By Millicent Zighe
Burundi Government is extorting money from civilians to fund the upcoming election, a human rights group has claimed.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the operation is carried out by ruling party youth wing, Imbonerakure (“those who see far”) in collaboration with the local administrative officials, the police and Intelligence officers- who use torture, intimidation and violence when soliciting for contribution. The levies are in line with the government order published in December 2017, which stipulates the money is to be collected in different ways including voluntary donation of 2000 Francs ($1.08) per household and 1000 Francs per student of civil voting age and direct deductions from the salaries of public sector workers and civil servants for two years.
Apart from locals, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) staff and members of the diaspora were also asked to make contributions based on their sense of patriotism. Upon payment, there is issuance of receipt, before the funds are transferred to the Bank of Burundi by local administrators. Contrary to the Government order, HRW discovered that the Imbonerakure collected double the stipulated amount and often failed issue proof of payment to people. Worse still, the Government has failed to publish the total amount of money raised from the operation fueling corruption claims.
“First, I had to pay 2000 Francs ($1.08) to the Imbonerakure for the elections. That was compulsory, even if you can’t afford it. On my salary of 130,000 Francs ($70) a month, 5,000 ($3) are deducted at the source. But then I have to pay 60,000 Francs (32) on top of that to the ministry of Education annually, and I don’t get a receipt for that,” stated one of the interviewees.
Testimonies revealed Imbonerakure stole machetes from farmers and used them to beat innocent civilians who could not provide proof of payment. In addition to that, the group has also been setting up roadblocks in several communes, preventing those who have not paid from passing. In hospitals, locals have been denied access to healthcare for failing to pay levies. Students have not been spared, those who are 18 years and above have been banned from attending classes without proof of payment. Additionally, large sums of money are deducted from teachers, something that has angered them.
“As a teacher, for the elections, I had 2,000 Francs per month taken from my salary, and I had to give 5,000 Francs to the Ministry of Education. I also paid my brother’s contribution because he is 18 years. The school director said it was compulsory and that if we didn’t pay, we would be considered dissidents or putschists,” a teacher from Muravya told HRW.
Members of the opposition feel particularly targeted by the policy because of their political affiliation. They are often called igipinga – a derogatory Kirundi term used to describe someone who does not support the ruling party. They suffer abuses at the hands of Imbonerakure are made to pay much more than the stipulated amount.
“I wasn’t a member of the ruling party so they were constantly asking me for contribution for the elections and the party. I ended working at a loss,” said a trader from Kirundo.
Burundi is ranked among the poorest countries in the world with a GDP of per capita of $267. Living conditions of many are said to have worsened since the Government started collecting levies.
“They don’t care if you’re poor, they come with bats and clubs. We know we have to contribute, so even if we don’t have money, we let our children go hungry to pay,” a farmer in drought stricken Kirundo told HRW.
HRW noted that the human rights violations have increased after commencement of election contribution. Some interviewees revealed that they were asked to donate money to the ruling party and were then issued receipts with the ruling party logo.
Burundi is expected to have elections in May 2020.