Four years ago this month, during a plenary legislative session carried live on the national broadcaster, the president of the National Assembly in Burundi pointedly asked MP Fabien Banciryanino if he was “suicidal”. The veiled threat, couched as a jest, followed Banciryanino’s vehement objection to Burundi pulling out of the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court (ICC).
His objection was not driven by a belief in some fancy internationalism. He asked a rather simple question: would quitting the ICC end the heinous crimes that had come to characterise then president Pierre Nkurunziza’s contentious third term?
Four years, a controversial election and a new head of state later, the Honourable Fabien Banciryanino (who truly deserves the honorific) has been arbitrarily arrested, detained and subjected to degrading treatment while in detention simply because the truth teller never yielded to fear.
He spent his legislative tenure pursuing facts and meticulously documenting cases of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and abusive detentions. At every opportunity, he doggedly asked government ministers to respond to each case he uncovered — a role other legislators seem to have abdicated to exiled civil society activists.
The most admired and widely commented moment of Banciryanino’s legislative career came toward the end of the 2015-2020 legislature. In February, he offered the strongest opposition to a Bill that aimed to christen Nkurunziza the “Supreme Guide of Patriotism”. The Bill unsurprisingly passed (Nkurunziza’s party had total control of the National Assembly following the undemocratic 2015 elections.) Banciryanino, the legislator who had painstakingly documented countless politically motivated killings and enforced disappearances over five years, could not fathom why Nkurunziza would be a guide to anyone, let alone supreme, and of patriotism at that.
In a calm and composed three-minute monologue that has since gone viral, Banciryanino also questioned Nkurunziza’s economic record. After 15 years, the president, who died of a heart attack in June this year, left Burundi one of the most corrupt and among the three poorest countries in the world (with a meagre gross domestic product per capita of $261 a year). Banciryanino concluded that Nkurunziza, at best, had failed as a head of state or, worst, could face prosecution. (The ICC has an open investigation into crimes committed in Burundi since April 26 2015.)
It is this intervention on the “Supreme Guide of Patriotism” Bill that has Banciryanino languishing in the notorious Mpimba central prison in Bujumbura since earlier this month, in a violation of Burundi’s constitution and National Assembly’s bylaws that stipulate that a member of the National Assembly cannot be prosecuted for statements made during legislative debates.
In a letter that recalled his constitutional protections as a former legislator, Banciryanino pleaded with Burundi’s Independent National Human Rights Commission to intervene on his behalf.
There is little hope that the commission will act. It has shied away from human rights violations that resulted from politically sensitive cases. In 2018, it lost its grade A independence status when “the United Nations found that it no longer fully respected its mandate as an independent institution for the protection and promotion of human rights”.
Charged with threatening state security, slander and rebellion, Banciryanino joins a growing list of political prisoners in Burundi. He will need sustained international advocacy and solidarity if he is to ever be free again. All who believe in the sacrosanct separation of powers and the independence of the legislative branch should be outraged by his unjust detention.
The persecution of Banciryanino is a further blow to anyone who had hoped that President Évariste Ndayishimiye’s regime would usher in a new era. The same climate that made it suicidal to disagree with Nkurunziza’s wishes still reigns.
Thierry Uwamahoro is a member of the Burundian diaspora in the United States, with a background in elections-related projects for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute