Skip to main content

Burundi’s crackdown on dissent must not go unnoticed

The government is repressing activists such as Pierre Claver Mbonimpa ahead of elections, and donors must respond

Published in: The Guardian

Several years have passed since the end of Burundi’s 12-year civil war, which cost tens of thousands of lives. The period following the end of the conflict in 2005 was marked by a huge sense of relief as peace gradually returned to the country.

But that initial euphoria appears to be fading, for while Burundi may have escaped the most violent period, it has not been able to escape poverty. Burundians are increasingly voicing frustration at the spiralling cost of food, water and fuel, high levels of corruption and the unaccountability of political leaders.

It is a country not fully at peace either. Remnants of armed groups exist, the government is becoming increasingly repressive, and the political climate is tense.

The case of Pierre Claver Mbonimpa is the latest example of state repression. One of the country’s leading human rights defenders, he was arrested in May and charged with endangering state security and using false documents. The charges relate to a radio interview he gave in which he spoke about allegations that young Burundian men were secretly receiving weapons and being sent for military training in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Now in his late 60s, Mbonimpa is almost a national institution, a respected and revered father figure to many Burundians. When he arrived at court for his first public hearing in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, hundreds of people lined the streets to greet him, singing and dancing to express their solidarity.

Mbonimpa has demonstrated extraordinary courage and has worked tirelessly to protect the rights of the most vulnerable people. Having survived numerous threats by state agents and a period in jail in the 1990s, he has become a symbol of the fight for justice in the country. The organisation he founded to protect the rights of prisoners and others has proved to be a lifeline for many.

Mbonimpa’s arrest has prompted a huge surge of popular support and galvanised widespread public action. Activists have been campaigning hard for his release, and Fridays have become “Green Friday”, when members of the public wear green – the colour of Burundi’s prison uniforms – to show support for him.

But the government has dug its heels in. In the past few weeks, it has prohibited protesters from holding a peaceful march in support of Mbonimpa, as well as another rally to call for an independent justice system, and has warned a radio station to stop broadcasting interviews with people who claim to have information backing up Mbonimpa’s allegations.

Why is the government so desperate to muzzle dissent? The explanation lies, in large part, in elections scheduled for next year. The ruling party has been in power for almost a decade and is keen to secure another victory. Not only has it targeted activists and journalists, but opposition party members have been arbitrarily arrested, charged and tried by courts that appear to be acting under government instructions. In March, 70 opposition party members were tried en masse in one day, many of them without defence lawyers. Twenty-one were sentenced to life imprisonment and 27 others to prison terms of up to 10 years.

The last elections in Burundi, in 2010, were marked by political violence on all sides, and political murders continued long after the polls had closed. While political killings have become rarer, there is fear they could resurface in the runup to the election.

At the very least, repression is likely to intensify. Underlying it is the absence of accountability for past crimes. Justice for the numerous atrocities committed by the security forces and armed groups during the civil war remains elusive, and impunity underlines more recent abuses too.

Burundi’s donors and development partners, such as the UK, France and Belgium, as well as African states, should send a clear message without delay: that the world is watching how the government treats Mbonimpa and other activists. Burundians have shown they are fully aware of their rights, and have every intention of defending them.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country