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Three Lessons About Burundi’s Crisis from Speaking to Those Who Fled It
Three Lessons About Burundi’s Crisis from Speaking to Those Who Fled It
Burundi: Charm Offensive or Real Change?
Burundi: Charm Offensive or Real Change?
Op-Ed / Africa

Three Lessons About Burundi’s Crisis from Speaking to Those Who Fled It

Originally published in African Arguments

Burundi’s 327,000 refugees are not mere victims but also active citizens, many remaining actively engaged in the country’s problems.

Burundi will soon mark two years since it was propelled into a political crisis by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s determination to be elected to a third term in power. As it stands, more than 327,000 of Burundi’s 11 million people have now sought refuge outside the country according to UN figures from early 2017 – nearly all fleeing since the crisis erupted.

This calamity reverses a decade of refugee returns after the 1993-2005 civil war, and a new surge of people fleeing in late-2016 risks overwhelming the woefully underfunded humanitarian response.

Most live in camps in neighbouring Tanzania, which has hosted Burundian refugees since the 1970s. Others are in Uganda, Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo, while a smaller number live in urban centres, especially Kigali, where many are not registered as refugees.

Despite many people fleeing, the Burundian government has been trying to project a sense of control, arguing that the crisis has passed. It claims that most refugees are either insurgents or have fallen victim to the economic problems brought about, in their eyes, by international sanctions.

At the UN General Assembly in September 2016, Burundi’s foreign minister controversially claimed that many of its refugees are returning voluntarily and that the country was now stable enough for a policy of returns to be pursued. However, the assassination of a government minister on 1 January, a failed attack on a government spokesman in November, and numerous less high-profile acts of violence and terror, show that Burundi remains deeply troubled.

The breakdown in mediation will further dent refugees’ hopes

At the same time, East African Community mediation led by former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa reached an impasse in December when he stated that the legitimacy of President Nkurunziza should not be questioned. The exiled opposition read this as blatant support for what they see as a dictatorial regime. The breakdown in mediation will further dent refugees’ hopes of an early resolution to the crisis and increase their frustrations.

During the course of 2016, Crisis Group interviewed over 50 Burundian refugees from all walks of life, and from both Tutsi and Hutu ethnic communities, in Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and, for a few with some money and connections, Belgium. We asked three questions: How and why did you leave the country? What problems do you face in exile? And how do you envisage your future and that of your country?

From the responses, and drawing on long, field research-based knowledge of Burundi, three broad conclusions emerged.

1) The refugee crisis is a result of political oppression

Despite government statements, which some diplomats and international officials have been willing to believe, most exiles have fled a violent political crisis, many in fear for their lives. The impression of internal stability projected by the government is simply incompatible with the still-growing number of refugees.

Nearly all we spoke to fled violence by the police, intelligence services or the ruling party’s militia, the Imbonerakure, who have been threatening, abducting and killing opponents (or so-called opponents) throughout the country.

Repression spiked in the immediate aftermath of the attempted coup against Nkurunziza in May 2015 and after an attack on military camps in December 2015. Following the December assaults, security forces and the Imbonerakure increasingly targeted Tutsis.

All this attests to political violence being at the heart of decisions to leave.

Some refugees left the country having been tipped off that their life was in danger, while others had already been attacked or had lost relatives. Police controls on the country’s borders increasingly forced refugees to pay their way through or sneak out at night.

Some took children with them, others left family members behind. Some have friends in detention. We gathered accounts of rape, some ethnically targeted, and of torture. All this attests to political violence being at the heart of decisions to leave.

2) Burundi’s human capital is draining away

The flight of many of the country’s best educated and most entrepreneurial citizens, and a large number of its teachers, will cause significant long-term damage. It will also add to a growing economic crisis with traditional donors and investors shunning the country.

A very small minority of refugees with social connections or economic capital have been able to start a small business or find employment with relatives. But many have lost their businesses and properties and are seeking out menial work far below their qualifications, generating frustration and hurt pride. Others have had to leave their land, in many cases only recently recovered after previous periods of exile. A number of refugees had fled the country before, in some cases up to five times.

The energy and capacity formerly engaged in working to build up the Burundian economy or educating its future workforce is now absorbed by daily problems: feeding a family; dealing with administration; negotiating relations with local communities; finding employment; getting medical care, including dealing with psychological and physical trauma; accessing services in a foreign language; or, for the elite, trying to travel without an up-to-date Burundian passport.

3) The refugee crisis will have long-term political consequences

Burundi has spent over ten years recovering from a brutal civil war and trying to regain greater social cohesion. But the recent violence and oppression has brought the fractures of the past back to the surface, accentuated by and accelerating the outflow of refugees.

