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Burundi’s shrinking political space

Since completion of the 2010 general elections, the government has directed motorbike taxis to stop operations after 6pm in a bid to enhance security. There had been claims that armed bandits were using motorbike taxis to transport weapons
(Jane Some/IRIN)

Burundi’s government is coming under increasing criticism for its alleged suppression of the opposition and for dismissing a recent spate of armed attacks as mere banditry.

It was hoped that elections earlier this year would consolidate the country’s democratic progress after years of civil war.

"Politically, the situation is of serious concern because the government of the CNDD-FDD [Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie] wants to impose a one-party system by punishing ... opposition political parties," Jean Salathiel Muntunutwiwe, a political scientist and dean of the faculty of arts and human sciences at the University of Burundi, told IRIN.

The government, he said, was violating the constitution by banning public meetings, and “persecuting opposition leaders to the extent that several have fled the country. And it seems to have perfected the art of institutionalizing fear.”

This view is shared by Human Rights Watch, which states in a new report that the government “continues to crack down on fundamental human rights. Political opponents face surveillance, arrest, detention, torture, and even death. Civil society activists and journalists fear that simply carrying out their work may put them at risk of arrest or physical harm due to the government’s acute sensitivity to criticism of the security or justice sectors.

“Between late April and early September 2010, at least 20 people, including activists from both the CNDD-FDD and opposition parties, were killed in what appeared to be acts of politically motivated violence. The security services arbitrarily arrested dozens of opposition activists; some were tortured.”

Rona Peligal, HRW’s Africa director, said: “With the elections over, Burundi has a perfect opportunity to reach out to its critics and to work with them to build a more inclusive, rights-respecting state.”

Recent developments are “crushing hopes that this could be a new beginning for Burundi”, said Peligal.

Burundi's Interior Minister Edouard Nduwimana

Le ministre de l’Intérieur Edouard Nduwimana
Jane Some/IRIN
Burundi's Interior Minister Edouard Nduwimana...
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Un espace politique de plus en plus restreint au Burundi
Burundi's Interior Minister Edouard Nduwimana...

Photo: Jane Some/IRIN
Interior Minister Edouard Nduwimana

Back “on track”

Speaking to IRIN before the HRW report was published, Interior Minister Edouard Nduwimana spoke of the need to keep certain groups “on track”.

"The government is not targeting all members of civil society," he said.

"Civil society is a partner and we appreciate this but if one goes off track we bring them back on track through meetings and other efforts. If one mistakes bringing them on track to be harassment, this is not our intention.”

Jean Marie Gasana, an independent consultant on the Great Lakes, traces the current situation in Burundi to what he terms a "disregard and loss of the spirit" of the 2000 Arusha Accord, a power-sharing deal designed to steer Burundi from civil war to stable democracy.

"Ten years down the line, those in leadership seem to be disregarding dialogue,” Gasana said. "This is not only a big challenge to Burundi, but to the region as well as the international community, considering that Burundi was to have been a model many hoped they could use as a reference point in ending conflict.

"It is a pity that international and regional partners are absent or silent over what is happening in Burundi right now. The time to be involved is now because the [Arusha] baby born 10 years ago seems to be [disabled] as it still needs assistance to walk.”

The University of Burundi’s Muntunutwiwe blamed police and judicial harassment for the sudden recent departure of several prominent opposition members.

Jean Salathiel Muntunutwiwe, a political scientist and dean of the faculty of arts and human sciences at the University of Burundi

Jane Some/IRIN
Jean Salathiel Muntunutwiwe, a political scientist and dean of the faculty of arts and human sciences at the University of Burundi
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Burundi’s shrinking political space
Jean Salathiel Muntunutwiwe, a political scientist and dean of the faculty of arts and human sciences at the University of Burundi

Photo: Jane Some/IRIN
Political scientist Jean Salathiel Muntunutwiwe says the ruling party seems to have perfected the art of institutionalizing fear

These include: Agathon Rwasa, leader of the Forces nationales de libération; Leonard Nyangoma, chairman of the Conseil national pour la défence de la démocratie (CNDD); Alexis Sinduhije, chairman of the Movement pour la solidarité et la démocratie (MSD); and Alice Nzomukunda, chairperson of the Alliance démocratique pour le renouveau (ADR-Imvugakuri).

"No angels"

Police spokesman Pierre Channel Ntarabaganyi denied accusations of extrajudicial killings or of a policy of torturing opponents. He said any officers found to have committed abuses faced “decisive action”.

"The police are human beings, they are not angels. When policemen are involved in violence against the people, these are isolated cases, it is not the mission of the police," he said.

He also dismissed growing fears that recent armed attacks suggested a new rebellion was in the making.

"A rebellion has to meet criteria: it must declare its ideology and must have a leader. The current armed bandits are organized in small groups of seven or five, they have weapons and go through villages looting, raping and sometimes killing," he said.

"These groups are not a source of worry because we consider each specific incident. Criminality is not only fuelled by politics; even economic and other factors come into play,” he said.

Military spokesman Gaspard Baratuza said nobody had come out to state that they headed a rebel movement. “We have beefed up security and deployed troops near the border with [DR] Congo and in other areas where activity of these groups has been reported.”

Increased rape

Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, president of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and the Rights of Detainees, told IRIN that rape had grown in prevalence recently and that, historically, this was an indicator of rebel activity.

"The government calls them armed bandits but others don't consider them armed bandits," said Mbonimpa, who added that he had been threatened with arrest for his public pronouncements.

"Normally, what we call armed bandits are people who attack families or ambush vehicles to steal but what we have seen of late is that those groups come and kill but do not steal. If they can attack in a group and not steal … if they attack a military or police position, how can we then term them bandits?"


Listen to Bulletin 44: Neela Ghoshal, Human Rights Watch, on narrowing democratic space in Burundi

Referring to an attack by uniformed men in September, Muntunutwiwe agreed: "The means used by some of these groups show that something is being prepared, to attack people working in a plantation belonging to someone 'close' to the head of state and to kill cows belonging to a CNDD-FDD sympathizer shows that these armed groups are sending a political message to the government.

"That is why the government should be worried instead of minimizing the threat posed by these armed groups,” he added.

Minister Nduwimana, however, insisted there was no cause for alarm.

"In all the provinces, security is good, people are going about their daily activities as normal.

"In a post-electoral period in almost every country, incidents such as those of the armed groups can occur. We have, in the past, organized disarmament of civilians but some of these arms remain in the hands of the population.

"We've witnessed worse situations in the past; right now there is no house on fire. Most of the armed bandits have been arrested. As a government, we are trying to strengthen the judiciary so that all those people who have been arrested are tried and sentenced so that the people can enjoy peace."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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