By Millicent Zighe
In the lead up to Burundi’s General Election violence, mainly against members of the opposition and independent actors, has been recorded in at least a third of Burundi’s provinces, Human Rights Watch has said in a new report.
Released at the start of official campaigning on April 27, the Human Rights Watch report alleges local authorities, security forces and members of the Imbonerakure, a youth militia allied to the ruling party National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) have perpetrated an intimidation campaign to force more people to vote for the ruling party in the elections set to start on May 20.
Burundi is voting for a president, members of the National Assembly and local government councillors in the May 20 elections. Politicians campaigned with few restrictions despite the Covid-19 pandemic. So far, the nation has recorded 23 confirmed cases and one death.
Authorities in the country have been accused of deliberately minimizing the COVID- 19 pandemic by concealing information and doctoring figures so as not to interfere with the election calendar. Burundi expelled four World Health Organization (WHO) officials and experts after they raised concerns about large political rallies during campaigns, which officially commenced on April, 27. As people entered venues for rallies they were provided with hand sanitizers to wash their hands but they were not required to observe social distancing rules once in the venue.
“Violence and repression have been the hallmark of politics in Burundi since 2015, and as elections approach and the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds, tensions are rising,” said Lewis Mudge Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
For the report, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 25 people on phone between November 2019 and April 2020. Interviewees included victims of abuse and witnesses to human rights violations. The people interviewed indicated there were cases of abuse in 6 of Burundi’s 18 provinces. Human Rights Watch was not able to establish the exact number of victims who have suffered abuse since the organization could not verify more details of violations due to the government’s continuing clampdown on media.
The Human Rights Watch report said that on February 19, security forces and an unnamed armed group fought in the hills of Western Bujumbura-Rural province. In the following days, photos and videos showing detained people and dead bodies surrounded by police and locals started to circulate on social media, the Human Rights Watch report said. Police spokesperson Pierre Nkurikiye was later reported as saying 22 “criminals” had been killed in the clashes. He described the attack as a plot to disrupt the elections.
On February 9, a man cheated death after members of the Imbonerakure attacked him at his home in In Nyamurenza commune, Ngozi province. The following day, his wife was arrested after she tried to file a complaint against the dreaded militia group.
“I screamed, fell, and felt blood oozing out of my head. I thought I was going to die. I heard them say: ‘Don’t take him to the hospital; let him die,’,’’ he told Human Rights Watch.
Members of Burundi’s main opposition party National Congress for Freedom (CNL) have also been killed under mysterious circumstances. Presently, over 80 members are in prison where they are reportedly being tortured and beaten by the Imbonerakure who masquerade as security guards in prisons around the country. One member of the youth group told Human Rights Watch that local leaders offered financial rewards to those who kill, torture or arrest CNL members.
In one instance, members of Imbonerakure attacked an opponent with a machete in Kirundo province. The victim spent two weeks in the hospital after being stabbed 11 times. He filed a complaint but authorities declined to investigate the incident.
In another case Human Rights Watch documented, Marie-Claire Niyongere, the deputy leader of the women’s wing of CNL, was killed and then dumped in a forest in Kiganda commune. The Human Rights Watch report said injuries on her private parts suggested she was sexually abused before being murdered.
In Burenza, Marangara commune, Evariste Nyabenda, a prominent member of the CNL died after members of the Imbonerakure attacked him during a public gathering on November 7, 2019. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Nyabenda, was detained after the beating and later on he was transported to Kiremba Hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.
During Nyabenda’s funeral, the Imbonerakure chanted Kirundi songs against the opposition in front of the victims’ house, the Human Rights Watch report said. His widow and children went into hiding after the group destroyed their property, including their house.
The report goes on to say that in the following days, 17 members of CNL were arrested and taken to Ngozi Central Prison. They were accused of attempted murder, assault and destruction of property, which they denied doing.
“Two policemen came to my house, asking for my husband. Five Imbonerakure had encircled our house. They threatened us and told us to go to Rwanda, that the CNDD-FDD doesn’t want opponents in the country,” Nyabenda’s neighbour told Human Rights Watch.
In Busiga commune, witnesses report seeing the dreaded youth militia group paint red cross on more than 100 houses of CNL members.
“Around 1:15 a.m. we saw a group of around 15 Imbonerakure come to the village and paint our houses with red crosses. We shouted at them and eventually they left, but not before painting my front door,” a resident told Human Rights Watch. To date, no suspects have been arrested.
On 9 March 2020, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi (COLB) led by Mr Doudou Diène repeated the warning it first made in its annual report issued in September, that the eight common risk factors for criminal atrocities leading to a possible genocide were present in Burundi. These factors include an unstable political, economic and social environment; a climate of impunity; a weak judicial system; the absence of an independent press and freedom of speech; the existence of reasons that justify the use of violence against particular groups; the capacity of potential perpetrators to commit atrocity crimes; and motives to resort to violence. In light of this, COLB concluded the environment in the country was not conducive for a free, credible and inclusive election.
The main candidates in the presidential vote are Evariste Ndayishimiye, a close ally of outgoing President Pierre Nkurunziza, and Agathon Rwasa, a longserving opposition leader and the leader of CNL.