Burundi: Civil Society in Jeopardy

Burundi has recently raised some concern from the international community due to unrest between its largely Hutu government and the Tutsi opposition. This unrest stems, in part, from the government’s censorship practices. Over the last few years, these restrictive government policies have affected journalists, opposition leaders, human rights defenders, and civil society organizations (CSOs). More recently, the Burundian government has turned its attention towards CSOs and human rights organizations.

Like its neighbor Rwanda, Burundi has had a long history of political unrest and ethnic tensions. A little over twelve years ago, the country was engaged in a bloody civil war that resulted in the deaths of an estimated three hundred thousand Burundians. Since then, the country has attempted to ease these tensions by dividing political leadership more equally between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. Thanks in large part to this restructuring; Pierre Nkurunziza was elected to the presidency in 2005. The most recent conflict began when Nkurunziza ran for a controversial third term and won with 69.41 percent of the vote. Nkurunziza’s reelection violated Burundi’s terms limits. According to the country’s constitution, established in 1992, a president may only serve two five-year terms. As a result of the fierce opposition to Nkurunziza’s reelection, the government has engaged in a variety of  anti-democratic actions.

According to the Economist’s Intelligence Unit, Burundi is “on the cusp” of another civil war. Self-censorship (e.g. not reporting on certain topics and declining to speak on particular issues that concern the government) is reportedly common among citizens and the government has attempted to confiscate weapons in an effort to prevent a potential coup d’état. The president has stated that those who belong to the opposition party and who do not comply with these new measures will be considered “Enemies of Burundi and treated as terrorists.”

Burundi’s government has also carried out attacks and arrests on civil society leaders, journalists, and those who oppose the new repressive measures. At a time when watchdogs and whistle-blowers are needed most and at their most vulnerable, the government has approved a new law that requires journalists to disclose all of their sources. Bob Rugurika, the director of Radio Publique Africaine, was arrested for withholding a suspect from the authorities.  In addition, Welly Nzitonda, the son of prominent civil rights activist Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, was arrested on trumped up charges and later killed by the police.

In addition to these high profile arrests, the government has also attempted to exert its control over local CSOs. Early last year, the government announced that it would freeze the bank accounts of local CSOs and the interior minister subsequently suspended the operations of such groups. According to a secretary in the interior minister’s office, these organizations were being led by civil rights activists who had fled the country and backed the “troublemakers.” Thankfully, these CSOs were given a chance to defend themselves after further investigation.

The unrest in Burundi goes beyond mere political tension. The government has attempted to silence its critics through arrests, financial restrictions, and the outright closure of human right organizations and CSOs, but Burundi needs civil society organizations now more than ever. As it stands on the brink of a constitutional crisis and an ethnic civil war, the Burundian government must communicate with its opponents and critics to ensure peace and stability in Burundi and the region.

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