Nairobi — Local officials and members of the widely feared youth wing of Burundi's ruling party have extorted donations for the upcoming 2020 elections, in many cases with threats or force, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Members of the youth group, the Imbonerakure, have blocked access to basic public services for those who cannot show a receipt for their payment.
The 48-page report, "'We Let Our Children Go Hungry': Abuses Related to 2020 Election Levy in Burundi" documents the campaign by the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy party (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD) with the youth wing and local officials to collect "voluntary" contributions from the population. Human Rights Watch found that people have been forced to pay multiple times or more than the officially requested amount, or were not given a receipt, exacerbating the situation.
"Local authorities and Imbonerakure members exercise a terrifying level of control over people's movements and basic activities like buying food, seeing a doctor, or getting water," said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The election levy has opened the door to unbridled abuse."
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 80 people, including 65 victims of the abuses. The victims are from 13 of the country's 18 provinces.
A December 2017 government order established the contributions to be collected in various ways, including "voluntary" donations of 2,000 Burundian Francs (US$1.08) per household, 1,000 Burundian Francs ($0.54) per student of voting age, and direct deduction from the salaries of public sector workers and civil servants. But members of the Imbonerakure, who have no official role in the government or in collecting taxes, used violence and intimidation to extort money from Burundians.
They set up roadblocks to check receipts and restricted access to markets, schools, water pumps, and administrative services for those who failed to comply, Human Rights Watch found. Victims said that Imbonerakure members at food distribution centers managed by aid groups had beaten people, prevented them from getting food, or forcibly taken food from them.
One 23-year-old from Cankuzo province, who was forced to flee and leave his family behind, said "They put up barriers everywhere so you couldn't go get water, go to the market, or just get around without the receipt.... I paid just so I could live safely. To get to the market, I went through three roadblocks."
Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases during 2019 in which members of the Imbonerakure, sometimes working with police or local authorities, carried out killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and beatings of real or suspected political opponents.
Since early 2018, members of the Imbonerakure, visibly emboldened by their contribution collector role, also intimidated, threatened, and beat people to force them to donate food, livestock, and money to the ruling CNDD-FDD and take part in the construction of local ruling party offices, Human Rights Watch found.
In October, four members of the youth league were convicted of killing an opposition member and sentenced to life in prison. However, the Imbonerakure, who are often described as having more power than the police, have overall been shielded from justice and rarely been held accountable for their abuses.
President Pierre Nkurunziza announced the suspension of the collections in July 2019, claiming their objective had almost been met, but said those who wished to continue contributing could do so. Human Rights Watch found that the election levies are still being collected, albeit on a lesser scale, while the youth wing and local officials continue to collect other "donations" to the ruling party and other local projects.
The election contributions and associated extortion and other abuses have significantly affected the lives of many Burundians, including over 70 percent of the population of 11 million living below the poverty line, Human Rights Watch said.
Imbonerakure members have strengthened their grip over many aspects of people's lives, Human Rights Watch found. The degree to which an individual pays the election or other contributions, attends ruling party rallies, or participates in the construction of the party's offices has become a measure of their allegiance to the CNDD-FDD.
Authorities should ensure that all Burundians, including the most vulnerable, have access to critical humanitarian assistance, and that access to public services is not denied on the basis of people's real or perceived political allegiances and their contributions to the elections.
The government should hold accountable local authorities, police, and Imbonerakure members credibly implicated in violations of the rights to life, security, food, movement, property, and freedom from political discrimination, as well as the right not to be subjected to ill-treatment.
Regional entities should increase scrutiny by ensuring that the African Union's human rights observers are fully deployed in Burundi and given unfettered access across the country, Human Rights Watch said.
"With increasing repression and arbitrary and punitive financial demands on the population, there is a real risk that political tensions will escalate ahead of the May 2020 elections," Mudge said. "Burundian authorities should urgently rein in, investigate, and prosecute Imbonerakure members and local administrators where there is evidence of their involvement in extortion and abuse.