorating business climate and tense relations with donors weighing on the treasury.

    The 2016 budget shows a fall in government spending of more than 46 percent, economist Léonce Sinzinkayo told the Iwacu newspaper.

    He calculated that revenue has plunged by $14.3 million, with the budget deficit now at $891 million.

    The downturn in food production and the difficulty in getting produce to market, is likely to see food prices continue their rise.


    Burundi’s crippled economy
  • What talks in Burundi should look like

    Warnings of a looming genocide in Burundi dangerously misrepresent the nature of the crisis in my country, but the widespread calls for urgent mediated talks are nevertheless well founded. They are an essential step to halting a cycle of violence that has claimed some 240 lives since April.

    Clashes between the powers that be and their opponents began in April when the ruling CNDD-FDD party nominated the incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza as its candidate in July’s presidential elections. Many people here and abroad said this violated the terms of a power-sharing deal signed in 2000 that paved the way to ending a civil war ignited in 1993. (Nkurunziza went on to win the election).

    Since then we have regularly seen dead and often mutilated bodies litter the streets of the capital amid armed attacks against and by the security forces. The way I see it, whether you are a policeman or rebel, in the opposition or the president’s camp, one thing is clear: you are fighting over a country that you all share, so your fighting is pointless. 

    I refuse to take sides. I speak neither for the opposition nor the government, but as a citizen with no interest in the political disputes. Politics, in the sense of who should or shouldn’t be in power now, is a key driver of the violence, but there’s more to this crisis that needs to be addressed at any negotiations.

    Such talks should be mediated by a neutral, trusted non-Burundian who would not allow any of the parties to take a dominant role, even in their planning, and they should ideally be held outside the country.

    The key participants should be the government and the opposition, much of which is grouped under the umbrella of the National Council for the Restoration of the [2000] Arusha Accords and the Rule of Law. CNARED was created in Addis Ababa in August with the aim of opposing Nkurunziza, whose legitimacy as president it rejects. There are other key players in the equation who are harder to identify: those who have been attacking police stations and patrols recently. On Sunday, gunmen opened fire on the home of Bujumbura’s mayor, who is a supporter of the government. Six people were killed over the weekend during several armed incidents. Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

    Burundi’s crisis also has a direct impact on neighbouring states such as Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania, not only because they are hosting more than 200,000 Burundian refugees between them, but also because a more stable Burundi would boost trade and economic growth in the region. So representatives of these countries should also have a role in talks.

    In his 2008 acceptance speech, newly-elected US President Barack Obama famously said, “I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.” This commitment to listening should prevail at the talks.

    And to have any hope of breaking the cycle of violence, they should focus on the following:

    1. The legality of Nkrunziza’s presidential candidacy

    Presented in diametrically opposed black-and-white terms by both camps, this is in fact a complex issue that needs unravelling. It should be recalled that the 2000 Arusha accord, whose two-terms-only provisions underlie the opposition’s case, is more of an agreed set of principles and power-sharing arrangements than a legally binding document. On the other hand, the opposition and many in the international community have dismissed the argument that the constitution’s two-term limit applies only to national elections and not the parliamentary ballot that first brought Nkurunziza to power in 2005 as a self-servingly narrow interpretation of the text.

    2. Security and justice

    Agreement must be reached on how to deliver accountability for the violence and killings of recent months and, more pressingly, how to end them. Those responsible must be arrested and brought before court. Only those authorised to do so should continue to bear weapons. I feel threatened simply by describing as pointless the killings and attacks.

    This rejection of impunity should extend beyond this current episode in our history, and encompass the bloodlettings of 1972, 1988, 1991 and 1993, when the assassination of president Melchior Ndadaye led to war.

