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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
AU Must Re-engage in Burundi to Push for Inclusivity as a Way out of Violence
AU Must Re-engage in Burundi to Push for Inclusivity as a Way out of Violence
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.

Op-Ed / Africa

AU Must Re-engage in Burundi to Push for Inclusivity as a Way out of Violence

Originally published in The East African

The constitutional changes, if passed, could reset the clock on term limits for President Pierre Nkurunziza — potentially giving him an additional 14 years in power — and paving the way for the dismantling of ethnic balances embedded in the 2000 Arusha Agreement, which brought an end to Burundi’s protracted civil war. 

The official results of the Burundi referendum were announced on Monday 21 May. Unsurprisingly, the government's proposed changes were approved. The opposition has refused to recognise the result. In this op ed, published in the East African just after the vote, our Project Director for Central Africa and our African Union Adviser look at the context of this fraught referendum and lay out measures the AU should now take.

Burundi held a referendum on Thursday amid growing violence, and intimidation as the government tried to silence voices opposed to its plan to alter the constitution.

The changes, if passed could reset the clock on term limits for President Pierre Nkurunziza — potentially giving him an additional 14 years in power — and paving the way for the dismantling of ethnic balances embedded in the 2000 Arusha Agreement, which brought an end to Burundi’s protracted civil war.

According to the new Constitution, clauses guaranteeing the minority Tutsi community a 40 or 50 per cent share of posts in some state institutions will be reviewed over the next five years.

In the context of the ruling CNDD-FDD’s increasing authoritarianism, there seems little chance that these assurances would survive such a review.

The African Union (AU), as an Arusha guarantor, has an obligation to uphold the Accord’s central principles. It must re-engage to prevent Burundi sliding back into open conflict ahead of the 2020 elections.

Climate of fear

Since the referendum was announced in December, the government’s political crackdowns, together with local revenge attacks and racketeering, have led to increasing violations of human rights.

The 430,000 refugees in neighbouring countries — the majority of whom fled in 2015 and 2016 due to intimidation of opponents of President Nkurunziza’s third term — show little sign of wanting to come home, despite being pressured by host countries to return.

The security services and the Imbonerakure, the CNDD-FDD’s youth wing, have targeted opposition party members and citizens calling for a no-vote, in particular members of the FNL-Rwasa party, which challenges the CNDD-FDD for the Hutu vote in-country.

Since the referendum was announced in December, the government’s political crackdowns, together with local revenge attacks and racketeering, have led to increasing violations of human rights.

Police and intelligence agents have carefully monitored campaign meetings and those who call openly for a no-vote face intimidation or worse. Those lucky enough to be arrested, rather than disappearing, join a growing number of civil society activists in prison, most recently human rights defender Germain Rukuki, sentenced to 32 years in prison for supposedly undermining state security.

To anyone familiar with the ethnic violence of Burundi’s past, motivated, in the words of the Arusha Agreement, by the desire to seek or retain political power, these arrests and disappearances are worrying.

Worse still, the government is propagating a virulent public discourse inciting violence against all who oppose it. The president himself set the tone on December 12 when, in announcing the referendum, said anyone opposing it would be “crossing a red line.” Since then, party militants have attacked those campaigning against the referendum or for voting no.

The government’s intention to dismantle the gains of Arusha has long been clear. In March 2014 it tried, but failed, to revise the Constitution through parliament.

Since 2015, the government has advanced its agenda through a carefully constructed doctrine according to which it, and by extension Burundian Hutus, are the victims of an international plot.

While ordinary people have remained resistant to the spectre of ethnic division, the administration has pushed what Crisis Group has previously called “ethnicisation from above,” wherein the country’s troubles are laid at the door of individuals of Tutsi ethnicity (such as Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame or former president Pierre Buyoya) in association with others (the United Nations Commission of Enquiry, the European Union, the International Criminal Court and the AU) who speak out against abuses.

Increasingly the divide is painted in stark religious terms: Between a divinely ordained president and his enemies’ evil machinations.

African solutions

Changing the Constitution in order to stay in power has long been a grey area in the AU’s governance doctrine. Consequently, the continent’s response to Burundi’s three-year-old crisis has been uneven.

The AU reacted early and firmly to the initial turmoil. As events unfolded, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) voiced its concern and attempted to deploy mediators, envoys and human rights observers. As violence peaked at the end of 2015, the PSC authorised a stabilisation force, MAPROBU.

Troops were never deployed, following a relative calming of the situation in-country at the start of 2016.

Bruised and shaken by the MAPROBU debacle, the AU ceded responsibility to the East African Community, under the principle of subsidiarity.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni became the chief negotiator and former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa was appointed facilitator of talks between the government and the now exiled opposition. But sensing that Mkapa had little political backing from African presidents, Nkurunziza refused to give ground. The mediation, which barely got off the ground, has now comprehensively stalled.

Since 2016, the violence in Burundi has remained at a steady rate without threatening to spill over the country’s borders, allowing Nkurunziza to claim a return to normality. While some African leaders and officials are alive to the country’s fragility, others buy into the government’s view.

As a guarantor of Arusha, the AU should resist the erosion of the agreement’s key provisions embodied in the approved constitutional changes. Its half-hearted response to the referendum – January’s AU summit simply called for “a broad consensus of all stakeholders” — will not suffice in the face of a concerted effort to dismantle the very political settlement that brought peace to Burundi.

In a country scarred by ethnic violence, the risks posed by the constitutional changes are huge and the case for preventative action [...] overwhelming.

In a country scarred by ethnic violence, the risks posed by the constitutional changes are huge and the case for preventative action (a key tenet of the AU’s peace and security mandate) overwhelming.

With elections now just two years away, talks between government and opposition aimed at creating a conducive environment for a vote in 2020 are more vital than ever.

The opposition’s mistrust of the ruling CNDD-FDD has deepened to the point where some see violence as the only way of exerting pressure for change. To avoid future escalation, the AU must re-engage now.

The current chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, should use his good offices and the PSC should put Burundi back on its agenda. Greater pressure should be exerted on Bujumbura to open up the political space — including allowing exiled opposition activists to return without fear of harassment or prosecution — and to put an end to its divisive and inflammatory discourse. Without this, the alternative, sooner or later, will be violence.

Contributors

Project Director, Central Africa
richmoncrieff
Head of Africa Regional Advocacy
ElissaJobson