Two years after Burundi’s president plunged the central African country into turmoil, the regime shows no signs of easing up on a crackdown that has forced hundreds of thousands to flee.
The UN estimates that at least 500 people have been killed since President Pierre Nkurunziza sought a third term in April 2015. Aid groups say as many as 2,000 people have died.
Nkurunziza’s re-election move violated the two-term limit set by the constitution and a 2006 peace deal that ended a dozen years of civil war.
The head of state claims that his first term doesn’t count because he was appointed after the war, and not directly elected.
He has also suggested a possible change to Burundi’s constitution that would let him run again in 2020.
In the meantime, his ruling CNND-FDD party has unleashed its feared youth wing known as the Imbonerakure — “those who see from afar” in the local Kirundi language — who now reign with impunity across much of the country.
“The Imbonerakure have become the spearhead of the repression, they have spread out across the country identifying and harassing the opposition,” said Florent Geel of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
And the UN rights chief condemned the youth wing this month for repeatedly calling for the rape and murder of opposition supporters, saying it amounts to a “campaign of terror”.
The East African Community plans a summit meeting for May, which many officials see as the last chance to find a diplomatic solution to a crisis that has prompted more than 400,000 people to flee the country.
– ‘You won’t be heard from’ –
“The crisis is behind us, security is assured, peace has returned to Burundi and everyone is going about their business,” said the country’s first vice president, Gaston Sindimwo.
But opposition leaders as well as NGOs say this claim of “peace” results from brutal repression that has left hundreds dead.
The Imbonerakure often set up roadblocks to search vehicles heading north into Rwanda or south into Tanzania, arresting scores of “suspects”, several witnesses told AFP.
“The entire population is terrorised because anyone can arrest you in the street and you won’t be heard from again,” a resident in Bujumbura, the capital, said on condition on anonymity.
“The fear is so strong that sometimes a father won’t dare ask the security services for news of his missing son,” he said.
The government has rejected all of the UN’s reports on the violence and calls for inquiries, as well as a Security Council resolution seeking the deployment of 228 police officers.
“The regime in Burundi has grown more radicalised, but it has taken advantage of the growing divisions on the Security Council as well as the paralysis of the African Union, which has allowed it to act with complete impunity,” according to a UN diplomat in Geneva.
– ‘Inflated egos’ –
The political opposition, and many elements of civil society in general, have fled Burundi.
The opposition has also been weakened by internal divisions and “inflated egos among some of us,” said an opponent of the regime who lives in exile and who asked to remain anonymous.
Negotiations between the regime and the CNARED, an umbrella of opposition groups, have stalled despite international pressure and financial sanctions imposed by the EU.
A foreign diplomat in Bujumbura said the government also worries about rebel groups forming in neighbouring countries, including the Republican Forces of Burundi (Forebu), which mainly consists of deserting police and soldiers.
“Many Burundians now believe that this is the only language understood by President Pierre Nkurunziza, who refuses to talk about peace,” said Jeremie Minani, an opposition leader.