    SEE: Burundi’s troubled peace and reconciliation process


    3. Facts and rhetoric

    It’s important that stakeholders face up to what’s going on in the country and refrain from both denialism and incendiary hate speech. One politician recently claimed that well-publicised photos of recent assassination victims were actually taken just after Ndadaye’s assassination. Government figures have repeatedly taken to social media to deny our country is in a state of crisis. Such declarations only heighten the distress of victims’ relatives and contribute to the general mistrust of our leaders. Some of these leaders recently gained notoriety for using language (“pulverize” “start the work”) reminiscent of the run-up to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. When it comes to dangerous rhetoric, the opposition is hardly blameless. For example, many publicly applauded the 2 August assassination of former intelligence chief Adolphe Nshimirimana. On social media platforms, politicians of all stripes and civil society leaders are caricatured with debasing animal features.

    4. Human rights

    A commitment to respect human rights by all parties is an essential component of any talks. It’s intolerable that the dead and disfigured continue to litter our streets, and that torture continues. Local and international NGOs as well as political parties from both camps should all be given the same opportunity to work unfettered in Burundi.

    5. Press freedom

    Much of Burundi’s independent news media was reduced to ashes the day after the failed coup attempt of 13 May. Many of our journalists have fled the country to work as refugees. What little remains of the independent media operates under very dangerous and restrictive conditions. There needs to be an agreement that private news organisations can resume their work. After all, freedom of expression is one of the hard-won fruits of national reconciliation.

    6. The economy

    A growth rate of -7.2 percent (IMF) is an outrage. All parties need to work together on how to kickstart the economy because they are all – we are all – stakeholders. At least we need to progress from a “poor country” to a “developing country.” Sorely in need of investment is the agricultural sector, in which more than 80 percent of Burundians toil to deliver mostly miserable yields. In a country with so much rain and fertile soil, it’s unacceptable that malnutrition is so prevalent. I am angered that the rice in our shops is imported from Pakistan. We should be exporting food. Burundi isn’t really poor: we have everything we need. If only the politicians capitalised on our potential.

    7. The return of refugees

    Creating conditions for the imminent safe return of more than 200,000 Burundians who have fled the country this year should be a priority for the talks. As well as being a question of basic rights, dignity and our own national security (refugee camps being fertile ground for rebel recruitment), there are practical legal considerations: we have already seen how protracted exile has spawned countless ownership disputes over land and other goods.


    What talks in Burundi should look like
    Désiré Nimubona is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to IRIN based in Bujumbura. As calls mount for a negotiated solution to the violent political crisis in Burundi, he sets out some key talking points for such discussions between the government and opposition.
  • Burundi's descent into hell

    It’s not unusual to find dead bodies in Bujumbura these days. We discover them on the streets, in drainage channels, bushes and rivers.

    The UN has registered 134 killings since April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza prompted protests by announcing he was running for re-election, despite having already served what many saw as his constitutional limit of two terms in office.
    On Friday morning, gunfire broke out again downtown, shattering the beauty of the kind of day you only get just before the rains come. This time it was a moneychanger around my age and his boss who were shot. The moneychanger’s wife, a mother of two young children, was unable to speak when I called her.
    How did we get here? How did we begin sliding into hell again? To try to understand the extent of the crisis it’s worth looking back at the key events of the past few weeks.
    1 August
    Opposition politicians and civil society leaders gather in Addis Ababa to create the National Council for the Restoration of the Arusha Accords and the Rule of Law, or CNARED. (While not legally binding, the August 2000 Arusha Accords paved the way for the end of a civil war ignited in 1993 and detailed how Burundi should be governed. A two-term limit was a key provision). CNARED’s raison d’etre is to get Nkurunziza out of power. For its members, the only issues to negotiate are the terms of his departure.

    Around the same time, the ruling party announces that national dialogue will resume soon. While CNARED members will be allowed to attend, they will not be able to do so under the banner of this organisation. Despite talk of reconciliation, there is no let-up in the killings.

