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Burundi - 2015-201? Civil War

In 1972, the Tutsi-led military slaughtered Hutus, especially those who could read. Decades later, Hutu rebels took revenge by systematically murdering Tutsi peasants. The new Hutu-led government was just as corrupt as the old Tutsi-led regime.

Burundi and neighboring Rwanda had long been politically at odds, with Burundi frequently accusing Rwanda of meddling in its affairs. Most recently, Bujumbura alleged that Kigali recruited Burundian refugees to overthrow Nkurunziza’s government. The presidents of the two countries are from the two rival ethnic groups that clashed in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

Burundi's 12-year civil war, which ended in 2005, was fought along ethnic lines. While the unrest so far had mostly been political, Western and regional powers feared prolonged violence could cleave open old ethnic rifts and further destabilize a volatile region still scarred by the 1994 Rwanda genocide. More than 220,000 Burundians had fled the violence to neighboring Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Congo. MSD opposition leaders said they lost hundreds of people — perhaps even a thousand — over the year after the local elections in May of 2010 in a government-sponsored campaign called “Safisha,” which means “to clean.”

There were fewer visible manifestations of unrest in Burundi in 2019 compared to 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to pursue a third electoral term, triggering months of protests, a failed coup and widespread violence that displaced thousands. However, the East African country’s political and humanitarian crises were far from over in 2019.

Burundians still faced considerable political and economic pressure, and continued to witness violence on the streets. Human rights groups reported that citizens suspected of being supporters of the political opposition were often arrested, beaten or killed. The government was accused of clamping down on critics and the media. Few international journalists were granted entry into the country, which likely contributed to the low media coverage of the crisis.

The prolonged political crisis had a negative impact on the country’s socio-economic situation. Burundi’s economy continued to flounder as a result of declining investment, a shortage of foreign exchange reserves, price inflation and limited aid. The humanitarian appeals to help Burundians were only 42 per cent funded at the end of the year. Malaria was one of the leading causes of infant mortality and child malnutrition during 2019. An epidemic infected eight million of the country’s 11 million people, with over 3,100 people dying – far higher than the numbers of Ebola deaths in neighboring DRC – but this catastrophic health issue received little international attention. Some 333,000 Burundians, many of whom had fled the political unrest of 2015, lived in exile in neighbouring countries.

Despite nearly 80,000 people returning voluntarily to Burundi by the end of 2019, between 500 and 1,000 were still fleeing the country each month to seek asylum elsewhere, either because of fears for their safety or because of the impact of economic collapse.

On 25 April 2015 the ruling party of Burundi, the Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie – Forces de Défense de la Démocratie (“CNDD-FDD”), nominated President Pierre Nkurunziza (“President Nkurunziza”) as its candidate in the 2015 presidential elections, running for a third term in office. His eligibility was contested as being unconstitutional, and civilians started demonstrating against his candidacy on 26 April 2015, in particular in the capital, Bujumbura, but also in other locations across the country. The situation started to take a violent course soon after the start of the protests. From the first day of the protests, members of the police shot at civilians who were demonstrating, causing the death of a number of them.

While the protests were not entirely peaceful, it is reported that the police used live ammunition in response to demonstrators who were throwing stones at them and shot at unarmed civilians who were running from the police or were otherwise not posing a threat. Also, whereas some members of the police appear to have handled demonstrators peacefully, the available information shows that policemen were reportedly told “to shoot demonstrators, because they are putschists; [they] were not given helmets, shields […], only weapons”.55 It is also reported that pick-up trucks arrived at the site of demonstrations on several occasions dropped off some policemen who just started shooting and left.

The security forces also carried out arrests of civilians who were participating or were suspected of participating in the protests which the Government had declared illegal. In addition, human rights activists and members of civil society, members of opposition parties, and journalists were also targeted, in particular through (attempted) assassinations and arbitrary arrests. Most of those arrested were afterwards subjected to torture while they were being detained in official or unofficial places of detention.

The violence was exacerbated when on 13 May 2015 elements of the security forces launched a coup d’état. The coup was foiled after two days, but in the aftermath grenade attacks continued to be carried out by unidentified men against the police and soldiers in Bujumbura. In response to these events, the security forces, supported by members of the Imbonerakure, conducted cordon and search operations in neighbourhoods of Bujumbura where attacks on the security forces had occurred or which were considered to be associated with the opposition.

