Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to seek a disputed third term more than two years ago, spawning a period of unrest marked by extrajudicial killings, a failed coup, and ethnic division. Given repeated assurances from government officials and the dearth of media coverage, you would be forgiven for thinking that period ended some time ago. It did not. The country’s population continues to face armed violence, civil and human rights abuses, while food insecurity and economic hardship persist. People are still fleeing to neighbouring countries: The UN predicts the number of Burundian refugees will top 500,000 by the end of the year.
On 14 June, the Commission of Enquiry on Burundi set up by the UN Human Rights Council reported that violations such as the excessive use of force, disappearances, and arbitrary detention by security services – which all surged amid street protests in the weeks after Nkurunziza’s April 2015 announcement – have been continuing.
According to government figures, some 720 people have lost their lives since the start of the crisis – many during the heavy-handed crackdown around a failed coup attempt in May 2015. Human rights workers put the number at more like 1,200. The level of violence has subsided but there continue to be sporadic killings from gunshots and grenades, which the police often attribute to criminal activity.
Fatsah Ouguergouz, who chairs the commission of enquiry, told the Human Rights Council that testimonies collected in refugee camps “show that since late 2016, human rights violations are often committed in a more clandestine, but equally brutal, manner” than in 2015.
“For example, a victim told us that in 2016, a police commander threatened him in the following terms: ‘I can kill you. I can bury you and no one will know,’” Ouguergouz said, explaining that his team had not been given permission to carry out investigations inside Burundi itself.
“There are continuing reports of disappearances. Dead bodies are also still regularly discovered,” he added. “According to several testimonies, it is often difficult to identify the bodies. The modus operandi seems to be the same: the victims have their arms tied behind their backs and sometimes their bodies are weighed down with stones to make them sink once they are thrown into a river.”
In Bujumbura, residents gave IRIN first-hand accounts of loved ones going missing.
“My husband received a phone call from people he doubtless knew. He left in our car with a friend and never came back. Even the car was never found,” said the wife of a man close to the government who asked not to be named. “I contacted his old friends – the police, the army, the intelligence services – but to no avail. I’m losing hope, and what [bothers] me the most is that some of his old friends in the police and army don’t answer my calls.”
Another woman in the capital told IRIN about her brother, who had been a policeman for a long time. “He was arrested as he came home from work, after meeting some relatives,” she said. “Up to now, I have no information about where he went. I don’t know what to do. We haven’t even been allowed to conduct customary mourning rituals. We are crying in secret.”
The commission said refugees had told its investigators of torture sessions carried out by the National Intelligence Service and the police, sometimes assisted by the Imbonerakure – the ruling party’s youth wing. The testimony was graphic: “clubs, rifle butts, bayonets, iron bars, metal chains and electric cables [used] with the result that some victims' bones were broken and other victims lost consciousness; long needles stuck into victims' bodies or unidentified products injected into them; nails ripped out with pliers; burns; and many abuses inflicted on male detainees' genital organs.”
The commission also noted that those in exile included many journalists as well as the leaders of most opposition parties, one of which, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, was slapped with a six-month suspension in April.
Dwindling food supplies have left more than a quarter of Burundi’s population, 2.56 million people, in a state of severe food insecurity. Some three million Burundians require humanitarian assistance.
In April, four people died of starvation in Muyange II, an area close to the capital, according to local leader Augustin Ntirandekura. Asked to explain the lack of doors and windows on some of the houses in Muyange II, one resident said they had been sold to pay for food.
Yields from the first of the country’s two annual agricultural seasons were down an average of 25 percent, but experts at the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) system say this only partly explains the widespread food insecurity.
“The current socio-economic crisis characterised by inflation, shortage of jobs, the depreciation of the Burundian franc and a shortage of foreign currency, aggravated by a malaria epidemic and the displacement of populations are factors which influence the level of food insecurity and create a need for a coordinated multi-sectoral approach,” the latest IPC bulletin says.
