The Imbonerakure: A Key Roadblock to Burundi’s Political and Civil Liberties

By: Lydia Nyachieo

On September 23rd, 2019, Jérémie Ntaconimariye, a Burundian farmer in his late 50s and a member of the political opposition party, was asleep in his house in Karusi province when three young men of the ruling party came uninvited. They took him to a small village almost two miles away, then beat him to death. A witness among those who found him the next morning said that his body was so swollen, that “when he touched him, it was like there were blood clots inside his body.” None of the perpetrators were ever arrested.  

A week later at the UN General Assembly, Burundian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ezéchiel Nibigira boasted of the country’s stability and political tolerance, saying, “From north to south, from west to east via the center, night and day, Burundian citizens enjoy their civil and political rights in peace.” 

These juxtaposing incidents were recounted in the January 2020 Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) report entitled “A façade of peace in a land of fear: Behind Burundi’s Human Rights Crisis.” As the title implies, the report unveils the violent environment of Burundi’s political and civil landscape behind the government’s attempts to hide it from the international community. A main factor of this environment is the Imbonerakure (eem-bon-nur-a-kooh-ray). The Imbonerakure, to which Ntaconimariye’s assailants belonged, are the militant youth wing of the country’s ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD, in French). Meaning “those who see far” in the Kirundi language, one of the official languages of Burundi besides French, the Imbonerakure are the eyes, ears, and law enforcement of the ruling party’s administration. Often using threats or violence, the Imbonerakure enforce the CNDD-FDD’s dominance, as well as persecute members of the main opposition party, the National Congress for Freedom (CNL). In some parts of the country, especially rural areas, human rights abuses such as the one suffered by Jérémie Ntaconimariye are not uncommon. 

Context 

The Imbonerakure’s influence throughout Burundi has been growing for the past 5 years. According to an African Arguments article, President Pierre Nkurunziza, who has been in power since 2005, made a controversial bid for a third presidential term in the April 2015 elections. This move undermined the 2000 Arusha Accords, which limited presidents to two terms. His bid sparked widespread political unrest a mere 10 years after the end of the country’s 1993-2005 ethnic civil war, whose end was largely attributed to the Arusha Accords. Ever since government forces cracked down on protestors and a failed coup, more than 100,000 citizens have been internally displaced. More than 400,000 civilians, journalists, politicians, and lawyers have fled to neighboring Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and even Kenya

Shortly after the crackdown, the government shut down most independent media stations and has arbitrarily arrested or killed several activists, journalists, and opposition party members. According to CIVICUS Monitor, a tool which tracks global civil liberties, Burundi has a closed civic space, meaning an “atmosphere of fear and violence prevails,” criticism of the central authority is severely punished, and those in power are often allowed to persecute those who try to exercise their right to express themselves. The Imbonerakure enforce this repression of civil liberties in certain parts of Burundi under the influence and at times direct instruction of the CNDD-FDD. According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, the Imbonerakure have carried out “killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of torture and ill-treatment and rape against actual or alleged political opposition members.” 

According to an article by The New Humanitarian, many of these youths are bush fighters from the country’s previous conflict who “never completely left the mentality of war”. Largely uneducated, these youths are vulnerable to exploitation by politicians, who can offer jobs, money, or tell them lies to recruit them. The Imbonerakure has at least 50,000 members throughout the country’s 10.86 million population. According to the BHRI report, although members of this youth wing are regular civilians who have no legal authority, the government has become increasingly dependent on them to maintain its political and social dominance. 

The Impact of the Climate of Impunity 

Impunity of the Imbonerakure’s actions has bolstered a disregard for human rights, because they not only can get away with horrible abuses, but they’re even protected from punishment. According to the BHRI Report, three Imbonerakure beat and stabbed a CNL member with a knife in September 2019. Even when the victim managed to pressure the police into arresting one of those involved, the area chief came to the detention center and forced the judicial police to release him. None of the perpetrators were ever prosecuted. The lack of accountability also takes away the hope of justice from victims, who often don’t tell authorities about the abuses out of distrust or fear of retaliation. The BHRI Report recounted an interview with an Imbonerakure who said,  

“We can find a (woman) in a field and rape her. Even if she screams, we’re not worried because we are protected. We do it openly because she will not complain to the [head of the hill district] or the administrator…” 

In another interview with an Imbonerakure, the BHRI report explains how the CNDD-FDD sometimes directly sends them to target opposition members: 

“for the time being, we’ve changed the strategy. We abduct them and kill them later. Or we call them to the CNDD-FDD party headquarters and pretend to imprison them. And if someone comes to look for them, we say he’s in a detention centre in Rumonge (far from where he was abducted or killed), but we have already dug a grave to bury him… The CNDDFDD said we’re going to continue to do this until the elections are held.” 