    2 August
    Former intelligence chief Adolphe Nshimirimana, widely seen as the president’s right-hand man – and the military commander of the CNDD-FDD when it was a rebel group (it is now the ruling party) – is killed in a rocket attack in the capital together with three bodyguards. Amid international condemnation of the killing, Nkurunziza takes the unusual step of addressing the nation. Arrests are made and tension mounts further. A correspondent for RFI and AFP is attacked and hospitalised.

    3 August
    Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, president of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons, narrowly survives an assassination attempt. His international renown in human rights circles ensures he is allowed to travel abroad for treatment, even though a court had ordered him to remain in Bujumbura while he faces criminal charges of endangering state security over claims he made last year about the militarisation of the ruling party’s youth wing.

    One diplomat described the assassination attempt as a “shameful attack against a man who has worked tirelessly and relentlessly to protect the rights of others.”
    4 August
    A local ruling party representative is killed by unidentified gunmen while travelling to his office in Kiyenzi, 21 kilometres south of Bujumbura.

    15 August
    Jean Bikomagu, chief-of-staff of Burundi’s armed forces from 1993 to 1996, is assassinated in a motorcycle drive-by shooting on his way back from church. His daughter is shot and seriously wounded but survives. Like his erstwhile rebel counterpart Nshimirimana, Bikomagu would have been one of the key personalities to appear before a future truth and reconciliation commission.

    20 August
    In a ceremony brought forward six days with barely any notice, Nkurunziza is sworn into office. State media are told about the event in the morning, while other journalists, myself included, receive text messages just a few minutes beforehand, and in many cases are prevented from attending by the presidential guard. No foreign heads of state attend.
    Over the following weeks, gunfire sporadically breaks out in opposition areas of Bujumbura. There are more arrests and bodies continue to be found in different parts of the capital.
    7 September
    Patrice Guhungu, the spokesman of a small political party whose leader was murdered in May, is shot dead in front of his house. As the authorities announce an investigation, party acting head Chauvineau Mugwengezo says: “It is clear the government of Pierre Nkurunziza had a hand in this odious crime because it is part of a series of assassinations targeting all those who dared say no to his illegal third mandate.” Mugwengezo flees into exile saying he has also escaped several assassination attempts.
    11 September
    Army chief-of-staff Prime Niyongabo, who played a key role in putting down a coup attempt in May, narrowly survives an ambush. Seven of his bodyguards are killed. In a photo taken by a witness to the attack, I see that one victim is wearing a wedding ring. I think about another wife widowed, more children losing a father, another extended family losing a breadwinner.
    14 September
    United Nations human rights expert Pablo de Greiff warns that “the international community, regional and international organisations included, cannot afford to simply stand by and wait for new mass atrocities to recur" in Burundi. "This would risk a major conflict in the Great Lakes region, the proportions of which no one can predict.”

    22 September
    In a message read out in all of the country’s Catholic churches, Burundi’s Conference of Catholic Bishops appeals for the resumption of “real dialogue” that excludes none of the actors in the crisis. The message condemns a “very worrying security situation” characterised by assassinations, abductions, torture and arbitrary detention.

