As Burundi plunges into a deeper political and human rights crisis, a new report highlights the role of the radicalised ruling party’s youth league – the Imbonerakure – in the rising violence against opponents and civilians.
The roots of the present crisis in Burundi, a central African country scarred by years of an ethnic-based civil war, can be traced back to April 2015. Its president, former Hutu rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza, bid for re-election for a third term, sparking mass protests by opposition supporters who, like the international community, said the move was unconstitutional.
Protests were brutally repressed days later, with dozens killed. An attempted coup in May that year set the regime on a path of repression against protesters, political opponents, media, civil rights organisations and, increasingly, civilians.
Since 2015, 1,200 people have been killed and between 400 and 900 have disappeared, many thousands have been tortured, over 10,000 detained without trial and over 400,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries, according to a new study by the human rights organisation FIDH.
Over the past two years, the president and his entourage have been able to extend their grip over the country and its institutions largely unchecked. In December 2015, when the African Union pledged to deploy 5,000 troops to the area, Nkurunziza retaliated by saying he would fight them.
“The president took this as an act of war,” explained Professor Han van Dijk, an African law and governance expert at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands “Since then, international attention has been decreasing, and so he has been able to rule the country as he sees fit. He needs to stay power through terror and division.”
The Imbonerakure used to terrorise and divide
One of the tools used by Pierre Nkurunziza’s regime to divide and terrorise its people is the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure. The movement is believed to have several hundred thousand members, according to the FIDH study (although the ruling CNDD-FDD party says that they number 3 million). It states that some of its members have been trained by the army and that 20,000 of them have taken part in serious violence against perceived opponents and civilians.
Radicalisation of this army-backed militia has been occurring since 2015. “Most of them are young hutus who joined the ruling party or who were recruted. The Imbonerakure are a branch of the ruling party,” said Florent Geel, Africa specialist at the FIDH. “They are very politicised, even fanatical. The same form of radicalisation that can be observed in the government can be observed with the Imbonerakure. All of them are not killers, there are just young people who have allowed themselves to get carried away.”
Techniques used by the militia to control the population include extortion, kidnappings, torture and rape. A video released on social media in April showed some Imbonerakure singing a slogan that called for raping and murdering women: “Impregnate the opposition so they give birth to Imbonerakure… There are lots of girls. Impregnate them, Imbonerakure!” The government first questioned the video’s authenticity and then condemned it. But some of the men on the video were spotted wearing shirts with the army’s initials on them, suggesting this meeting was likely organised and planned by the army.
“There is a tacit authorisation, as these acts are not condemned afterwards. The goal is to have total control over the population,’ said Geel.
Fears of increasing violence have risen after the country’s national assembly approved a law last year calling for the Imbonerakure to be given the status of army reserve forces. Although it is not clear if the bill has become law, this would legitimise the militas actions.
“The regime holds on to power by pursuing an ideology that is based around its conviction that power was stolen from the Hutus by the Tutsis in the 1970s. They believe the Tutsis, backed by foreigners, took it from them,” explains Geel. “It’s part of a totalitarian process. The regime doesn’t explicitly target minorities, but everyone understands.”
This situation is not only harming the country’s inhabitants, it is having a crippling effect on the country’s economy, which is already one of the world’s poorest nations.
“The country is very poor, and there is a huge demographic problem, with a population growth over 2 percent,” said Professor Han van Dijk. “This crisis will block any development in the future. It has to be addressed.
Is there a way out of this crisis that the FIDH calls a “low-intensity conflict”? For the human rights organisation, several actions could help put an end to the violence: an arms embargo enforced by the international community to stop, or limit the arming and violent acts perpertrated by the milita and the opening of an investigation by the International Criminal Court.
“This is a political conflict,” analyses Geel. “It can only be solved in a political way. The most worrying sign in Burundi is that the regime does not want to talk. The opening of an investigation could force it to talk.”
Professor Han van Dijk agrees. “The only thing that would help is dialogue and a change of regime.”
View of Lake Tanganyika, from the plane. Some refugees arrive in Tanzania by boat.