Market prices of basic foods are between 30 and 50 percent higher than the same period last year, according to the IPC, which did, however, project much better yields from 2017’s (just beginning) second harvest.
More supply can’t come a moment too soon. At foodstalls in the capital, IRIN found maize selling for 1,200 francs ($0.70) per kilogramme, against 400 francs less than two years ago, while green beans were up from 700 to 1,200 francs over the same period.
“When the current crisis started, the expatriate family I had been working for since 2010 left the country and my husband lost his job because his boss said he didn’t have enough money to pay him,” said Nicelate Ngayabosha, who lives in the northern Bujumbura district of Kamenge.
She said she struggles to feed her family now and that her children only eat one meal a day, which makes it hard for them to concentrate at school.
Adrienne Niyubuntu, a mother of three who said her husband had travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo because he could not bear to see his children go hungry, explained how she now has to rely on charity. “These days, it’s my relatives who try to give me food, because I have no income,” she said.
Budgetary aid suspensions imposed by the European Union and some of its member states in 2016 are also having a serious impact on Burundi’s economy, according to analyst and anti-corruption activist Faustin Ndikumana.
“The sanctions have deprived the government of a major source of foreign currency,” he told IRIN. The EU suspension affects a 43-million-euro package of direct support destined mainly for projects in energy, rural development, public finances, health, and justice reform. The European Union had been funding about half of Burundi’s annual budget.
Ndikumana said the lack of foreign currency had led to shortages of fuel, medicines, and other essential goods. “The national agricultural investment programme has not received its planned funds and the agricultural sector is unable to pay dividends,” he said. “We are in a situation where people are impoverished yet certain dignitaries continue to believe that things are normal because they are receiving their salaries or allowances.”
The International Monetary Fund has projected zero growth in Burundi in 2017 and 12.4 percent inflation.
Fuel shortages and electricity cuts have eased now but in April and May they were severe. “We had to queue outside petrol stations. Sometimes, we even waited all day without getting any,” said taxi driver Thomas Ndayiragije.
The fuel shortages also exacerbated food inflation. According to the national statistics institute, food prices went up more than 10 percent in less than a month in April.
All this has grave implications for jobs and livelihoods.
“I’m having trouble making ends meet every month because so I have so few customers,” said shopkeeper Josue. “I think I will have to try to find another source of revenue because commerce is not working well.”
Innocent, who works at a market stall, said her boss had had asked her to look for customers to buy his potatoes. “He has already told me that if things go on like this I will lose my job,” she said. “We used to sell around 200 kilogrammes or more of potatoes a day. Now I sell less than 20.”
A cement trader in downtown Bujumbura said his sales had also fallen by a similar 90 percent. “I think fewer people are building houses,” he explained.
No way forward
For exiled anti-corruption activist Gabriel Rufyiri, there is only one way forward.
“Only inclusive negotiations will provide a favourable solution to these problems of food shortages. Because once the political issues are sorted out, donors will be quick to lift sanctions against the government,” he said, speaking to IRIN from Belgium.
A government-led “inter-Burundian dialogue” involving 26,000 citizens and 600 hours of meetings produced a final report in May, asserting that the population backed various constitutional changes and putting an end to presidential term limits. But opposition parties, which were not involved, have dismissed the process and the subsequent establishment of a constitutional review commission as a sham.
Meanwhile, mediation efforts led by the East African Community are at a standstill, both because some in the opposition regard the facilitator, Tanzanian former president Benjamin Mkapa, as biased and because Nkurunziza sees the process as a violation of Burundi’s sovereignty.
This week, UN Assistant Secretary-General Tayé-Brook Zerihoun told the Security Council that implementing the report’s recommendations would likely lead to an escalation of the crisis.
Government denial, meanwhile, showed no sign of abating. Albert Shingiro, Burundi’s ambassador to the UN, told the council: “the entire country is calm,” that 150,000 refugees had returned home, and that there was no longer a political crisis at all.
(TOP PHOTO: Protestors in Bujumbura demonstrate against violence in May 2015. Phil Moore/IRIN)