    23 September
    Nkurunziza signs a decree creating a national commission for inter-Burundian dialogue to lead negotiations for six months, with 15 members drawn from different sectors of public life and acting under the aegis of the president’s office. Several civil society leaders express scepticism about the commission’s chances of success.
    28 September
    UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein warns of an alarming increase in killings, arrests and detentions in Burundi during the month of September and says “a number of people were arrested by the police or national intelligence service before their death.
    “This succession of unexplained murders and the widespread impression that they could be linked to state institutions instils deep fear in the population, especially in areas known for their support of the opposition,” he says.
    Of the 704 arrests recorded in September, most people were generally released after a few hours, according to the commissioner, but some have spent months in detention, far longer than the legal limit.
    29 September
    Jean Baptiste Nsengiyumva, a leading opposition figure in Muramvya Province, is assassinated.
    30 September
    The European Union imposes an asset freeze and travel ban on three officials close to Nkurunziza for their alleged use of excessive force against opposition protestors, and on a former general who took part in May’s attempted coup. The government later describes this move as illegal and counterproductive.
    3-4 October
    Between eight and 15 people are killed in various incidents across the capital. Police accuse opposition supporters of sparking the violence by attacking officers. Witnesses report gunshots and explosions throughout Saturday night. It remains unclear who carried out the killings.
    Amid all this, hope is hard to come by. I worry also about the risk of conflict spreading beyond Burundi’s borders. There are now some 180,000 Burundian refugees living in Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zambia, some of which are still struggling with the aftermaths of their own past wars and facing their own disputes about presidential mandates. What will happen in those refugee camps if war breaks out here? Burundi has already accused Rwanda of training rebels to destabilise this country.
    For now we seem to be going backwards in many ways: in terms of national unity, security and the economy. Meanwhile, internationally, Burundi appears to be sidelined as the world’s attention focuses on Syria, Afghanistan and the refugee crisis. The proposed national dialogue can only work if outside pressure on all key stakeholders is stepped up.
    Recent killings by police in the United States led to the slogan “Black lives matter,” meaning African Americans. My message to the world now is: “Burundian lives matter, too.”
    Burundi's descent into hell
  • Burundi diary: election day

    The presidential election finally took place today. Across the country, according to state radio and other stations still on the air, things are fine.

    For me, what’s important isn’t so much this election. I am more worried about people’s security. I wonder about people who can’t sleep well because they have fled or because strangers come into their homes.

    Last night I heard grenades going off and gunshots in several parts of Bujumbura, including Kamenge, an area which had been calm up to now. One resident there told me, “We also heard the music at night.” It made me realise that people have become so used to gunfire.

    There are few independent or private media journalists left in this country. It’s hard to find reliable information. After the explosions, the place was abuzz with text messages and phone calls: “What’s happening? Who is shooting? Why?"

    Some people think journalists know everything about what’s going on. We don’t, even if information often comes first from us and is later confirmed by the authorities. The police have yet to explain the who and why of the shooting.

    This morning I woke up as normal. I called a colleague from the Iwacu Press Group, the only private media company still functioning since the attacks on the press that followed an aborted coup against President Pierre Nkurunziza in May. We’re to work together, which is great; otherwise there’s a risk of being kidnapped, and then who would tell our family? That’s how it is now. 

    I didn’t see a lot of people voting today while visiting polling stations in the Bujumbura districts of Taba, Kamenge, Gihosa, Rohero and Nyakabiga. Outside the capital, according to media reports, turnout was quite high. But in the city, according to the chairman of the electoral commission, voters only turned up in dribs and drabs. This was no surprise: turnout for the parliamentary elections held on 29 June was below 30 percent.

    In some polling stations I visited, I saw voters trying to remove the indelible ink from their finger with lemon juice. Others put oil on their finger before voting so that when the ink was applied, it came off easily. It seems they didn't want to be clearly identified as having voted.

    This morning there was a spate of criticism of the election. Belgium, our former colonial power, and the United States, both said the polls lacked credibility and shouldn’t be held.

    We’ve heard all this before. People deplore the closure of political space, and then what? I wouldn’t give my life to a politician but I believe in the future of this country and its youth. I believe if you give people a chance they will do better. What I and other young people miss now is a chance for stability. We’ve had problems for a long time. We’ve been burying our loved ones for a long time. We don’t really know those who have bereaved us because there have been no credible investigations.

    I am not going to have more than I had before because of these elections.

    Burundians like me expected stability from credible elections. Whatever happens, we need stability. That’s all. For now, this stability is absent. Can you conceive of 161,000 refugees? It’s shocking to call family members in the province of Nyanza Lac and find their phones switched off. Why? They’ve fled the country, school children included. They finished the school year but missed their exams and left for camps in Tanzania. Tanzania has become another home for many in my family. I don’t know if these elections will bring them back or other Burundians suffering in camps in Congo and Rwanda.

