When a farmer in a drought-stricken province of northern Burundi was asked to give seven kilogrammes of beans and maize to members of the ruling party’s youth league, he was astounded. “Why are they taking our goods when we’re the ones who need help?” he said.
Burundi has one of the world’s highest level of chronic malnutrition, and 70% of the population lives below the poverty line. But the farmer, who has five children, the oldest 13, said he had no choice: “We have to give the food contributions, even if it means you don’t eat or you let your children go hungry.”
The reason he is afraid is simple. The Imbonerakure, the notorious youth league, has become the government’s eyes and ears on almost every hill in the country.
Its violent extortion is part of an ever-worsening political crisis that could unravel the Arusha Accords, which established ethnic power-sharing and helped end years of conflict that left an estimated 300 000 dead. The regional community, led by South Africa, was instrumental in that deal. With South Africa set to chair the African Union next year, and Burundi’s elections six months away, now is the time to step up efforts toward resolving the crisis.
In December 2017, the government established “voluntary” financial contributions for the 2020 presidential election after donor governments pulled funding. Human Rights Watch has documented rampant abuses by Imbonerakure members and local administrators associated with collecting the money, and little transparency over its use.
“They come with clubs and metal bars. They give you a receipt, which you need to get through the roadblocks they set up on the roads going to the fields,” the farmer said.
“You can’t get into the market or sell your produce without the receipt. You can’t even request a marriage or birth certificate from the commune administration if you haven’t paid.”
The election contributions have opened the door to other forced collections such as of food or livestock for the ruling party, visiting government officials and national celebrations — or under the pretext of helping the “poor and vulnerable”.
More than 20 people also told Human Rights Watch they were forced to provide forced labour to build the ruling party’s local offices.
The farmer in Kirundo province is just one of scores of witnesses and victims the organisation has recently interviewed on the topic. Imbonerakure members have exacted violent retribution, including beatings and arrests, on those who fail to comply and are labelled “igipinga”, a pejorative Kirundi expression to designate someone who does not support the ruling party.
Burundi has been in a prolonged political, humanitarian and human rights crisis since 2015, starting with attempts to suppress opposition to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a controversial third term.
Since then, local civil society organisations have documented how security forces and Imbonerakure members have killed, raped, tortured, beaten, detained, threatened and harassed thousands of people. In some cases, simply not belonging to the ruling party has been enough to provoke violence.
Extorting food and money that people often can’t afford to spare is not new in Burundi. During Burundi’s civil war rebel groups demanded financial and in-kind payments to support their war efforts.
Now, local officials and Imbonerakure members have set up roadblocks and denied people access to food, water, health care and education to force people to contribute.
Governments are responsible for delivering basic services, and international law bans them from doing so in an arbitrary or politised way. But increasingly, state support in Burundi is based on political loyalty, even during a widespread food insecurity crisis and cholera outbreak. This year, more than seven million Burundians contracted malaria and more than 2 800 people died.
Regional and international efforts to end the human rights crisis in Burundi have stalled. While ruling party youths hold people hostage, the authorities shout from the rooftops that the country is peaceful, a claim made easier by little scrutiny by the world. Burundi’s government shut down the United Nations human rights office in February and refused access to a UN commission of inquiry charged with documenting human rights violations, including crimes against humanity.
As South Africa prepares to take the helm of the AU, President Cyril Ramaphosa should once again put South Africa at the forefront of helping to prevent an escalation of the crisis in Burundi.
As a first step, the AU’s human rights observers should be sent to Burundi as soon as possible and should request unfettered access to monitor the situation, including in rural parts of the country, where many of these abuses are taking place in the shadows. Ramaphosa should work with other African leaders and indicate clearly that there will be real consequences unless Burundi’s leaders rein in the Imbonerakure and end the violent extortion and political repression.
Lewis Mudge is Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch