Strongmen — and they’re always men — are intolerant of political opponents, independent journalism and every other organ that makes up a liberal, pluralistic and civil society. Burundi’s former president, Pierre Nkurunziza, who died on Monday, was no different.
After becoming president in 2005, he overstayed his welcome and risked his country’s fragile peace by pressing for a controversial third term in 2015. He won that election, amid accusations of electoral irregularities, relying on classic authoritarian tactics to maintain authority.
Over the past five years, journalists have been repeatedly threatened and the space for independent media has shrunk considerably. Four journalists working for Iwacu, one of the few remaining private outlets in Burundi, were sentenced in January to two and a half years in prison for “undermining state security”. Christine Kamikazi, Agnes Ndirubusa, Egide Harerimana and Terence Mpozenzi recently had their appeals dismissed. Jean Bigirimana, another Iwacu journalist, has been missing since 2016. Media outlets have been forcibly closed and many journalists have fled the country. The BBC and Voice of America are banned in the country.
Nkurunziza’s ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, has a militarised youth wing, the Imbonerakure, that routinely terrorises Burundians. Its members “have killed, arbitrarily arrested, abducted, beaten, raped and intimidated real and perceived political opponents with impunity,” Human Rights Watch said last year.
Security forces too were complicit in the reign of terror visited on Nkunriziza’s enemies. In 2017, a panel of United Nations Human Rights Council investigators uncovered a litany of violations that amounted to crimes against humanity. Witnesses told terrible stories of their treatment at the hands of security agents, including the police and the national intelligence agency.
Two women were raped and their genitals mutilated afterwards. While in detention some witnesses were put next to bodies or forced to eat faeces while in detention. People were forced to witness executions and torture was commonplace. The victims of sexual violence ranged from eight-year-old girls to women aged 71. The 30-page report is a stomach-churning account of some of the worst excesses in modern history.
The panel submitted a list of suspects to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and although Nkurunziza wasn’t one of them, panel member Fatsah Ouguergouz attributed the violations to “the highest levels of the state”. Believing that all of these atrocities were committed without Nkurunziza’s explicit knowledge and direction would require one to suspend their belief in how the world works.
In 2017, Burundi became the first country to pull out of the International Criminal Court.
Human rights activists, women, journalists, opposition politicians and many others felt the brutal force of the Burundian state under Nkurunziza’s regime. An estimated 400 000 citizens have fled the country since the 2015 vote.
Nkurunziza also had enough time to punish another section of society: schoolchildren. Last year, seven children were arrested for the crime of drawing on the president’s face in their school books. A 13-year-old was later released for being under the age of criminal responsibility, with the others spending a few days in jail. These children, all under the age of 18, were hauled in front of a public prosecutor in Kirundo province in the country’s north and charged with “insulting the head of state”. They faced up to five years in prison if convicted. The children were eventually freed but not before being expelled from school and having to wait for a new school year before they were allowed to re-enrol elsewhere.
In May 2016, hundreds of children were kicked out of a Bujumbura secondary school for the same offence. And a month later, intelligence agents picked up eight secondary school pupils for writing phrases like “Get out” or “No to the 3rd term” on a picture of the president in a textbook. Their classmates protested and, for their troubles, got shot at by security agents. Two children were injured.
There is a tendency to gloss over unsavoury aspects of people’s lives when they die; we do not speak ill of the dead. There is little chance of that happening with Nkurunziza, a man who presided over a poor nation for 15 years. He made life worse for his citizens, and achieved little of note. When we remember Nkurunziza, we should remember him as a leader who ruled with an iron fist that left many dead and made hundreds of thousands flee their own country, even in the absence of an ongoing war. We should remember a cruel and tyrannical leader under whom no one was safe – not even school children.