    For previous diary entries, see: Bullets before the ballot


    Burundi diary: election day
  • As Burundi goes to the polls, journalism is a high-risk job

    For the families of journalists like me in Burundi, life has been hell these past few weeks, especially since street protests began in April against the president’s plans to run for a third term.

    Children haven’t been to school since then. Every day my son asks me when he do will do his homework. He remembers that the demonstrations started as he come home one Friday with a homework assignment. One day I had to ask his headmaster to open the school gates for a few minutes just so he could go in and feel some relief. It didn’t work.

    The official discourse is reassuring, but the economic, political and social decline continues.

    Our families don’t understand how we can choose this career. “This job is death,” my sister told me recently.

    “Papa, did they shoot at your computer,” my son asked me once. My boy likes computers. Many journalists had their computers riddled with bullets after private media houses were attacked in the wake of a failed coup bid in May.

    “Son, it’s time to do something else. I’m afraid for you,” said my mother in a tearful phone conversation recently.

    For journalists working for private or foreign media, it’s as if our work has become a crime.

    But think the whole community is under threat. Today it’s journalists; tomorrow it could be shopkeepers, or doctors.

    As a journalist and citizen I had always hoped that what’s happening now would not come to pass in Burundi. Events seem to evoke the old demons of destruction and violence. (Civil war ravaged Burundi between 1993 and 2005.)  Even before today’s legislative polls, the elections had already claimed victims: tens of thousands of people have fled the country and many have also taken flight inside.

    Ever since the coup bid, reporters have gone into hiding, including myself as well as colleagues from both private and state media.  I personally chose not to leave Burundi for a neighbouring country, but around 50 journalists have fled and some are living in refugee camps.

    The closure of private media “is a major setback for freedom of expression, because there are no more voices that contradict those of the government, no more independent sources about what is happening now,” Jean Regis Nduwimana, a professor of communications, told me.

    He added that he feared the country was at risk of falling prey to “a quasi-totalitarian regime which only wants to hear its own voice heard on state media.”

    These days moving around with recording devices, laptops or smart phones is very risky. Staying at home all the time is impossible but travel has to be done with great caution. Many journalists say they are followed. Some have had their houses attacked. The most recent case of this was of Voice of America reporter Dianne Nininahazwe, who was also followed.

    We journalists expected private media to be reopened before polling began. But it seems we are going to have to wait for that, nobody knows for how long.

    Over the past week I saw men lying on the ground bleeding after grenades were thrown from car windows. Being a journalist now is to live the pain of others and to forget one’s own. We have all lost loved ones in the past but the wheels of history in Burundi are still turning and the same mistakes are being made. We continue to shed tears for our friends and family. People are still burying their loved ones.

    Our country’s greatest curse is that people never try to walk in others’ shoes.

    I’ve heard government officials describe those protesting as bringers of bad luck. This has gradually become a conflict although the government says 99.9 percent of the country is calm. But it’s not normal for people to flee a country when elections come around. Can you imagine more than 100,000 refugees? Children separated from their parents, not going to school, who can no longer sleep, who are in camps, at risk of cholera and malnutrition?

    About 10 days after the failed coup, journalists working for foreign media and visiting correspondents were summoned by the National Communications Council. I arrived late. I had considered not showing up at all; I thought I might find myself behind bars. This place makes you paranoid. At the meeting, we were warned, accused of only covering the demonstrations when the ruling party was in full campaigning mode, of encouraging the protestors, of only talking to refugees when 10 million people had remained in Burundi.

    Once when I tried to interview a witness to an attack he refused to talk to me, saying he didn’t want to die.

