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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’s Dangerous Referendum
Burundi’s Dangerous Referendum
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.

Commentary / Africa

Burundi’s Dangerous Referendum

On 17 May 2018, Burundians vote on constitutional amendments that would prolong the rule of President Pierre Nkurunziza, dismantle a carefully negotiated Hutu-Tutsi ethnic balance, and ultimately could lead to instability. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018 – First Update early warning report, Crisis Group urges European policy makers to explore channels for pressuring the government, and African leaders to renew mediation attempts between the regime and opposition.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2018 – First Update.

On 17 May, Burundians will vote on constitutional amendments that would allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to prolong his stay in power. Those new provisions also could start to dismantle the carefully negotiated Hutu-Tutsi ethnic balance, defined in the 2000 Arusha agreement that helped end Burundi’s civil war. A major outbreak of violence in the country does not appear likely around the vote, despite a deadly attack on a village on 12 May; the status quo could even drag on for years. But the regime’s repression, the potential demise of power sharing in Burundian institutions and the crumbling economy are harbingers of instability.

Although the European Union (EU) has lost leverage over Nkurunziza’s government in recent years, it retains a strong interest in preventing such instability. The EU and its member states should closely watch developments before, during and after the referendum, and continue to explore channels for pressuring the government while supporting the population. These include encouraging African leaders and the African Union (AU) to renew mediation attempts between the regime and the opposition, while keeping Burundi in the international spotlight. As the Burundian economy collapses, the EU, which suspended direct budgetary support to the Burundian government in 2016, should also take steps to ensure that the aid it now channels through the implementing agencies of the UN, EU member states and international non-governmental organisations helps Burundians as best possible.

Increasing Repression as the Referendum Approaches

The government’s main intention with the forthcoming referendum is to lengthen presidential mandates from five to seven years. This change would restart the clock on the two-term limit – rather than annulling it – potentially giving President Nkurunziza a further fourteen years in power. The new draft constitution also stipulates that ethnic quotas in parliament, government and public bodies be reviewed over the next five years. These quotas, intended to protect the Tutsi minority by guaranteeing the Tutsi 40-50 per cent representation in different state institutions, including the army, were a key part of the Arusha agreement.

The regime has designed the constitutional changes primarily to remove any obstacle to its control of the state apparatus. But in the process it may also be laying the groundwork for reversing ethnic checks and balances. The same is true of the draft constitution’s provisions to reduce the number of vice presidents (currently there are two, one Tutsi and one Hutu) to one and to replace the two-thirds majority requirement for parliament to pass particularly significant legislation with a simple majority.

The regime has carried out a campaign of intimidation against anyone who opposes the referendum or calls for a No vote.

The regime, including the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, has carried out a campaign of intimidation against anyone who opposes the referendum or calls for a No vote. It is using threats of violence to push Burundians to register for the vote in hopes of minimising abstention, and identifying people in campaign meetings. The government has banned Western media outlets – the BBC and Voice of America – from radio broadcasting for the duration of the campaign, while its own propaganda machine is in full swing. It has forced citizens to make financial contributions that it claims will support forthcoming elections.

The forced march to the referendum has further accentuated divisions among President Nkurunziza’s opponents, despite opposition factions making a renewed attempt to align their positions at the start of 2018. The Amizero y’Abarundi coalition and the Sahwanya-Frodebu party, which remain in Burundi, have both declared they intend to campaign for a No vote. The exiled opposition, under the umbrella of the Conseil national pour le respect de l’accord d’Arusha (CNARED), is calling for a boycott. The divide over the referendum exacerbates the historical divisions over strategy and personal rivalries within the opposition.