As recent research shows, many of those who have fled were particularly vulnerable because they were never properly integrated when they returned after the civil war. Many were regarded as politically suspect and land restitution was very poorly managed.

Our research shows that refugees are not mere victims but also active citizens

Despite their problems abroad, many are determined to stay politically active. One young exile in Kigali said that to not engage in politics would be a “betrayal of those left behind”. He had joined the recently-formed International Movement of Burundian Youth (MIJB) to make sure the voice of young people in exile was heard in debates on the country’s future.

Such initiatives demonstrate a desire for solidarity, not just among refugees, but with those left behind. However, repression by the Burundian government, including assassination attempts, has spread to asylum countries, generating mistrust among Burundian exiles who often wonder who may be in the pay of the authorities in Bujumbura.

A population of over 300,000 refugees – mainly young, some educated and with justified grievances against the government – is a ticking time bomb in a region where political causes often end up being fought for in the bush.

Those we talked to saw their future with a mix of fear and uncertainty. The vast majority held President Nkurunziza responsible for the crisis and constantly underlined the problem of impunity. Many feared being forced to return. With time, this anger has led to a desire amongst some to take up arms. But despite this, some also expressed hope for their country, citing the low levels of ethnic violence since the end of the war.

Most of all, our research shows that refugees are not mere victims but also active citizens, and while some may resign themselves to their fate or seek to move further abroad, many will remain actively engaged in their country’s problems. Their voices must be heard in future political dialogues.

Evariste Ndayishimiye, Burundi's elected President from the ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy - Forces for the Defense of Democracy, attends the swearing-in ceremony at Ingoma stadium in Gitega, Burundi, on 18 June 2020. ONESPHORE NIBIGIRA / AFP
Q&A / Africa

Burundi: Charm Offensive or Real Change?

In his year in office, Burundian President Evariste Ndayishimiye has shown an appetite for reform and re-engagement with international partners. In this Q &A, Crisis Group experts assess whether ruling-party hardliners will hold the country back from turning a corner.

A year ago, Ndayishimiye took office only days after the unexpected death of his predecessor Pierre Nkurunziza. Does the new president represent continuity or change?

Elected in May 2020, President Evariste Ndayishimiye assumed power over a deeply troubled country. He took the reins from his late predecessor Pierre Nkurunziza, who had led Burundi into a protracted crisis over his fifteen years in office and had died shortly after Ndayishimiye’s election.

The country is still reeling from the former president’s successful bid to stay on for a third term in office in 2015. Many saw Nkurunziza’s manoeuvre then as contrary to the 2000 Arusha Accords, which brought an end to a brutal civil war between the ethnic Tutsi minority that had ruled for decades and the Hutu majority. These machinations led in 2015 to street protests, a failed coup attempt, a crackdown and the exodus of over 400,000 people.

After winning flawed elections that year, Nkurunziza stepped up crackdowns on the media, opposition and civil society groups, and increasingly insisted on outlandish displays of public devotion: the ruling party formally referred to him as a “visionary” and the “supreme guide for patriotism”. Donors including the European Union (EU), concerned by mounting rights abuses, cut direct budget support to Burundi. As investor confidence tanked and standards of living plummeted, the ruling party’s Imbonerakure youth militia, key to Nkurunziza’s machinery of repression, began collecting forced financial contributions from the exhausted citizenry. Burundi’s relationship with neighbouring Rwanda also nosedived. Nkurunziza accused his counterpart Paul Kagame of supporting proxy armed groups against Burundi, and vice versa.

While Ndayishimiye’s rise to power marked the end of Nkurunziza’s personality cult, the new president will still have to placate powerful factions in the ruling Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie – Forces pour la défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD), which started its life as a Hutu rebel group before turning into a political organisation in 2003. The CNDD-FDD’s selection of Ndayishimiye, who had previously held various government positions as well as the post of party secretary-general, reveals much about where power truly lies in the party. At first, it appeared that Nkurunziza was pushing for his ally Pascal Nyabenda, the former president of the National Assembly, to succeed him. It was only after intense lobbying by top generals that Ndayishimiye, himself a former senior army officer, finally won the candidacy. Having risen to power largely at the behest of powerful party security chiefs to whom he now owes his presidency, he will be under pressure to ensure they remain happy with him.