    Gunfire and grenade blasts rang out in parts of Bujumbura on Saturday night, and again on Sunday night. For hours, we had no idea who was shooting or why. State radio announced three people had been killed on Saturday night. The police spokesman was mysteriously unreachable.

    All this makes for a fearful climate. I can see no cause for calm. Burundi’s former partners have pulled out, as have election observers.

    Gunfire in a country the government says is calm and the withdrawal of the opposition from the race, and widespread calls from the international community to delay the polls are signs that we are on a slippery slope and that that the return will be hard.


    The dangers of journalism in Burundi
  • Who is Burundi’s coup-maker?

    Major-General Godefroid Niyombare on Wednesday announced the ouster of President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi over his controversial bid to run for a third term in office. The apparent coup took place after almost two weeks of street protests in the capital, Bujumbura, and while Nkurunziza was away in Tanzania attending a summit. 

    Here's what we know about the man behind the coup attempt:

    During the 1993-2005 civil war, he fought among Hutu rebels alongside Nkurunziza and against the government forces of then president Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi.

    After the war, he served in several senior positions before being appointed in 2009 to the post of army chief-of-staff, becoming the first Hutu to occupy that position.

    His wife, Spès Niyonkuru, was a member of parliament for the ruling CNDD-FDD party in southern Rutana province.

    Niyombare later served as ambassador to Kenya. On his return, he rejoined army headquarters before being named head of the intelligence services. He only stayed in this job for three months before being fired by presidential decree.

    His sacking was widely linked to his alleged authorship of a memo suggesting Nkurunziza could endanger himself if he ran for a third term, a bid many regard as unconstitutional and in violation of a 2000 peace accord.

    Niyombare justified the overthrow of the president on a number of other grounds, in addition to his decision to run for a third term. According to Niyombare's announcement, these include: 

    • “The cynicism and sadism that has characterised the attitude of Pierre Nkurunziza.”
    • “The vertiginous impoverishment of the people of Burundi over the last 10 years.” 
    • “A worrying degradation of relations between the people and security forces brought to light over the past two weeks.”

    He also said:

    • “The use of negative forces in Burundi constitutes a threat to seriously destabilise not only Burundi but also neighbouring countries.”
    • “Nkurunziza’s regime has been marked by acts of vandalism of national resources, by unspeakable crimes of blood and massive violations of human rights.”



    Who is Burundi’s coup-maker?
  • Bullets before the ballot – Bujumbura diary

    At least a dozen people have been killed in recent days in Burundi amid protests against the president’s plans to run for a third term in office. The unrest has raised fears that the country, after a decade of peace, could slide back into conflict. This is what it is like to live and work through the troubles:

    Saturday, 18 April

    Like all other journalists, I get a call about “peace” demonstrations organised by the ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy–Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). Government spokesmen call on all media outlets and individual journalists and use social media to publicise the event. The aim is to demonstrate a show of support for President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial bid to run for a third term in elections due in June.

     During the event, led by party chairman Pascal Nyabenda, some of those marching cry out “tuzobamesa!” to bystanders. In Kirundi, this literally means: “We’re going to wash you!” But it reminds me of the language used during the 1993-2005 civil war, when a variant of the same verb, “mumese!” was clearly used to mean: “kill him!” I am one of the “grenade generation,” those who were in secondary school during the 1990s, when grenade attacks on schools were commonplace.

    Friday, 24 April

    I learn that the ruling party’s congress has officially endorsed Nkurunziza as its candidate even though he has already served two five-year terms as president. This should preclude him from running, although his supporters say the first one didn’t count because he was appointed by parliament rather than elected by public ballot. This is when I begin thinking about my family: my wife and my two children.

    Saturday, 25 April

    Civil society organisations, opposition parties and even parts of the CNDD-FDD opposed to Nkurunziza’s candidacy announce they will take to the streets. Until now, I’d thought things would calm down and the president, content with his two terms, would let others succeed him. Polls have put his party well in the lead.

