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Burundi: radio silence leaves room for political violence

Burundi: radio silence leaves room for political violence
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The country's main independent radio stations have been closed since April when unrest began. By day there is an uneasy calm, by night gunfire rings out in Bujumbura.


An opposition grouping in Burundi is urging President Pierre Nkurunziza to leave office within the week. Calling on him to take responsibility for his actions the National Coalition for Respect of the Arusha Accords for Peace and Reconciliation (CNARED) released the following “statement”: on Tuesday.

Léonard Nyangoma (CNARED) appelle Nkurunziza à démissionner d'ici une semaine pour éviter au #Burundi un hécatombe

— Roland Rugero (@RolandRugero) August 18, 2015

They lament what they call the chaos which has taken over the country and call on Nkurunziza to quit by August 26th.

The declaration comes amid rising tensions in the country over the respect or otherwise of a peace agreement which put an end to years of civil war.

The country’s main independent radio stations have been closed since April when unrest began. Since then, around 100 people have died in violence related to election protests. A coup has been attempted and then aborted. Two high profile assassinations have taken place, and another one attempted. Intimidation by groups loyal to the ruling party is on the rise. Opposition supporters are allegedly detained without trial. By day there is an uneasy calm, by night gunfire rings out in Bujumbura.

Some observers describe the country as on the brink, while others say there is still time to step away from the edge.


*April 26* The ruling party declares Nkurunziza as its nominee for presidential elections planned for late June.

*1 May* A grenade attack in Bujumburu kills three people. Human rights organisations say people beaten and arrested.

*13 May* Godefroid Niyombare declares a coup while Nkurunziza is in Tanzania at an emergency meeting considering the situation in his country.

*15 May* Coup attempt fails after Gen Niyombare agrees to surrender to government forces.

*21 July* Presidential elections are held despite opposition withdrawing from the race and international criticism. Africa Union and UN do not send observers but say elections were ‘neither free nor fair’.

*2 August* General Adolphe Nshimirimana, chief of presidential security is assassinated.

*3 August* Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, prominent human rights activist is shot and badly wounded.

*15 August* Col Jean Bikomagu, leader of military during Civill War is murdered.

To understand the current situation it is important to look at the evolution of the unrest.

Neither free nor fair


The current unrest began as a result of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in office. The opposition sees this as a direct affront to the Arusha Accords which stipulate that a president can serve maximum of two terms.

“She/he shall be elected for a term of five years, renewable only once. No one may serve more than two presidential terms.”

The Constitutional Court backed Nkurunziza’s argument that his first term in office didn’t count, as he was elected by MPs rather than a popular vote.

But many did not agree. The opposition argued that the ruling was jeopardising the Arusha peace agreement which ended the civil war in 2005. Protests quickly turned violent. Elections were held but were deemed ‘neither free nor fair’ by the UN and the Africa Union.


Questions were also raised over potential intimidation of the public. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has interviewed many people who have experienced arbitrary arrests and torture. In a recent statement they said that the government has turned the justice system into a weapon against the opposition. They called on the authorities to release detainees “against whom there is no evidence of criminal activity, and ensure that the judiciary can function independently and that human rights violations can be investigated without fear.”

As the tensions rumble in the country, thousands have fled across the borders to neighbouring countries.

Thierry Vircoulon, the International Crisis Project Director for Central Africa, told euronews, “There is a climate of fear and defiance since people have started fleeing their country in March. There are now about 200, 000 Burundian refugees. It speaks volume.”

Violence must be broken before it escalates out of control


With a coup aborted, violence appeared to be low level until the killing of General Adolphe Nshimirimana. Known as the right-hand of President Nkurunziza, he was killed in a rocket attack on his car in Bujumbura.

The very next day a prominent human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa and opponent of Nkurunziza was targeted, but survived an assassination attempt, prompting the following response from the UN.

“This incident, which comes only a day after the killing of General Adolphe Nshimirimana, is part of a growing pattern of politically-motivated violence in Burundi that must be broken before it escalates beyond control.”

This was followed by an attack on journalist Esdras Ndikumana and two weeks later another assassination. Col Jean Bikomagu who led the military during the civil war, was shot dead in the capital.


Stephanie Schwartz from Columbia University told euronews that “the big danger is if these types of assassinations trigger a government crackdown against civilians or a great increase in coordinated rebel activity. As yet we haven’t seen that, but it is a very serious possibility.”

On Sunday (Aug 16) the Africa Union released a statement warning of catastrophic risk the situation in Burundi posed for the entire region. Chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma commenting on the assassination of Bikamgu said, that “this ignoble act and many other violent acts in Burundi these last few months illustrate the gravity of the situation and the real risk of further deterioration with catastrophic consequences for the country and the whole region.”

Stepping back from the brink

War is never inevitable. There are different ways in which a disaster could be avoided in Burundi. One suggestion is to re-open the airwaves to private radio.


“Rumors run rampant in Burundi, and present a serious danger to stability,” says Schwartz. “I have gotten calls or messages from Burundi after a reported incident of violence, but before there is confirmation of what is happening,saying things like, “This is it. The rebellion has come.” And then it turns out not to be fully true. But the potential ramifications of such rumors is quite real. Perception is key in such volatile times, which means that good quality radio journalism is essential in trying to prevent further deescalation.”

Volatile weekend in Burundi reinforces urgent need for comprehensive political dialogue under ECA leadership to resume immediately.

— Tom Perriello (@tomperriello) August 16, 2015

Another avenue is for the East African Community to encourage dialogue between the opposition and the government. However, it could prove tricky to get the EAC to condemn Nkurunziza’s third term in power, as many members themselves are in the same situation. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is bidding for a controversial third term. While Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni had the constitution amended to run for a third term in 2006. The Africa Union in its statement on Sunday also urged for talks saying it “insists once again on the imperative of dialogue and consensus to work for a peaceful and durable solution to the crisis and to preserve the important points in the 2000 Arusha Accord.”

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