Friday, January 09, 2015

Burundi About to Boil Over?

"There's no shortage of fear around here," said Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa Burundi’s leading rights activist. In May, Mbonimpa was thrown in jail for broadcasting widespread allegations that the government was distributing weapons to youths and training a faction in the badlands of nearby eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Gentle-mannered and close to retirement, Mbonimpa said it was only an international outcry and prison illness that freed him, and he's not allowed to leave the capital.

Marauding members of the Imbonerakure - a youth wing allied to Burundi's ruling CNDD-FDD party are accused of beating, extorting and killing civilians. Benefiting from complete impunity, some armed and militarised elements within the most popular youth party have become a weapon that the state can wield as it cracks down on critics ahead of elections in May. Rights activists say leaders only quelled violence because of international donors who raised the alarm over rights reports in a country that relies heavily on foreign aid. New rules banning people from jogging or meeting in unauthorised groups - even at the central market where people used to gossip on benches - show levels of state paranoia. People are not keen to talk amid reports of Imbonerakure beating police and taking over local governments in some areas. The few people accused of violent crimes have also been released from custody within weeks to seek revenge on victims who denounced them. Burundi's Interior Minister Edouard Nduwimana dismissed a leaked UN cable documenting a case of two military men distributing arms and uniforms to the Imbonerakure youth militia and former soldiers as the work of an unsteady employee.

Despite having a plethora of opposition parties, they are seen as weak and disorganised in a country where politics is viewed as a gravy train and public policy an afterthought. The irony of the current crackdown is that many say the CNDD-FDD would easily win next year's elections, despite rights groups crying foul over President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to run for a third term, claiming it violates the constitution.

Last week, the UN scaled down its operation in Burundi. "The UN got pushed out because it actually did its job," said a leading journalist who requested anonymity to protect himself from reprisals - rare praise in a region where peacekeepers are often accused of selling civilian protection down the river to save themselves from official backlashes.

In a region where police states or rebellions cause enormous and expensive international headaches, Burundi benefits from neighbours and backers keen on maintaining a semi-stable status quo. "There's the reasoning that you should favour stability to avoid a return to chaos and violence that will make us invest more to lift the country out of strife," said one diplomat. He added: "That means you're comforting a government in its authoritarian practices to control the country". He warned if "manipulating" the ballot box doesn't work, the government will "play all its cards" to win this election by activating "this new tool; these youths that they've trained as killers".

"Everything here has been bought; land, votes and the people's conscience," said Gabriel Rufyiri, who heads Burundi's main anti-corruption organisation. His predecessor was killed in 2009, and the government refused the US FBI's help to investigate. Rufyiri said one-third of Burundi's budget goes into individuals' pockets. The success of army generals accused of trafficking minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo or officials allowing friends to have tax benefits through kickbacks is visible on the prettiest hillsides. Next year, Burundi's elite "are going to use everything they've got" to maintain their grip on the purse strings, Rufyiri said.

Activists talk of "an invisible circle" of army generals who call the shots. The diplomat said this cabal has organised and trained youths to take orders that Burundi's state security forces would refuse. "The police can stop the opposition demonstrations, but you can't ask them to go and kill people," he said.  "If the state's in control of the army, why has it recruited, armed and secretly trained youths? It's to make them do what the other security organs can't."

Now, in one of the world's most densely populated countries, 80 percent of local court cases are over land. Stunting from malnutrition affects, almost 60 percent of the population and corruption keeps them poor. With a pressure cooker of local tensions, disputes easily turn deadly.

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