The available information shows that, in the course of these operations, the security forces and members of the Imbonerakure summarily executed dozens of civilians suspected of having attacked the security forces or of having demonstrated against President Nkurunziza’s third term. The killings followed a pattern: the security forces made residents come out of their houses, forced some of them to kneel or lie down in the street, and executed them with bullets to the head or abdomen. Mass arrests were also carried out in the context of these operations, which were accompanied or followed by torture and rape.

The presidential election was held on 21 July 2015. After running unopposed, incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza was declared the winner of the presidential polls, garnering according to the official results 69.41% of the votes. An ex-rebel and born-again Christian, Nkurunziza believes that he has divine backing to rule. According to Burundi's Electoral Commission, approximately 74 percent of Burundi's 3.8 million registered voters cast their vote in the election. Opposition groups rejected the polls after boycotting the vote, saying the prevailing conditions were not conducive for free, fair, transparent and inclusive elections.

By mid-2015 more than 300 people had been killed in Burundi since April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced plans for a third term in office. The capital Bujumbura had been riven by almost daily skirmishes.

By 04 August 2015 fear of civil war breaking out in Burundi was growing as violence and human rights violations in the country increased. The Office of the UN Human Rights Office said it was extremely worried about the situation in which activists and journalists were being targeted by agents of the country’s national intelligence agency. More than 600 people had been arrested and remain in detention without charge, some of them since April.

A UN special investigator warned September 15, 2015 that Burundi could slip back into open warfare unless the international community takes urgent preventive action. Pablo de Greiff, a UN special investigator on mass violations, said much has happened since he visited Burundi in December — and none of it good. He said Burundi had turned away from the peaceful path it had followed since the 2000 Arusha agreement that ended the country's civil war.

In a speech on 29 October 2015 that received much attention, Reverien Ndikuriyo, the president of the senate, used inflammatory and threatening language that could constitute incitement to violence. Some of the language used was very similar to the language used before and during the Rwandan genocide.

On 02 November 2015 President Nkurunziza issued a public warning to Burundian citizens who had weapons illegally to surrender them within 5 days or they would be ‘punished in accordance with the anti terrorist law and fought like enemies of the nations.’ Security forces have authorisation from 9 November to use all means at their disposal to find weapons and re-establish security. The ruling party has also issued statements expressing anti-western views, and particularly anti-Belgian views.

Political violence persisted throughout Burundi in the aftermath of the country's contested elections, an attempted coup d'etat and the debate over the President standing for a third term. By December 2015 armed groups operated in Burundi and gunfire and grenade attacks occurred with frequency. Government command and control of the armed forces and security services is not complete. Police and military checkpoints throughout the country have the potential to seriously restrict freedom of movement. Demonstrations, gatherings, and even sporting events that were intended to be peaceful can turn violent without advance warning.

A high point in the escalating pattern of crimes was marked by an attack by unidentified armed men on four military positions in and around Bujumbura on 11 December 2015. In response to these attacks, the security forces conducted cordon and search operations in neighbourhoods of Bujumbura considered to be associated with the opposition. The material submitted reveals that in the course of these operations, members of the security forces and the Imbonerakure killed dozens or possibly hundreds of civilians, arrested around 300 young men from their homes, committed acts of torture and raped or gang-raped women and girls in their homes.

After 11 December 2015, the number of killings in the context of cordon and search operations declined. It is reported that, instead, executions continued to be conducted in a more covert manner, with persons being forced to board pick-up trucks and taken to secret isolated locations, often blindfolded.

On 12 December 2015 Burundi's army said at least 87 people were killed in the capital, Bujumbura, in what it described as coordinated attacks on three military installations by unknown gunmen. A military spokesman said Saturday that the dead included 79 "enemies," along with eight soldiers and policemen. He said 45 others had been captured in daylong firefights that extended into the next morning.

On December 13, 2015 the US Department of State warned US citizens against all travel to Burundi and recommended that US. citizens currently in Burundi depart as soon as it is feasible to do so. As a result of continuing violence, the Department of State ordered the departure of dependents of US government personnel and non-emergency US government personnel from Burundi on December 13.

