5 January 2016

Burundi: Shells and Shots Instead of Peace Talks in Burundi

Photo: http://www.dw.com
Protests in Burundi (file photo).

As 2016 begins there is still no sign of peace in Burundi. Positions are becoming entrenched, murders continue and the long-awaited dialogue between the government, opposition and civil society groups is faltering.

Bujumbura saw in the New Year with a bang. But 2016 didn't start with fireworks. On New Year's Day, shells exploded in a bar in the capital of the small East African country. One person died and ten were injured, according to the Burundian police. Two days later in Musaga, a district in the south of Bujumbura, the police shot singer Pascal Tresor Nshimirimana in the back, local news agency Bujumbura News reported. The 27-year-old, known in Burundi by his stage name Lisbua, died on the spot.

It wasn't Lisbua's music that was the problem. According to media reports, the singer's friends and family said the police arrested and murdered him because he had taken part in protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza's third term in office. But the police say Lisbua was a 'criminal;' that they had caught him and others about to commit a crime and that they shot him as he tried to escape.

Observers denied entry

Lisbua's death has again fuelled tensions in Burundi. It's just the latest in a series of human rights violations and murders of opposition supporters. The crisis stems from the controversy around the re-election of President Nkurunziza, who brutally struck down opposition protests. Since the conflict began in April 2015, around 300 people are thought to have been killed and 280,000 Burundians have fled the country.

Most of the human rights violations remain undocumented. "The Burundian government has made it impossible for any investigators to get access to the country in the last five or six months," said Phil Clark, a conflict researcher from SOAS in London, in an interview with DW.

But a few weeks ago, the Burundian government made an exception for observers from the African Union (AU). When these observers reported an alarming human rights situation, the AU announced it would send 5,000 peacekeeping troops to Burundi. The Burundian government refused to accept the deployment. "Burundi is an independent state and its borders must be respected by everyone. We will not let any troops in," said President Nkurunziza in an official speech at the end of December. "If they don't respect our borders, every Burundian will fight against them, because they will be attacking our country."

This aggressive reaction made it even more difficult for international observers to gain access to the country and obtain reliable information, according to Phil Clark. The United Nations Security Council wants to send observers to Burundi in mid-January, to investigate the human rights situation. But it still doesn't have the permission of the government in Bujumbura. "The Burundian government feels that it has been burnt once and it will be very reluctant to allow more observers on the ground," Clark told DW.

Should Burundi leave the UN Human Rights Council?

As of January 1, 2016, Burundi is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council for three years. But NGOs and Burundian civil society groups are calling for the UN to drop the country from the body. Jean-Marie Vianney Gatogato from the Association of Catholic Jurists in Burundi says that would be a "sensible measure" and a "sign of protest against what is currently happening in our country. The state needs to think about how to protect its citizens and how to put a stop to the human rights violations which have been seen here," Gatogato told DW.

Phil Clark is less optimistic. "So far the Burundian government has been almost entirely impervious to any external intervention," he says. International sanctions brought against some members of the government have had just as little effect on Nkurunziza's policy as the threat of wider economic sanctions against the country. According to Clark, suspending the country from the UN Human Rights Council would also make little difference.

Peace talks postponed

At the end of December, the Burundian government, the opposition and representatives from civil society met in Uganda for peace talks chaired by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. The talks were set to continue in Arusha, Tanzania, on Wednesday, January 6.

But the Burundian government has requested a postponement, deputy presidential spokesperson Jean-Claude Karerwa Ndenzako told DW. He said there is good reason for that: "The government delegation needs some time to hold discussions with government representatives." There's no bad intent on the government's part, Ndenzako said. It is trying to push the dialogue forward and achieve peace and security as quickly as possible, as well as boosting the economy, he told DW.

Phil Clark puts it less diplomatically. "The Burundian government has said that unless the AU backs off in terms of the peacekeeper issues, and if there is not a change to the makeup of the opposition contingent in Kampala, then it will no longer continue in the mediation," he told DW. The government suspects that some of the people invited to the talks took part in an attempted coup against President Nkurunziza in May 2015. "It's going to be very difficult for President Museveni of Uganda to try and find a way through this impasse," Clark says.

Additional reporting by Eric Topona and Jean-Fiacre Ndayiragije

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