Indeed, after securing electoral victory for the CNDD-FDD, which now holds a majority in both the National Assembly (86 0f 123 seats) and the Senate (34 of 39 seats), Ndayishimiye has appointed generals and security hardliners to top positions. His fifteen-member cabinet includes Prime Minister Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni and Interior Minister Gervais Ndirakobuca, who are both under EU and U.S. sanctions for their role in crackdowns during the 2015 crisis.

Even with a majority in parliament, repression remains a key tool for governing Burundi.

Even with a majority in parliament, repression remains a key tool for governing Burundi. According to Human Rights Watch and the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, the Imbonerakure and the intelligence services continue to commit human rights violations, cracking down on civilians and opposition members, though to a lesser extent than prior to the elections. State institutions target for abuse specific groups such as members of the Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL) opposition party, young Tutsis and members of the army’s old guard, mainly Tutsi, whom the CNDD-FDD sees as a security threat. The government is also stepping up its efforts to track down and punish those involved in the 2015 failed coup.

What reforms has the new president been keen to push?

Despite government repression, Ndayishimiye is trying to go on a charm offensive with the media and some civil society groups. To demonstrate his bona fides, he has taken some modest positive steps to reverse past harms. To begin with, authorities have released four jailed journalists who work for Iwacu, one of Burundi’s few remaining independent media outlets, following a presidential pardon in December 2020. They had been detained since October 2019 while reporting on clashes between security forces and an armed group in Bubanza province. While the journalists’ release has moved these cases in the right direction, rights organisations say it is not enough, arguing that authorities have yet to reverse the unjust convictions in the courts.

The government has also opened up more media space. In January, authorities reopened negotiations with national and international media outlets. They cleared local radio station Bonesha FM for operations in February 2021 after forcing it to close in 2015, and did the same for the BBC, whose license was revoked in 2019, in June. In April, the government also lifted sanctions against Parcem, which was one of the last human rights advocacy groups operating in Burundi until its suspension in June 2019.

Ndayishimiye has meanwhile tried to demonstrate that he is serious about improving governance and tackling corruption, albeit with mixed results. When installing his new cabinet, he warned his ministers he could easily replace them if they failed to perform adequately and that he would not tolerate people “diverting a single cent from the budget planned to improve the well-being of Burundians”. He also gave members of his government three weeks to declare their assets to the public. He later backtracked, however, reportedly under CNDD-FDD pressure, stating that senior state officials and public officials will not be forced to comply. The arrest of Commerce Minister Immaculée Ndabaneze for alleged embezzlement in May was also short-lived, as she was quickly released.

After years of no progress at all, even modest reform efforts are welcome.

After years of no progress at all, even modest reform efforts are welcome, although diplomats differ on how meaningful the steps Ndayishimiye has taken will prove to be. While one diplomat told Crisis Group that this administration and its predecessor are like “night and day”, others suggested that anti-corruption measures could be “political window dressing” and thus far do not indicate a commitment to comprehensive reform. Similarly, these sceptics tend to play down the arrests and convictions of a small number of police officers and Imbonerakure on criminal charges given that security force and militia repression and rights abuses reportedly still continue, even if at lower levels.

The president has also come out with a national strategy to handle the COVID-19 outbreak, which Nkurunziza had stated would be neutralised by God. Right after assuming office, Ndayishimiye began a national campaign against the virus’s spread, establishing a committee to sensitise the population about what preventive measures they could take while the government stepped up a national testing campaign. The country has also normalised relations with the World Health Organization (WHO), after expelling its representatives in May 2020, allowing the resumption of aid. Nevertheless, Burundi asked not to be included on the list to receive vaccines under the COVAX initiative pending their final WHO certification, and the government has repeatedly said acquiring doses is not a priority due to their elevated cost.

On foreign policy, Ndayishimiye has taken steps to re-engage Burundi’s partners. The new president has been keen to deliver on electoral promises of repairing relations with the country’ neighbours and international donors. He is acutely aware that the country’s shattered economy could benefit from better trading relationships with regional partners and direct financial support from influential donors, such as the EU. Since assuming office, he has visited eight countries on the continent, starting with Burundi’s key regional ally Tanzania and including Egypt, Kenya and Uganda. Foreign Minister Albert Shingiro, Burundi's former representative to the UN and previously an apologist for Nkurunziza’s isolationist foreign policy, has been instructed by Ndayishimiye to lead Burundi’s diplomatic offensive outside the continent. He also conducted a European tour in April and May, visiting Brussels at the invitation of the EU, France and Switzerland.

How have international and regional partners reacted to these developments?

Ndayishimiye’s domestic policies and diplomacy have won him gains in the halls of multilateral organisations.

