Burundian Civil Society Fights Back but Will It Be Enough?

3 October 2014

Media, opposition and civil society groups have been pushing back against government attempts to constrict political space, but as elections approach the fight will only get harder.

The relative peace Burundi has enjoyed since the end of civil war may be under threat. Following the ceasefire that ended 12 years of brutal conflict in 2005, the country has experienced a degree of stability. But as the 2015 elections approach, many warn that President Pierre Nkurunziza and his ruling CNDD-FDD party are constricting political space through intimidation, violence and the repression of dissenting voices.

In doing so, however, the government has not had an easy ride. Instead, it has found itself face-to-face with resolute civil society and opposition groups who have refused to back down. How these contending dynamics play out could determine whether the 2015 elections, slated for the summer, represent a step towards greater democratic consolidation or a step back towards a politics of violence and fear.

Keeping a grip

In the 2010 elections, Burundi saw a sharp rise in political violence and intimidation, and, ultimately, many opposition parties boycotted the polls, leaving Nkurunziza to win the presidency with an official 92% of the vote. Many had been hoping that the 2015 would mark a change from these previous elections, but it seems a similar climate of repression and discord is brewing once again.

Early this year, for example, the government tried to push through a raft of constitutional amendments. Along with suspicions that these would include provisions allowing Nkurunziza to seek a third term, the suggested revisions proposed measures that would dilute the powers of the vice-presidency and reduce the number of votes needed to pass laws from the current two-third majority down to a mere 50%+1 majority. Critics, of whom there were many, claimed the amendments would threaten the country's fragile balance of power between Hutus and Tutsis and entrench the CNDD-FDD's power.

In March, opposition MPs managed to stop the constitutional changes going through parliament as the CNDD-FDD came just one vote short of approving the move. Not to be deterred, the interior minister shortly after announced that a referendum would be organised to push the changes through instead, but in the face of clear popular and political opposition, as well as some practical difficulties, this proposal was dropped, at least for the time being.

Civil society stands up

This seemed to be a clear victory for the opposition, but it nevertheless remains ambiguous as to whether Nkurunziza will attempt to run for a third term anyway. Under the constitution, presidents are limited to two terms, but supporters of the president have argued that his first term (2005-2010) should not count because he was indirectly elected. What does seem clear from the attempt to change the constitution, however, is that if Nkurunziza does try to run again, he will once again encounter vigorous opposition from a broad range of groups.

These deepening battle lines - between a government seemingly determined to hold onto power and a civil society refusing to be walked over - can also be seen in the ongoing case of Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. Mbonimpa, a veteran human rights activist and one of Burundi's most prominent public figures, was arrested on 15 May for allegedly threatening national security and using false documents. These charges related to claims he made on the radio that young Burundian men were receiving military training in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Given the evidence in support of his allegations, many saw Mbonimpa's detention as unjust and as a way for the government to silence its critics. Burundian activists campaigned strongly for his release, and supporters turned up en masse outside his first court hearing in a show of solidarity. A number of international organisations also expressed concern over the case, with the European Parliament most recently adding its voice to calls for Mbonimpa's unconditional and immediate release.

The government, however, was not to be moved and responded by prohibiting demonstrators in support of the human rights defender, threatening radio stations that claimed to have evidence to corroborate his claims, and even banning a pro-Mbonimpa song.

The government recently released Mbonimpa provisionally on medical grounds, but the battle between the ruling party and supporters of the human rights activist look set to continue.

A rising climate of violence

Government's treatment of Mbonimpa fits into a broader pattern of what Burundian sociologist Nicodème Bugwabari has called a "climate of violence"; Amnesty International released a report in July documenting a "crackdown on freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly and a sharp increase in politicized violence"; while the UN's top official in Burundi was expelled in April after a report claiming that the government had been arming its young supporters was leaked.

Perhaps predictably, Burundi's government party has tended to hit back at these criticisms, dismissing their claims as "partisan" and as "pure lies," but instances of political violence and repression continue to be reported.

Opposition parties, for example, have faced harassment and arbitrary arrests, particularly when holding public events. In March, for instance, numerous opposition figures were jailed for 'illegally' demonstrating, and the MSD party received a four-month suspension following a violent clash between police and its supporters. In late August meanwhile, a regional MSD leader announced that the party would no longer be attending meetings organised by the Gitega Province governor following harassment by CNDD-FDD activists.

In a more extreme accusation, members of Burundi's second largest party, UPRONA, have alleged that a police officer was sent to kill senior party member Charles Nditije. This followed allegations that the government had already tried to have Nditije removed from the party and replaced by the more compliant Concilie Nibigira in an attempt to fragment the party.

Worryingly, there is also rising evidence of the expansion of political parties' aggressive youth wings. The ruling CNDD-FDD's 'Imbonerakure', for example, has reportedly conducted a series of attacks against opponents and civilians with almost total impunity and has been described as acting like a 'third arm' of state security. Adding to this, opposition party youth wings have also become more prominent and interparty clashes have occurred.

Don't stop the press

In the face of this, opposition parties have continued to hold demonstrations, including supporters' jogs and larger events. Media organisations have also persisted in publishing and broadcasting critical material, from the banned pro-Mbonimpa song to articles unfavourable to the government, and have often openly criticised the much-feared Imbonerakure. And campaigners have organised public forums, published criticisms of the worsening violence, and demanded the investigation of extrajudicial killings.

Together, these groups have shown themselves to be a force to be reckoned with and have enjoyed minor successes. However, it is too early to say how these efforts will match up against a political system prepared to use violence and other such measures in a bid to closely control political space in the country in the run up to elections. Without guarantees for human rights, civil liberties, and free expression, the 2015 elections will look less credible, but the tenacity of civil society and media so far still gives hope for the democratic process.

Liam Anderson holds a Master's degree in International Affairs: International Security from Sciences Po. His interests include post-conflict development and state institutions.

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