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Burundi: 'firearms ultimatum won't work'

Interview: Mark CaldwellNovember 3, 2015

President Nkurunziza has given Burundians an ultimatum to give up illegal arms. Experts however doubt that the people have enough trust in the president to comply.

Burundian police
Image: picture-alliance/AA/N. Renovat

Violence has flared up again in Burundi. In clashes between police and gunmen on Monday, eight gunmen were killed and 18 others were captured. In an apparent bid to contain the violence President Pierre Nkurunziza called on Burundians to voluntarily give up their arms by November 7 or be seen as enemies of the state. According to the UN, over 130 killings and over 90 cases of torture were documented since September 2015. DW spoke to Benjamin Chemouni from the London School of Economics.

DW: Who is being targeted in this latest spate of violence. Is it mainly government officials?

Benjamin Chemouni: It's hard to say, because we have very little information on what is going on. Actually more than government officials per se, I think Nkurunziza himself and his close allies are being targeted by these attacks. The police are viewed as very close to the president, so I think these attacks are targeting police. And of course there are revenge killings. We have had regular targeted killings across town in order to punish the people who demonstrated against Nkurunziza's third term.

So in other words a tit-for-tat between the government and opposition supporters?

Yes, that one of the main dimensions of it. Secondly there might also be the hope that this is going to trigger something bigger or might encourage people to take up arms. So I think the people who are carrying out these attacks just want to keep up the pressure on Nkurunziza.

President Pierre Nkurunziza has given Burundians until November 7 to hand in illegal firearms or face reprisals. Will his security forces be able to enforce this deadline?

I don't think so. They might try to do so. But, the argument, “if you give us the weapons now, we are not going to prosecute you,” has absolutely no credibility. When you see the targeted extrajudicial killings that are going on in Bujumbura, I think it would be very naïve to believe that. So I think it depends on whether the police can track down the individuals and find the weapons.

Last month Uganda tried to revive talks between the government and the opposition in Burundi, but it appears that little headway was made. Why is mediation in this conflict so difficult?

I think there are two main reasons. The first is that I think from Nkurunziza's perspective he is convinced that some killings and purges of the army and even civil society are necessary. So he is not ready to negotiate at this point. He thinks that it is still in his interest to use violence. Secondly, I think that when you look at the argument that Nkurunziza and the CNDD-FDD party have been using, calling Belgian corporations and Belgium itself neo-colonialists because they are cutting aid and criticizing Nkurunziza's government. So I think they're trying to demonize external actors and not taking into account their recommendations. They are trying to mobilize people around this idea, that Burundi is victim, being attacked by other nations.

Last week US president Barack Obama said that Burundi would be ejected from the AGOA pact which gives African nations access to US markets. Do you see sanctions like this having any impact on the regime in Burundi?

I don't think that this will make Nkurunziza change his current policies and end the use of violence. I think for him, the main danger is the prospect of a rebel group being created and young people taking up arms. For him the challenge is very short-term. In the longterm, I think this could damage Nkurunziza's rule. The economy of Burundi is in a very dire situation and I think in two or three years time, the economy is going to be in such a bad shape, that there will be some protests in Bujumbura and elsewhere in the countryside. I think at some point the problem of hunger and economic opportunities for the unemployed are going to increase.

Benjamin Chemouni is an analyst with the department of International Development at the London School of Economics (LSE).