Burundi’s culture of impunity – A role for the Dutch?

Peace & Security30 Sep 2011David Taylor

Burundi is of little or no geopolitical or strategic importance. Unlike its neighbours, a lack of significant natural resources or celebrity engagement means that only the threat of a slide back into civil war awakens otherwise dormant international attention. Yet, the Gatumba massacre perpetrated on 18 September 2011 in a bar outside of Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, is just one of many similar incidents in a long history of violence since the country’s independence in 1962. The massacre of more than 40 people serves to highlight the unresolved problems that remain just beneath the surface in Burundi; problems that threaten the implementation of transitional justice. International attention is thus welcome, but only if it is based on a careful reading of the situation and can be translated into sustained pressure to deal with the past. As one of the few on the ground in Burundi, Dutch policy may have a crucial role.

Post-independence violence

The assassination of Burundi’s ‘hero of independence’, Prince Louis Rwagasore set the tone for nearly fifty years of history. A scramble for power beginning almost immediately after independence in 1962 was followed by waves of cyclic violence and civil war, characterised by war crimes, crimes against humanity and at least two genocides. Despite the cessation of the latter and the official end to Burundi’s civil war, violence and instability remain. Gatumba is no better example of this.

During the first three years of independence, the assassination of the Hutu Prime Minister and an attempted coup by a group of Hutu officers prompted a brutal retaliation by the Tutsi-dominated army. Violence against both Hutu and Tutsi communities began, with the army committing widespread massacres against Hutu civilians, culminating in a successful coup in 1966 after which an army captain declared himself President. Following more violence, the army embarked on the systematic targeting of all educated Hutu in 1972. Just four months later, nearly the entire Hutu elite had either been murdered or driven into exile. Though there has been no official determination, the events are widely regarded as constituting genocide – at least in the Hutu collective memory.

Two more coups and several more years of violence later, Pierre Buyoya took over as President in 1987 and immediately established a one-party political system with the Tutsi-dominated Uprona party in absolute power. Nonetheless, Hutu rebel opposition continued to stage violent attacks, leading to the emergence of the Palipehutu, which ultimately pressured Buyoya into political reforms. A ‘Charter of National Unity’ was adopted, and multiparty elections were held for the first time in 1993, with the first Hutu President, Melchior Ndadaye elected to power. Ndadaye maintained the progress made towards unity in his brief spell in office, but was murdered just four months into his presidency by a group of Tutsi army officers.

The violent response was immediate. Large numbers of Tutsi were killed in massacres officially recognised as genocide by an international commission of inquiry. Burundi subsequently entered a period of its history known as La Crise, wherein civil war pitted multiple Hutu rebel factions against the Tutsi security forces and militias.

Peace accords

Regional and international pressure combined with the efforts of Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela eventually brought Burundi’s groups to the negotiating table. In 2000, the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement was signed, but two of the most significant rebels groups, the CNDD-FDD and the FNL, remained outside. The CNDD-FDD later signed a ceasefire agreement with Burundi’s transitional government in 2003, which paved the way for Pierre Nkurunziza to be elected President of a CNDD-FDD-dominated government in 2005. After several more years of insurrections, during which the FNL remained the only significant rebel movement, the CNDD-FDD and FNL agreed a ceasefire in 2006, followed by the final disarmament of the FNL in 2009.

In spite of the transformation of the rebel movements into political parties, violence and human rights violations continued unabated. By the time the 2010 election period found place, war-time strategies including intimidation, assassinations and the mobilisation of youth militias highlighted the difficulties of transition to a stable political order. Citing fraud, the opposition pulled out of the presidential election race leaving Pierre Nkurunziza free to assume a second term of office. Significantly, FNL leader, Agathon Rwasa, fled Burundi to the DRC after allegations that threats had been made against his life. Periodic reports continue to suggest that Rwasa is once again mobilising an army from the DRC, though the FNL now distance themselves from his leadership and renounce his ideology.

A culture of impunity

The failure to significantly deal with any of the violence of Burundi’s past has created a culture of impunity for gross human rights violations and the most serious violations of international criminal law. This culture underpins and exacerbates the under-development, endemic corruption and lack of security that Burundi experiences in 2011. Yet, whilst crimes of the earlier history of violence were expressed in ethnic terms, the violence of today instead hinges on political divisions. This fact is a fundamental one to recognise, and provides a key insight into the root causes of Burundi’s violence since independence, namely structural factors and ambitions for power.