    Sunday, 26 April 

    The streets of Bujumbura are packed with demonstrators. At around 8:30am, I take some photos in central Bujumbura’s Nyakabiga district. Police begin to break up the protests with teargas. With no protection, I run for cover. I see children crying. Some police appear to be firing live rounds.

    What affects me most is the death of a 15-year-old boy. I had just left Mutakura, in the north of the capital, when a colleague called me to say an adolescent had been shot in the head while he had his hands in the air. His name was Jean Népomuscène Komezamahoro. Born in 2000, he was the same age as the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Accord, which paved the way for the end of the war.

    I saw women weep when they learnt that the boy was dead. That night, I got a call from the same part of town. I was told that uniformed men had burst into a home, killing two people, including a 40-year-old man who worked for Toyota Burundi.

    Monday 27 April

    I leave the capital to go to the Musaga neighbourhood in the south of Bujumbura. Protestors here are more hardline, determined to take on the Nkurunziza regime. The previous day a man had been shot dead. Protestors blamed the police and intelligence services. Today, I witness the forced closure of Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), the most listened-to radio station in the country.

    Tuesday 28 April

    Back in Musaga. Some colleagues and I come under fire. Nobody is hurt. A rubicon of press freedom is crossed when social media and mobile phone networks are cut. This is a big problem for journalists.

    Wednesday 29 April

    I learn that members of the Imbonerakure (the CNDD-FDD’s youth wing) armed with clubs have targeted colleagues from Bonesha FM. Later, I hear that police shot at RPA journalists in Mutakura the previous night. My three-year-old son starts asking questions like, “Daddy, did they shoot at you? Tell me, Daddy, who shot at you? And why?” I don’t reply. One thing is clear though: the troubles have reached the hearts of children, including my own.

    Thursday, 30 April

    I decide to move my family far from the city. I am not the only one. It’s normal in times like this. Early in the morning, we drive south to Musaga and I try in vain to get my family out into the countryside. A group of protestors at a roadblock recognise me as a journalist. They say they sympathise but if they let us drive through everyone else will ask them too. They suggest I hand over my family to let them through to walk to the bus on the other side of the district. I refuse and return home.

    Friday, 1 May 

    It’s the same story to the south in Kanyossha. Again, I can’t get through the barricades. Night brings good news: a two-day truce to bury the victims and give the president time to rethink his decision.

    Weekend of 2 and 3 May

    We pack the bags again. At around 6am on Sunday my son waves goodbye to me. He is leaving with his baby sister, my wife and three other family members, with a plan to come back when calm returns. But where will stay calm for sure when different communes are beginning to join the movement? I notice two young strangers in front of my house as I pack up the car. I zoom in on them with my camera.

    Monday 4 May
    I head downtown to work as usual. Showing my local press card, I am able to get though the barricades. The protestors are not always friendly to journalists who are close to the government. Sometimes we are manhandled by the police and the Imbonerakure.

    At midday I see protestors clashing with police. The protestors wanted to block the main road running through Bujumbura, Boulevard 28 Novembre. Live bullets were fired at the protestors and grenades went off that injured some police officers. The wounded cried out. Some protestors had blood on their clothes. There was no sign of ambulances. Later I learned that even the first lady had to turn back when her convoy tried to cross the Republic Bridge, which lies on this boulevard.

    Frightened by the gunshots, the explosions, I sought out a calmer location. A 12-year-old boy was among three people killed today. Forty-five people, as well as 15 police officers were wounded.

    Tuesday 5 May

    I decide not to work today. I need to rethink my personal security strategy. But tomorrow I have to resume my duties cover the burial of corporal Euraim Hatungimana, shot while he was protecting demonstrators, apparently by a secret service officer.

    I want people to understand what is going on in Burundi, especially over recent days where the rights of children are violated by demonstrators and the police. That’s something they have in common.


    Bujumbura diary - bullets before ballot

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