Who Is Behind Burundi’s Political Violence?

How the government’s youth wing, a purportedly peaceful group of former fighters and government loyalists, has pushed the country to the brink of war.

Burundian riot police form a barricade to hold protesters back during a demonstration against the president's bid to cling to power for a third term in Musaga, outskirts of Bujumbura, on April 28, 2015. At least five people have died since clashes broke out on April 26 after the ruling CNDD-FDD party, which has been accused of intimidating opponents, designated President Pierre Nkurunziza its candidate in the June 26 presidential election. AFP PHOTO / SIMON MAINA        (Photo credit should read SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images)
Burundian riot police form a barricade to hold protesters back during a demonstration against the president's bid to cling to power for a third term in Musaga, outskirts of Bujumbura, on April 28, 2015. At least five people have died since clashes broke out on April 26 after the ruling CNDD-FDD party, which has been accused of intimidating opponents, designated President Pierre Nkurunziza its candidate in the June 26 presidential election. AFP PHOTO / SIMON MAINA (Photo credit should read SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images)

BUJUMBURA, Burundi — The body of Leonidas Musago, 29, lay still in the middle of an unpaved backstreet of Nyakabiga, a district of Burundi’s capital of Bujumbura on the morning of May 7. From a distance, his body looked like one of the protestors’ many roadblocks made from blackened logs that for weeks had prevented vehicles from entering or exiting much of the city. Musago had been stoned to death by an angry mob, his body then burned. Blood trickled from a head wound, and his corpse — only partially burned after the mob quickly extinguished the fire — lay charred in the dirt.

Musago was a member of the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy — Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). At its simplest, the designation refers to anyone under the age of 35 who supports the ruling CNDD-FDD party. But in this region, youth wings of political parties have a history of violent confrontation. The Interahamwe, a term now used to describe the Hutu perpetrators of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide against the Tutsis, were also part of the former ruling party’s youth wing. Musago’s family insists that he did nothing wrong — Musago’s perceived crime, they say, was no more than supporting the president and his political party in Burundi. Yet there is little doubt that the broader group of which he was a member is implicated in Burundi’s escalating violence.

More than 80 people have now died, and more than 400 have been injured in Burundi’s political crisis sparked by Nkurunziza’s April 25 announcement that he was going to run for a third term in the upcoming presidential elections. The opposition, which continues to demand that the 51-year-old president stand down, says a third term is unconstitutional and violates the country’s peace agreement, which ended its 13-year civil war. But Nkurunziza supporters, including members of the Imbonerakure, consider their president’s decision to run for a third term in the July 15 presidential election justified. For the time being, police firing live rounds have put down the protest movement, and the city has been cleared of barricades. A downward spiral of tit-for-tat killings appears to have replaced them. The protestors live in fear of the Imbonerakure, who they say are conducting deadly, house-to-house, moonlit killings and looting sprees. The Imbonerakure, likewise, fear retaliatory attacks. “I told him not to go home,” said one Imbonerakure on Friday morning, standing over the dead body of her friend who lives in the Buterere neighborhood of the capital, where there are many protestors. She says he was beaten to death for supporting the ruling party. A string of grenade blasts over the last two weeks has further heightened fears in the capital.

The opposition has been boycotting Monday’s the parliamentary election and by extension the presidential election slated for July 15. They are demanding that a number of key conditions be met, including the release of political prisoners, return of refugees and the restoration of human rights. U.N. human rights chief, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, said in a statement on June 9 that his office receives between 40 and 50 phone calls pleading for protection or reporting abuse every day. According to “consistent testimonies,” he said, the Imbonerakure operate on instructions from the government with the support of the national police and intelligence services, which provide them with weapons, vehicles, and sometimes uniforms. In a country that has already suffered two genocides, Hussein warned that the Imbonerakure “could tip an already extremely tense situation over the edge.”

Some loyalists and protestors say the current situation is beginning to resemble the lead-up to last conflict, which began in 1993 after the country’s first-elected Hutu president was assassinated by Tutsis; it only ended in 2006, after a lengthy peace process. The Imbonerakure emerged four years later, when the CNDD-FDD came to power in 2010. It was made up largely of decommissioned fighters who had fought for the Hutu rebellion during the war, the party’s precursor. (Burundi’s political climate, however, is no longer divided along ethnic lines. According to one Imbonerakure member, about one in ten are Tutsi.)

