In Burundi, a disputed referendum threatens to deepen a neglected humanitarian crisis

Wednesday May 16 2018

Burundi refugees await to be registered at

Burundi refugees await to be registered at Nyarugusu camp in northwest of Tanzania on June 11, 2015. AFP PHOTO | STEPHANIE AGLIETTI  

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Burundi isn’t at war, but it has all the humanitarian hallmarks of a country that is.

A government clampdown and an uptick in political violence are raising fears that the humanitarian situation will deteriorate further as civil liberties and the rule of law are eroded, prompting more people to join some 400,000 already seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.

Lewis Mudge, senior researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch, said Burundians will continue to flee unless the political crisis is resolved — “which would put an enormous strain on Burundi’s neighbours.”

More than 3.6 million Burundians — about a quarter of the population — now need aid to get by, an increase of almost 20 per cent over 2017, according to the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan.

Some 2.6 million people lack reliable access to food, up from 1.5 million a year ago and 700,000 in April 2016.

Aid agencies say they need some $142 million to meet needs this year. So far, only two per cent of the appeal has been funded.

Multiple causes

Burundi’s inability to care for its citizens has several causes: The lingering effects of a civil war that broke out in 1993 and only formally ended in 2006; an economy overly dependent on an inefficient agriculture sector; the political crisis ignited in 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for re-election in apparent violation of constitutional term limits; and the drying-up of the foreign cash on which the government long depended.

Government policies are also making it harder for humanitarian agencies to deliver aid in Burundi.

The 2018 Response Plan pointed to numerous “legal and administrative restrictions [that] limit current and future operational efficiency” of aid agencies and their ability to travel into the interior of the country, except in extremely urgent cases. It added that legislation covering NGOs adopted in January 2017 undermined the independence of aid agencies.

These constraints “remain a key issue for humanitarian actors” in Burundi, Philippe Adapoe, Save the Children’s country director in Rwanda, said.

Wide-ranging human rights abuses committed by security forces and affiliated groups over the past few years led the International Criminal Court to announce in November that it would conduct an investigation into Burundi, even though the country became the first in the world to withdraw from the tribunal the previous month.

Alleged crimes against humanity cited by the ICC include: murder and attempted murder; imprisonment or severe deprivation of liberty; torture; rape; enforced disappearance; and persecution. Depending on its findings, the ICC’s next step could be indictments and arrest warrants.

The run-up to the May 17 referendum has seen a spike in abuses and threats against those opposed to the amendments. Many of Nkurunziza’s leading opponents now live in exile, while those still in Burundi who favour a “No” vote in the referendum are being cast by officials as enemies and criminals.

Risks of speaking up

Speaking out about abuses in Burundi carries great risks. On April 26, human rights activist Germain Rukuki was handed a 32-year jail sentence after being convicted of taking part in an “insurrection movement” in 2015. Amnesty International said the charges were trumped up.

Lamenting that the prevailing climate of fear was preventing citizens from freely expressing their opinions, Burundi’s bishops said on May 2 that “the time is not right to make profound changes to the constitution”.

Earlier this month, legislators approved a draft law that would give police the power to conduct night-time raids on people’s homes.

“The ruling party has just buried democracy in Burundi,” one opposition MP stated after the decision.

Jérémie Minani, the spokesperson for humanitarian issues in the CNARED opposition coalition – which has called for a boycott of the referendum – said the vote would “create chaos and worsen the suffering and misery of the population”.

He added that if the constitutional changes were adopted, it would spell the end of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement – signed in 2000 to end the civil war and create a governance framework for sustainable peace.

The death of the accord would “certainly take the country back to a new civil war,” he warned. “The humanitarian consequences will be extremely serious: A total collapse of the economy resulting in increased poverty.”

The government, which denies there is a political crisis in Burundi and has contested the data in the latest humanitarian appeal as “fabricated figures,” turned Minani’s accusation on its head.

The opposition were the ones who “took the path of violence,” Interior Ministry spokesman Terence Ntahiraja said. “They showed that on May 13, 2015,” he added, referring to the day of a failed coup attempt.

“So I would ask them to change their behaviour, to abandon their intentions to create trouble in the country and to accept democracy and compete on the ground, [in the referendum campaign] and to win if the people so decide.”

Such an outcome is virtually impossible, said Bashirahishize, the victims’ lawyer. “It’s not a referendum, but a piece of theatre set up to enthrone the ‘Eternal Supreme Guide,’” he said, using the title the ruling party bestowed on the head of state in March.