Indeed, whilst a framework for combating impunity was agreed upon at Arusha, negligible progress has been made to implement transitional justice in Burundi. By contrast, the de facto amnesty and similar obstacles to dealing with the past that the government has succeeded in instituting have effectively entrenched impunity. However, the organisation of National Consultations on transitional justice to canvass popular opinion – a process in itself not free from influence or unnecessary delays – and the recent commitment made to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission by 2012 are steps in the right direction. The very real risk of manipulation and politicisation nevertheless loom large over any potential mechanisms.

For these reasons (and others discussed below), the President’s assurances that the perpetrators of the recent massacre at Gatumba will be found and brought to justice will be treated with caution in Burundi. Decades of impunity for such atrocities does not breed confidence in a criminal justice system already treated with suspicion. Should the authorities manage to this time conduct an impartial and lawful process against any suspects would in fact raise more eyebrows.

Recent violence

As one recent article stated, the massacre at Gatumba was “an escalation, not an anomaly”. Despite returning to something resembling negative peace, low-intensity violence has continued in the form of political assassinations and extra-judicial killings in Burundi. The political nature of the violence again demonstrates that ethnicity can no longer be blamed. In fact, evidence claimed by the FNL, civil society and to some extent the new Human Rights Commission suggests that a plan known as Safisha (‘cleanse’ in Swahili) exists for targeting political opposition to the CNDD-FDD. The implementation of this plan has allegedly seen the Imbonerakure youth militias of the CNDD-FDD mobilised to carry out such attacks.

Just a week before the Gatumba massacre, the FNL released a memorandum claiming that the authorities were conducting an ongoing genocide against them and other opposition. Though misleading and in many ways legally inaccurate, reference to genocide illustrates the extent of the prevailing divisions in Burundi. Such a move does little to disprove the accusations that factions of the FNL, perhaps directed by Agathon Rwasa, were responsible for the deaths at Gatumba – the bar where the massacre took place allegedly frequented by CNDD-FDD supporters in a province known to be an FNL stronghold. By contrast, rumours have also surfaced that suggest that the timing of the massacre is to the advantage of the CNDD-FDD, justifying further crackdown on the population and to possibly be used as a pretext for further violence. The implicit suggestion of a connection to the ruling party should not be lost here.

In perhaps a first step towards this increased suppression, the government banned all local media from reporting or commenting on the massacre. At the same time, the authorities received messages of international support, centred on the thesis of FNL responsibility.

Dutch obligations

The various international actors on the ground in Bujumbura and the donor countries without whose money the government could not operate, have obligations beyond the agreements signed with the Burundian authorities. Whilst the central government has ultimate responsibility, these international actors should do all that is in their powers to ensure that Burundi makes genuine progress, with Burundians able to live in freedom, exercising their fundamental rights. The Dutch are one of those actors.

Since 2006, Dutch military have been working on a programme of security sector development (SSD), investing around 22 million euros in 2010 alone. In a country whose past is riddled with military coups and a lack of human security, the task of providing training and other expertise to the new army and police force created under the Arusha Agreement is an essential part of transitional justice and necessary to ensure the non-recurrence of atrocities. Additionally, as a major donor to the annual budget in Burundi, the Dutch have an influential role at both a diplomatic and an operational level.

Nevertheless, the Dutch have been oddly silent over the events at Gatumba. As yet, no official condemnation has been forthcoming from the government of the massacre. Neither have the Dutch voiced their criticism of the government’s response to the crackdown on local media, nor have they pledged at least moral support to the journalists taking risks to defy the ban. This disconcerting silence sits within a wider context of reticence. In spite of the valuable and important Dutch contribution in Burundi, civil servants are generally unwilling to acknowledge the sway that they have with the government and their power of influence, at a time when that same government faces a test of its legitimacy to govern. History in Burundi demonstrates that successive regimes have chosen the all-too-easy solution of repression when faced with similar tests.

Should the Dutch take steps to fully assume their position of influence, it would come at a critical moment. For just as Gatumba may represent something of a landmark moment, another landmark is on the horizon: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Dutch, like the other engaged international actors, must as far as possible ensure that any process is free from manipulation and implemented in a manner that pays due regard to the rights of Burundians to truth, justice, reparations and non-recurrence. Missed opportunities of the past – the failure to operationalise any form of vetting within the SSD programme effectively means that training is being provided to former soldiers and rebels who have blood on their hands, all in the framework of ‘new’ security forces – should not be repeated. The risk of further violence and the descent back into civil war that has captured international attention should spur international actors to hold the government of Burundi accountable to its obligations.

The despicable events at Gatumba thus illustrate the climate of insecurity that is growing in Burundi and the acute need for political reconciliation, as well as the need for investigation of all credible allegations of responsibility – regardless of whom they implicate. International actors like the Dutch have a crucial role to play in Burundi’s foreseeable future.