There are plenty of nonviolent young supporters of CNDD-FDD, and they have a well-organized presence in most of the country. “We have a strong culture. We need to use our culture and our knowledge to resolve this peacefully,” said David Nikiza, a soft spoken Imbonerakure in the capital.

However, there is little doubt many Imbonerakure retain close ties to their former comrades in arms who went on to become members of Burundi’s armed forces. In April 2014, a confidential U.N. cable was made public, accusing high-ranking generals of distributing arms and military uniforms to the group. In mid-April of this year — weeks before the crisis began — radio reporter Euloge Niyonzima, who works for the country’s most popular station, RPA, uncovered similar claims in a series of broadcasts. A number of Imbonerakure, Niyonzima said, had been armed by the government and were receiving training in the protected Rukoko forest on the border with Congo. A few weeks later, armed men in civilian clothing — Imbonerakure, he claims — entered his house by force at night while his wife and two young daughters slept. Niyonzima, who knew not to sleep at home, fled: Neither his family nor he was safe in Burundi any longer. “Imbonerakure are free to do whatever they want to promote fear and disorder,” he said.

After the protestors mobilized, the government quickly branding them an “insurrection,” the Imbonerakure stepped up their activities to support the security forces. There remains a heavy police presence in the city today. Ange Bukweberi, legal representative for Burundian rights group, Mutima Mwiza, says, “they are very, very close,” speaking of relations between the Burundian police and the Imbonerakure. Her job is to mediate between the police and protestors and to monitor the security forces for human rights abuses. She estimates that security forces arrested some 600 people in the capital during the first week of protests. Dozens of police were injured trying to control angry protestors and demonstrations. “The police are tired. They’re now using the Imbonerakure,” she said, an assertion based on the simple fact that she — like many among the protestors — knows, by sight, who they are.

While some Imbonerakure have already armed themselves, others are waiting in the wings. Christophe, who asked that his full name not be used, is a 38-year-old former CNDD-FDD rebel and member of the Imbonerakure. He is polite and measured as he talks about his past. He defected from the rebellion in 2002. Fed up with fighting, he moved back to Musaga, a district two miles from the center of Bujumbura. There, he began a new life as a taxi driver. When Nkurunziza came to power in 2010, Christophe continued to support him by helping to organize rallies and meetings for the Imbonerakure. While doing this, Christophe lived happily alongside non-supporters of the party for years. Now, he is once more ready to fight. Asked what would happen if the president were not allowed to run for a third term, his eyes blazed.

He rolled up the sleeve of his tattered pinstriped shirt to show how his skinny arms had been bruised in fights with anti-government protestors. The situation reminds him of 1993, he said, when the Tutsi government burned down his home at the beginning of the civil war.

He believes the opposition has already distributed weapons among the protestors — a claim that is unsubstantiated, although the U.N. has warned of increasingly coercive efforts to push people into actively supporting the opposition. On the side of the Imbonerakure, Christophe says, “there are men with serious guns and weapons, distributed to decommissioned soldiers by the intelligence agency.”

Christophe himself is disarmed, but he says he is ready to take matters into his own hands. “We’ll try to organize ourselves and kill the protestors to get their weapons. Fighting is not just about firepower — there are machetes, which we know how to use. This will be a war of many weapons,” he says. “Sometimes the intelligence agencies need help,” he explains.

The Imbonerakure’s chairman, Denis Karera, did not respond to Foreign Policy’s requests for an interview, but told Reuters in May that they neither condone the current violence nor promote militancy. “In case there are some who are implicated in violence pretending to be ‘Imbonerakure,’ those should be pursued and punished for their acts,” he said.

Yet justice and security remain a distant prospect. Although the demonstrations have largely been extinguished, many residents in the capital feel the city remains on the precipice of even more extreme violence — particularly given the failure to agree on terms for free and fair elections. For international observers, the question now is whether a small number of political elite will prove willing to propel their country back to civil war to protect their own interests. If that happens, the government’s youth wing is likely to play a key role.

For many, the battle lines are already drawn. “If there is one Imbonerakure killed by protestors,” Christophe warned, “a war will be announced.”

Photo credit: SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images

Jessica Hatcher is a freelance journalist working in East Africa.

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