Amid growing concerns about a wave of political assassinations in Burundi, a former police officer has announced the formation of a new armed group, with the aim of overthrowing a government he accuses of numerous killings, rampant corruption and economic incompetence.
The army quickly denied a new rebellion was under way and a news blackout has been imposed.
Some 300,000 people are thought to have died during a civil war that raged in Burundi between 1993 and 2005 and whose aftershocks continue to be felt in the form of frequent violence and political instability.
"Our men are on the front in Cankuzo and Ruyigi [in the east of the country],” said Col. Pierre Claver Kabirigi, naming his group during a 25 November interview on Radio Publique Africaine as the Le front de restauration de la démocratie (FRD) Abanyagihugu.
Kabirigi said his group carried out attacks in the provinces of Cankuzo and Ruyigi. On 21 November, clashes were reported between government security forces and a group of armed men in a locality in Cankuzo.
In a statement, he said he formed his group in reaction to the misappropriation of public funds, as well as a wave of extrajudicial killings allegedly carried out by intelligence operatives and police at the instigation of the ruling Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD) party, in an operation codenamed Safisha, which is Kiswahili for “to clean”.
Kabirigi further alleged that state agents were behind the 18 September massacre of 40 people in a bar in Gatumba and the 8 October execution of two university students.
"Oddly, as far as the Burundian authorities are concerned, all is well. [But the] Burundian people are feeling abandoned and to deal with this situation, they have decided to take up arms."
In keeping with previous official reactions to armed violence, on 28 November, army chief Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare dismissed Kabirigi’s supporters as mere “criminals” and “bandits”, insisting no new rebel group had been created. He said Kabirigi was a fugitive from justice who had already served prison time.
But Kabirigi’s claims of government complicity in widespread killings have been echoed by Burundi’s human rights community.
According to the Observatoire de l’Action Gouvernementale (OAG), a watchdog comprising 18 organizations, as well as journalists and members of parliament, at least 300 members of opposition parties have been killed by security forces or the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD.
“We have observed with dismay that in all parts of the country, a diabolical machine has continued killing opposition party activists,” OAG chairman Onesphore Nduwayo told a 21 November press conference.
“Since May, at least 300 [civil society] activists or former demobilized FNL combatants have been killed,” he said, referring to the Forces nationales de libération, one of the main armed groups during the civil war, which is now a political party. FNL leader Agathon Rwasa fled Burundi in 2010 for eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where he has reportedly been remobilizing.
“The people were arrested by the Imbonerakure [the ruling party’s youth wing] or by police elements or the secret service and taken to an unknown location and later found dead, executed,” said Nduwayo.
At present, the violence and political assassinations seem directed towards members of the Movement pour la solidarité et la démocratie (MSD) party, whose leader Alexis Sinduhije is also in exile.
“[The MSD] today seems to be in the eye of the storm,” said Nduwayo.
The president of the Association for the Defence of Human Rights and Prisoners' Rights (APRODH), Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, added: “I know that there are people who were killed because of their political [affiliations] and I say this loud and clear, they were political assassinations and if I should die because I have spoken the truth, I accept [that].”
A government report on security over the past two years, released this month, acknowledged numerous killings had taken place but attributed them to score-settling, land disputes, banditry and the prevalence, despite several post-war disarmament campaigns, of weapons across the country.
Playing down charges of an orchestrated campaign against the opposition, government spokesman Philippe Nzobonariba told reporters that numerous government officials had also died in the violence, especially in the province surrounding the capital, Bujumbura.
The report said several police and military officials were among 223 arrested for crimes including murder or attempted murder, rape or attempted rape, robbery, fraud, embezzlement and corruption, illegal possession and sale of weapons and complicity to escape.
But according to APRODH’s Mbonimpa, only a few people have been arrested and jailed in relation to extrajudicial executions.
Time to talk
The European Union, through its representative in Bujumbura, Stephane de Loecker, called on the government and all political partners to sit and talk to avoid bloodshed.
“The European Union is concerned by the current situation especially the executions and the extrajudicial killings,” said De Loecker, noting that it would not be easy to bring parties to the negotiating table.
According to Pacifique Nininahazwe of the Forum de Renforcement de la Societé Civile, a grouping of civil society organizations, the government should meet the exiled opposition politicians to enable a return to peace and security.
“We do not want any more war in the country. The bloodshed since independence is enough,” said Nininahazwe.
Media under pressure
There are also concerns over increasing pressure on journalists.
On 29 November, Radio France International (RFI) said its Kiswahili service correspondent, Hassan Ruvakuki, had been arrested the previous day while attending a regional summit in Bujumbura because of his alleged links with Kabirigi, whom he is accused of meeting in Tanzania. RFI said it believed Ruvakuki was being interrogated in a military camp in the east of the country.
Explaining the development, National Intelligence Service spokesman Télesphore Bigirimana appeared to contradict the official government position that no new rebellion existed, telling reporters: “[Ruvakuki] was arrested with others, not as a journalist, but as an individual, for investigations. He is suspected of lending support to a rebel group. If he is innocent, I think he will be released quickly."
Reporters Without Borders, which works for press freedom around the world, criticized the authorities for carrying out the "abduction-style arrest" and for failing to disclose Ruvakuki's whereabouts, even to his family.
Meanwhile, the National Council for Communication has banned media from reporting on Kabirigi and his group, or even commenting on its existence.
A few days earlier, Daniel Bekele, Africa director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), warned that “statements by senior government officials [with regard to journalists] have heightened the tension.
“On November 11, the National Security Council issued a statement, delivered by Defense Minister Pontien Gaciyubwenge, accusing certain members of the media and civil society of flagrantly violating [a separate] blackout on coverage of the Gatumba massacre and calling on the government to enact sanctions against them quickly,” said Bekele.