In Burundi, young girls and women are often the victims of sexual violence at gunpoint.
Credit: IRIN
The prevalence of small arms and light weapons in Burundi threatens to undermine state authority, despite democratic elections having been held in 2005, ending 12 years of civil war in the Central African country.

Overall, security conditions across Burundi have improved, despite continued attacks by the country's remaining rebel group, the Forces Nationales de liberation (FNL), led by Agathon Rwasa. However, police records of criminal acts committed mostly in the capital, Bujumbura, suggest that the problem of small arms must be dealt with before the rule of law can really take hold in this fledgling democracy.

According to Maj Céléstin Nibona, the Bujumbura regional police superintendent, 11 acts of armed banditry were committed in Bujumbura capital during the month of February alone. Four persons were injured, and several properties stolen. Although armed banditry targeting vehicles and motorcycles declined during the first months of the year compared with 2005, acts of armed banditry remained high, he said.

"Killing, rape, harassment at gunpoint, injuries - small arms claim a victim each day," said Capitoline Ngenzahayo, the executive secretary of the Compagnie des Apôtres de la Paix (CAP), a local civil-society organisation involved in the fight against small arms. Although no formal survey had been conducted, the number of small arms in the country was estimated at between 200,000 and 300,000, Ngenzahayo said.

According to Col Déo Hakiza, Bujumbura deputy police superintendent, the most common small arms in Burundi are Russian-made Kalashnikovs, or AK-47s, and, to a lesser extent, Belgian-made rifles. Years of civil war had created a high demand for weapons and produced an environment highly conducive to the prevalence of small arms, both in the country and in the region as well. "They not only circulate within one country’s borders but also move from one country to another in the Great Lakes region,” Hakiza said.

Following the outbreak of civil war in Burundi in 1993, the government of President Pierre Buyoya distributed arms to the population, particularly to paramilitary youths known as Guardians de la paix (Guardians of Peace) to protect civilians against rebel attacks. Individuals also bought weapons for their own personal security. These weapons now circulate from one person to another.

According to Nibona, unemployed people who have weapons hire them out to criminals as a means to earn a living. In a January 2006 report on arms circulation in Burundi and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the Belgium-based Groupe de Recherche et d’Information sur la Paix et la Securité (GRIP) stated that owners hire out weapons at 50,000 francs (US $50) per night.

Armed banditry is not the preserve of civilians alone. Hakiza said other agents include FNL combatants, demobilised soldiers as well as police and soldiers. According to a report by the Centre d’Alerte et de Prévention des Conflits (CENAP) released in Bujumbura on 29 March, “Eighty percent of criminal acts are imputed to police agents and soldiers whether demobilised or still active.”

As a result, the government put in place measures to prevent the misuse of weapons by law enforcement officers. One such measure was to prohibit police officers and soldiers from carrying firearms when not on duty. To limit the circulation of weapons, the government has also established programmes to disarm civilians and to demobilise soldiers, former combatants and militias.

Disarmament efforts

The Commission Nationale pour la Demobilisation, la Reinsertion, et la Rehabilitation des Combattants (CNDRR) began its work on 12 September 2005, with the demobilisation of former Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces Nationales pour la défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD) militias and paramilitary youths. However, after just one month, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza sacked the commission members - following a series of complaints and demonstrations against them by paramilitary youths, who demanded payment of demobilisation fees - and replaced them with a new team.

South African peacekeeping troops in Burundi. The fragile security environment in Burundi, and in the Great Lakes region in general, still represents a potential danger for Burundians, forcing them to cling to their weapons.
Credit: IRIN
While the newly appointed commission did not embark on the disarmament of civilians, Brig-Gen Silas Ntigurirwa, the executive secretary of the demobilisation programme, announced on 10 February, that at least 20,000 former combatants, including child soldiers, had returned to their families following demobilisation. He said Burundi's demobilisation programme had entered its final stage, with 5,000 former members of the armed forces due to be demobilised this year. He also said the country's new National Defence Forces had been reduced to 25,000, in compliance with a government requirement.

On 29 March, Brig Gen Evariste Ndayishimiye, the minister of interior and public security, announced that more than 19,000 militias and guardians de la paix had been demobilised and their weapons collected.

Continuing challenges

While the demobilisation programme seems to have made progress, measures to disarm civilians have only just been implemented. On 13 April, President Nkurunziza announced that civilians in possession of weapons had three weeks to register the guns or risk being arrested for illegal ownership. He also praised the 3,000 people who had already chosen to hand in their guns.

Whatever efforts the government makes to disarm the population and limit the circulation of small arms, it still faces many challenges. The fragile security environment in Burundi – and in the Great Lakes region in general – has compelled many Burundians to cling to their weapons. "Getting accustomed to a weapon means that a climate of insecurity is created by its absence," Hakiza said.

Tackling corruption is another issue that Burundian analysts consider crucial to limiting the proliferation of small arms. According to Ngenzahayo, many senior officials who are afraid of being prosecuted for their own misdemeanours supply weapons to armed groups to keep the new leadership focused on security issues rather than on economic crimes. Until such matters are effectively addressed, small arms will continue to pose a significant threat to political stability in Burundi.

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