Ndayishimiye’s domestic policies and diplomacy have won him gains in the halls of multilateral organisations. The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie accepted Burundi back as a full member in November 2020 after suspending it following the 2015 political crisis. In December, the UN Security Council officially removed the country from its agenda. In February, the East African Community heads of state chose Ndayishimiye as rapporteur for the 2021-2022 term and as next chairman for 2022-2023. Even more significant were the closure of the African Union Human Rights Observers and Military Experts Mission as well as the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy in May, both established to monitor the situation in the country and find a way to end the violence. The special envoy’s office closed at the Burundian authorities’ request, stating that “in light of the country's progress in terms of peace and security, only UN presence of socio-economic nature is needed to support Burundi in its development efforts”.

Influential donors, in particular the EU, are also striking a different tone toward Burundi. In December 2020, the EU ambassador in Bujumbura stated that “Ndayishimiye’s new policy of openness constitutes a solid basis for the resumption of good cooperation”. In June, after only six months of talks between the Burundian authorities and the EU, the latter announced it would be willing to revoke its measure suspending financial aid, if and when Bujumbura makes certain additional reforms. But diplomats tell Crisis Group that the EU also decided to change its approach because the suspension of direct budgetary support and the application of sanctions against Burundian officials during Nkurunziza’s rule had not led to an improvement of the country’s situation. In fact, their governments worried that these measures may have simply provoked the authorites to turn to other partners, such as China, Russia and Turkey, thereby diluting Western influence further.

Relations with Rwanda have also started to improve, with important implications for regional security. When in office, Nkurunziza had openly accused Kigali of supporting the Burundian rebel group RED-Tabara, active in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and reportedly led by a Tutsi opponent of the Hutu-dominated Burundian regime. Rwanda had denied this allegation and in contrast stated that Burundi was supporting the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a remnant of the Rwandan Hutu militia involved in the 1994 genocide, and also active in eastern Congo. The two presidents have yet to meet in person, but working-level meetings between government officials from the two countries are taking place. Greater cooperation between Rwandan and Burundian intelligence officials has also led to a de-escalation in tensions despite skirmishes involving armed groups on the border. Rwandan authorities have arrested at least nineteen RED-Tabara rebels, while Burundi’s government has promised to fight the FDLR.

Tensions persist, however, over Burundi’s request to hand over those responsible for the coup attempt in 2015 who found refuge in Rwanda. Kigali has so far refused but appeared sensitive to Bujumbura’s demands in March when three Burundian opposition radio stations operating from the Rwandan capital had to suspend their broadcasts.

What are the main risks and challenges moving forward?

A key challenge for partners and putative partners looking to see whether Burundi really is turning a corner is that international monitoring capacity has diminished and will continue to do so. After the closure of both the UN special envoy’s office and the African Union mission, the UN Commission of Inquiry is the only remaining internationally mandated body active in the country monitoring human rights abuses and the risk of further conflict. While briefing the UN Human Rights Council in March, the Commission stated that the situation is still “too complex and uncertain to be referred to as genuine improvement”. But despite the continued need for its analysis, its mandate will likely not be renewed in September. As a result, the responsibility to keep on top of the human rights and security situations in the country will be left in the hands of local organisations and donor country embassies, which may have reason to keep shining a light on the situation in the country.

As for risks, despite some signs that Ndayishimiye is trying to create a break from the damaging legacy of his predecessor, the CNDD-FDD has already signalled it is likely to monopolise power as hardliners from the party also entrench their bases. By appointing mainly Hutu politicians into government, Ndayishimiye has already disregarded provisions for proportional representation in the Arusha Agreement, which included power-sharing arrangements between Hutu and Tutsi political factions. In addition, the president tightened his grip on the legal system in January by approving the amendment to a law governing the Conseil supérieur de la magistrature, an institution officially mandated to guarantee the judiciary’s independence from the executive branch, but which in practice is headed by the president. The new law gives the president even more power, essentially by allowing him to do a quality check of all court judgments. An international monitor working on Burundi told Crisis Group that “everything is in place for full and total control” by the CNDD-FDD government.

Efforts by Ndayishimiye to push a reformist agenda that would dismantle the machinery of repression created by his predecessor may well meet resistance from the bowels of the ruling party, including those who were not necessarily in favour of his selection as the party candidate in 2020. Even those who did support him may not want to see him advance certain policies. Several generals, for example, are not in favour of rapprochement with the EU and any conditionality that may come with resumption of budgetary aid, having enriched themselves during Nkurunziza’s fifteen years in power. By the same token, a failure to reform may expose the country to an even more prolonged economic crisis and the political tensions that may go with it.