Significant violence around the referendum appears unlikely, despite a 12 May attack on a village near the Democratic Republic of Congo border in which 26 people were reported killed by unidentified assailants. This attack comes after a relative absence of major security incidents since 2016, as armed opposition groups have suffered several setbacks. Some of their members were arrested by the Tanzanian government in 2017, sent back to Burundi, and have since disappeared. Those attacks that have taken place, which were launched from South Kivu in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, have failed to inflict significant losses on Burundian security forces or generate local support. But if the frequency of armed clashes between the army and insurgents has declined since 2016, human rights abuses continue. According to the human rights organisation la Ligue Iteka, 456 people were assassinated, 283 tortured and 2,338 arbitrarily arrested in 2017, the vast majority by the government.

President Nkurunziza and his party are developing a doctrine that mixes personality cult, religion and historical mythology to justify his prolonged stay in power. The president is now referred to as “supreme traditional leader”. The president and his wife, both active in new Pentecostal churches and prayer crusades, adhere to a theocratic vision that blends traditional Burundian signs of power with divine attribution; tellingly, the government is planning to build a large prayer centre in Gitega where ruling party members will be required to attend lengthy retreats. More broadly, this emerging doctrine presents a Manichean view of history wherein a harmonious pre-colonial Burundi was later spoiled by the machinations of external powers, in particular Belgium, though language pointing the finger at foreigners also tends to contain veiled references to the role played by their supposed Tutsi allies.

Economy and Development in the Doldrums

The Burundian economy has been severely hit by the loss of overseas aid since 2015, and by the flight of human and financial capital. Gains made in health and education since the early 2000s – notably drops in infant mortality and increasing numbers of Burundian children in school – have stalled. Shortages of currency and fuel have afflicted all sectors. Some 430,000 Burundians have fled to neighbouring countries, principally Tanzania.

Though many Burundians already struggle to make ends meet, the government is introducing new taxes and ad hoc levies. As its relations with Western governments have worsened, it has turned to Turkey, China and Russia for aid. But while these countries might afford the government political support and some financial respite, they are unlikely to offer the sort of budgetary or technical help that Western donors provided. Meanwhile, the impact of private investment in the mineral sector on the wider economy is unlikely to be significant, at least in the short term.

After negotiations with the government under Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement, the EU and its member states decided in March 2016 to suspend cooperation due to Burundi’s rights abuses. Instead, it now channels development aid through international NGOs, the implementing agencies of EU member states and UN agencies. The president and his top officials paint European aid policy and sanctions (which target a handful of those officials) as deliberately aimed at hurting the Burundian people. In some cases, the regime has cracked down on civil society groups that have worked with international donors, including by imprisoning NGO members on spurious charges.

Mitigating Conflict Risk through Continued Support to the Population

The EU and its member states should take steps to help check Burundi’s repressive authoritarianism and alleviate deteriorating living conditions for its people.

On the former, Nkurunziza’s government has brushed off sporadic pressure from Western donors and actors such as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to open space for its opponents. Nor have mediation efforts of the sub-regional body, the East African Community (EAC), made progress. Indeed, some African leaders appear inclined to believe the government’s argument that there is no crisis to mediate.

The EU and its member states should take steps to help check Burundi’s repressive authoritarianism and alleviate deteriorating living conditions for its people.

That argument is flawed. The regime probably can keep dissent under wraps for some time. But the consolidation of its rule and dismantling of the Arusha power-sharing provisions augur ill for the country’s stability over time. The EU and its member states should press African powers and the AU to renew mediation attempts between the regime and the exiled opposition, with the aim of ensuring a credible election in 2020. They should strive to maintain international attention on Burundi, with EU member states on the UN Security Council pressing to keep Burundi on the council’s agenda. The EU also should uphold its position that conditions in the country do not allow for a free and fair referendum.

In light of its 2016 suspension of direct support to the government, the EU needs to redouble efforts to find ways to ensure its aid supports the population. In addition to the support it channels through international NGOs, it should continue pursuing its plan to directly support local NGOs, but with particular caution not to expose them to risk. This could mean providing them with adequate funding to reinforce their own management and legal capacity in case the government continues to harass them through the courts. The EU should also reinforce its delegation in Bujumbura and strengthen the tracking mechanisms with its implementing partners to prevent any misuse of its funds.