Seeking the Imbonerakure to be held accountable by the very authorities who might have sent them is expressed in a Burundian proverb in the BHRI report: “When you are bitten by a snake, you can’t complain to the python.” 

The impunity of the Imbonerakure has affected many Burundians’ civil, political, economic, and social rights – even those who don’t directly oppose the government. For example, in rural areas they set up roadblocks and deny people access to water, food, education, and healthcare if they don’t pay “voluntary” financial or food contributions to the ruling party. This is in a country where more than 65% of the population lives in poverty and more than 50% is chronically food insecure, according to the World Food Programme. Ordinary businesspeople are also penalized if even remotely associated with the opposition party. According to the BHRI report, Imbonerakure threatened to kill property owners and burn their houses down if they rented out property to the CNL for their party offices. A 38-year old mother of four had her restaurant destroyed by authorities in 2015, who claimed that protestors of Nkurunziza’s third term ate there.  

Unsurprisingly, the country’s justice system has become “enslaved to the ruling party,” according to the BHRI report. Government officials and others in high power can coerce justice officials to unlawfully arrest, convict, and imprison individuals with no legal offences. Likewise, they pressure judicial authorities to release or exonerate Imbonerakure who’ve been accused of crimes. 

One particularly discouraging fact about this situation is that the government profusely denies its human rights abuses to the international community and has extensively shut out international entities that would denounce them. According to an article from The New Humanitarian, the government has kicked out civil society and human rights organizations, closed the country’s UN Human Rights office, permanently revoked BBC’s operating license, and shut out almost all other international media. The president refused peacekeeping forces from the African Union, and in October 2017, Burundi became the first country to  leave the International Criminal Court. 

May 2020 Elections 

As several human rights groups and other media outlets have warned, this climate of political violence and fear isn’t conducive for Burundi’s elections – the next of which will occur next month. According to Voice of America, the UN warned that the elections could be “compromised by increasing repression of political opponents, economic and social instability and growing criminality.” Even though President Nkurunziza announced that he wouldn’t run again, it’s highly improbable that the May elections will be free, fair, and credible without serious changes to Burundi’s socio-political landscape. 

The Imbonerakure is one of the main factors that’ll prevent a legitimate election. With its constant monitoring and threats to civilians throughout the country, true democracy can’t survive. It’s also questionable whether the country will thrive with this political instability in the backdrop of Burundi’s malaria outbreak and food shortages. Dismantling the Imbonerakure and the CNDD-FDD’s corrupt leadership will be quite the task, particularly since the ruling party’s government refuses to acknowledge its humanitarian crisis.  

Nonetheless, there are multitudes of Burundians inside and outside the country who continue to fight for socio-political change. For example, groups of exiled journalists defy Burundi’s media blackout by reporting news from outside the country through social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter. Radio stations and newspapers such as Radio Inzamba and SOS Médias Burundi are invaluable sources to Burundians in and out of the country who want to know what’s really going in some parts of the country. In the country’s political scene, independent presidential candidate Dieudonné Nahimana has been amassing youth supporters in hopes of winning the election. Among his plans of transforming Burundi, Nahimana aims to “tackle rampant corruption and remove barriers to young people’s involvement in managing the country”. Losing several of his relatives during Burundi’s civil war has given him a drive to see the country move forward, saying, “When you experience injustice and learn to forgive, you realize you don’t need to avenge another person but you need to create a new ideology that brings people together.” 

Bottom Line 

Even with many Burundians fighting for change, it’s difficult to say how this climate of fear and violence will end. Needless to say, the Burundian government and the Imbonerakure must recognize the magnitude of harm they’re causing to thousands of their flesh-and-blood fellow human beings. Many of these human rights abuses aren’t unique among those experienced in other parts of the world, yet are still ones that no human should ever have to suffer. According to the BHRI report, 

“A Burundian summed up what has become the default position: ‘Look and keep quiet. Even if someone is raped, even if your brother is killed, don’t say anything.’ This fear and breakdown of trust, combined with the trauma that many Burundians still experience – whether as victims of torture, witnesses of killings, or relatives of the disappeared – has had a cumulative effect.” 

Burundi is a beautiful country full of vibrant people. However, becoming re-sensitized to the impacts of recurring violence to certain targeted members of this society is imperative. For a truly civil and sustainable society, the government and its militarized youth wing need to respond to the distress of Burundian refugees, of internally persecuted civilians, and even members of the Imbonerakure who want out. As one high-ranking member of the militia group said,  

“I know what I’m doing isn’t good and sometimes I regret it, but there’s no way out. You keep doing it when you know it’s bad because if you leave you could die.”