On 18 December 2015 the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned four individuals, Gervais Ndirakobuca, Leonard Ngendakumana, Joseph Mathias Niyonzima, and Alexis Sinduhije, pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13712 for being responsible for or complicit in or for engaging in actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, or stability of Burundi. Joseph Mathias Niyonzima supervised and provided support to elements of the Imbonerakure pro-government militia, a group that has been linked to the arrest and torture of individuals suspected of opposing the Nkurunziza regime. He had also been involved in plans to assassinate prominent opposition leaders.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein opened an emergency session of the U.N. Human Rights Council 16 December 2015 by describing escalating atrocities, intimidation, and hate speech in Burundi, saying it harked back to that country’s "deeply troubled, dark and horrendously violent" past. “Burundi is at bursting point, on the very cusp of a civil war... The time for piecemeal responses and fiddling around the edges is over. The situation in Burundi demands a robust, decisive response from the international community,” Zeid said.

The African Union authorized deployment of peacekeepers to troubled Burundi and gave the government a four-day deadline to accept the troops. A communique issued 18 December 2015 by the AU Peace and Security Council said the peacekeeping force would have up to 5,000 soldiers and police. It authorized the deployment for an initial period of six months. The council condemned recent violence in Burundi, including attacks on military barracks in the capital last week that reportedly left 87 people dead. The communique said the AU would not allow Burundi to descend into widespread violence that could affect the wider region.

Nkurunziza said 31 December 2015 he would consider any deployment of African Union peacekeepers in his troubled nation an attack against which he will retaliate militarily. “Everyone has to respect Burundi's borders. In case they violate those principles, they will have attacked the country and every Burundian will stand up and fight against them," Nkurunziza announced in a national address that sent shockwaves through the international community.

By January 2016 nine months of violence sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term had left more than 400 people dead in a country that emerged from an ethnically charged civil war in 2005. Nearly 200,000 people had fled the country.

Independent media representatives in January 2016 described the very difficult conditions under which they were still attempting to conduct their professional activities; various representatives of the political opposition, including in the National Assembly and the Government, made quite pointed criticism; and with members of the so-called radical opposition, not represented in the official institutions, who painted a very gloomy picture of the political and security situation.

In the opposition's view, genocide was either already happening in Burundi or was about to. The exiled leader of the opposition Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU) accused the African Union and the international community of turning their backs on the people of Burundi while people were being killed by the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza.

US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee 10 February 2016 that there were credible reports that Burundian refugees in Rwanda were being recruited to participate in armed attacks on the Burundian government. Burundi Foreign Minister Alain Nyamitwe said Burundi had been sounding the alarm about Rwanda for months. Rwandan President Paul Kagame dismissed as 'childish' a UN panel report that Burundian refugees had been recruited at a refugee camp in eastern Rwanda in May and June 2015 and given two months of military training to remove President Nkurunziza from power.

Neither rebel organisation - Resistance for the Rule of Law (Resistance pour l'Etat de droit: RED-Tabara) or the Republican Forces of Burundi (Les Forces Republicaines du Burundi: FOREBU) - publicly claimed responsibility for any attacks in March 2016.

South African President Jacob Zuma, who was a facilitator of the 2000 peace agreement that ended Burundi’s 12-year civil war that left 300,000 dead, landed on 25 February 2016 in Bujumbura where he led the AU High-Level Panel, which had been mandated to try resolve the Burundi crisis.

Paving the way for enhanced United Nations engagement in Burundi, the Security Council on 01 April 2016 requested Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to explore with the Government and regional actors options for a police deployment “to increase UN capacity to monitor the security situation, advance the rule of law and promote respect for human rights” in the country.

Unanimously adopting a French-led resolution, the Council reiterated “its deep concern about the persistence of violence in Burundi, as well as the persisting political impasse in the country, and the attendant serious humanitarian consequences,” and requested Ban, in consultation with the Burundi Government and in coordination with the African Union (AU), to present within 15 days options for deploying a UN police component.

By early 2016 at least 400 people had been killed and almost 3,500 had been arrested in a campaign of political repression and violent unrest. By February 2016 between 800 and 900 people are reported to have been killed since April 2015 after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced a controversial decision to run for a third term, which he won in contested electionsin July 2015.

