Burundi is edging ever closer to a return to civil war with tit-for-tat killings and arbitrary arrests adding to an escalation in political instability.
A close ally of President Pierre Nkurunziza, Lieutenant Colonel Darius Ikurakure, was gunned down by an unknown assassin inside the defence ministry compound in the capital Bujumbura this week.
Although the weapon used was retrieved, the gunman escaped and has not been apprehended.
United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon has denounced the assassination and called for Burundians to resolve their political differences through dialogue.
Ikurakure was widely believed to be behind a spate of arbitrary arrests and killings of opposition members, a situation that has continued to escalate since Nkurunziza announced his intention to stand for a third term a year ago.
Since then 474 people have been killed and at least 36 have mysteriously disappeared. More than 5 000 people have also been detained, including 125 political prisoners.
In the UN Security Council this week the United States ambassador to the world body, Samantha Power, said there was an “accelerating trend” in the Great Lakes region where “leaders make increasingly blatant power grabs to remain in office”, including arresting critics, closing down media and intimidating civil-society groups.
Powers’ remarks were in reference to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where President Joseph Kabila is seeking a third term; Rwanda, where President Paul Kagame has remained in power since the genocide of 1994; Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni has extended his 30-year rule; and Burundi, where Nkurunziza successfully lobbied for a third term.
The US has traditionally been a strong diplomatic partner of Rwanda and Uganda, making Power’s comments in the security council all the more bruising. Her decidedly undiplomatic remarks prompted strong responses from those targeted, with Burundi’s minister for external relations, Alain Aime Nyamitwe, saying: “Some talk today in 2016 as they used to refer to African countries in the 1950s, giving orders to fully sovereign nations. Burundi … is not a colony of anyone.”
Earlier this month a team of independent researchers, mandated by the Security Council to probe potential human rights abuses, completed its mission to Burundi.
UN assistant secretary general for human rights Ivan Simonovic called on authorities to ensure freedom of expression, and to allow media, civil society and opposition parties to operate freely.
“There must be an end to disappearances, arbitrary arrests, extra-judicial killings and torture, and clear and public moves to hold to account perpetrators – including agents of the state and members of armed groups,” said Simonovic.
A second, more in-depth UN mission is slated to conduct investigations starting in April, pending authorisation from Burundi authorities.