In April 2016, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon presented the Security Council with three options for Burundi: a force of about 3,000 police; 228 individual police officers; or a smaller deployment of between 20 and 50 police. At the time, he said that only the first option of 3,000 could “provide some degree of physical protection to the population against increased threats.”

The Burundian government said April 04, 2016 it welcomed the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2279, which called for the deployment of a U.N. police contingent to monitor the security situation in Burundi. The resolution also called on all parties to reject any kind of violence and public statements inciting hatred. It urged the Burundian government to guarantee fundamental freedoms for all and adhere to the rule of law. Burundian Foreign Minister Alain Nyamitwe said April 04, 2016 that President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government has always been open to an international presence in Burundi and would welcome the deployment of a UN police contingent as long as they are not UN troops.

The Burundian government had said in the past it was not pleased with the choice of the National Council for the Restoration of the Arusha Accord, also known as CNARED to represent all opposition parties to the talks. The government accused CNARED of being involved in seeking to overthrow the government.

The UN Security Council on July 29, 2016 authorized a 228-member international police force to deploy to Burundi to prevent human rights violations and provide stability for an intra-Burundian dialogue. The council said it hoped the police presence would help create a positive atmosphere for substantive talks so the country could move beyond its political impasse. “Given an increase in violence and tension, the Security Council must have eyes and ears on the ground to predict and ensure that the worst does not occur in Burundi,” said French Ambassador François Delattre, whose delegation drafted the resolution.

Arbitrary arrests and acts of torture also continued to be committed in 2016 and 2017. Cases of disappearance of political opponents, members of civil society and members of the former Forces Armées Burundaises (“ex-FAB”), who were considered disloyal and likely to turn against President Nkurunziza, were also recorded. It is reported that in fact, the number of cases of persons who went missing after being arrested by the security forces increased since the beginning of 2016.

These acts of killing, assassinations and attempted assassinations, illegal detention, torture, rape, and cases of disappearance formed part of a campaign carried out against civilians who opposed or were perceived to oppose the ruling party: demonstrators against President Nkurunziza’s third term in office and suspected demonstrators, members of the opposition political parties, members of the civil society, journalists, members and sympathisers of armed opposition groups or persons suspected of having joined such groups, and ex-FAB members.

The evidence pointed to the involvement of several State institutions: (i) the “Police Nationale du Burundi” (“PNB”), the Burundian National Police, with two of its units being particularly implicated: (1) the Brigade Anti-Émeute (“BAE”), an anti-riot brigade; and (2) the Appui pour la Protection des Institutions (“API”), a unit mandated to guard institutions, senior officials and politicians;77 (ii) the Service National de Renseignement (“SNR”), Burundi’s national intelligence service; and (iii) units of the Force de Défense Nationale (“FDN”), the Burundian army, in particular the Bataillon Génie des Combats (“BGC”) and the Brigade Spéciale de Protection des Institutions (“BSPI”), a specialized army unit in charge of the protection of State institutions.

Alain Guillaume Bunyoni was the Minister of Public Security in Burundi and had overseen the Government’s internal security efforts, including those of Burundi’s National Police (PNB), an entity whose members have engaged in actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, or stability of Burundi. Under Bunyoni, the PNB conducted operations in cooperation with the Imbonerakure youth militia to intimidate and silence those who oppose or who are perceived to oppose the Government of Burundi.

On 09 November 2017 three judges at the International Criminal Court [ICC] authorized the prosecutor to open an investigation into alleged human rights abuses committed inside and outside of Burundi between April 2015 and October 2017. Burundi's government said it would not cooperate with the International Criminal Court over its plan to investigate alleged human rights abuses in the country. Burundi denied access to the members of the United Nations Independent Investigation in Burundi (“UNIIB”) and had withdrawn from the ICC charter. But the court held that the pullout did not affect its jurisdiction over crimes committed earlier. The ICC Prosecutor stated that the Government of Burundi has not merely been uncooperative but actively sought to target, both in Burundi and abroad, persons who it perceives could implicate it in the crimes alleged.

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Page last modified: 30-06-2021 11:38:57 ZULU