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Murder threats and intimation in Burundi

Philipp Sandner / mcMarch 12, 2015

Critics of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza face murder threats and intimidation as elections loom. Burundi picks a new president on June 26 and Nkurunziza's opponents suspect he will try to hang on to power.

Protest in Bujumbura
Demonstration in Bujumbura against the detention of radio station director Bob RugurikaImage: DW/I. Gakiza

In Burundi, anti-government activists have yet another reason to be fearful of reprisals. There are rumors of a secret death list. Even though rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa hasn't seen it, he told DW that he has no doubt that influential figures are keeping such a list in order to be able to silence critics of President Pierre Nkurunziza permanently.

Mbonimpa, chairman of the rights group APRO-DH, says he himself is on the list, as is Bob Rugurika, director of the commercial radio station Radio Publique Africaine (RPA). Mbonimpa bases this claim on sources he prefers not to name. These sources told him of the existence of the list. "There was a meeting at the residence of an individual who is at the top of the national secret service," he said.

Secret service denies allegations

But the Burundian secret service dismisses such claims. Their spokesman, Telesphore Bigirimana, told DW he respected Mbonimpa like many other people in the country, "but he doesn't have the right to claim things for which he has no evidence." Bigirimana, however, conceded that there was a climate of fear in his country . Burundi was a fragile country and "when elections draw near, people tend to panic," he said. "It is dangerous for people to exploit this fragility for the purposes of self-publicity and the dissemination of unfounded allegations," he added.

Bob Rugurika Journalist aus Burundi
Bob Rugurika whom rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa says is on a secret service death listImage: Radio Publique Africaine

The human rights situation in Burundi has worsened over the last few weeks according to Gesine Ames from the Berlin-based Ecumenical Network Central Africa. In an interview with DW Ames said the language being used by government officials was a cause for concern. Opposition and civil society are referred to as "enemies of the state" and treated accordingly. This was apparent from the increasing number of civil society representatives and opposition members who have been arrested recently. Rugurika - the radio station director - was detained in January after he was suspected of being an accessory to murder. His supporters staged a big demonstration calling for his release, the government relented and he was released on bail.

Popular rival

Ames said the pressure on Nkurunziza was mounting and this was partly because of the poor state of the economy. "Support for him is falling away," she said. In addition Nkrurunziza finds himself confronted with a powerful rival, Hussein Radjabu, within his own party, the CNDD-FDD. Hussein Radjabu, a former party leader, fell out of favor with Nkurunziza in 2007. He was arrested and sent to prison for 13 years. But on Sunday night (08.03.2015) Radjabu broke out of jail and has since left the country. When DW asked him why he had fled, he said he was duty bound "to contribute what he could to peace in our country, along with the rest of the political class." Radjabu is a popular figure in Burundi and observers believe he could challenge Nkrurunziza at the ballot box.

Pierre Nkurunziza
Critics says a third term for Pierre Nkurunziza would contravene the Arusha accordsImage: I.Sanogo/AFP/GettyImages

The issue of presidential candidacy in the run-up to the elections is highly controversial. According to the Arusha peace accords, which formally ended years of civil war, a president may only govern for two five-year terms. This means Nkurunziza who became president in 2005 should hand over power to a successor this year. Nkurunziza has not officially put his name forward for the presidency. CNDD-FDD spokesman Leonidas Hatungimana told DW the party would shortly be taking a decision on the issue at an upcoming congress.

Bishops intervene

There is a groundswell of opinion in Burundi opposed to a third mandate for Nkurunziza. Last Friday, the country's influential national council of Roman Catholic bishops said in a statement: "The peace deal signed by all political stakeholders in 2000 is clear; it states that from now no President will rule more than two terms."

It is a message which the international community has repeated several times. On Friday, Nkruruziza will be meeting representatives from the UN Security Council in connection with the upcoming elections. It remains to be seen whether they will be as forthright as the Burundian bishops. France, Burundi's former colonial power, chairs the UN Security Council this month and unlike the US or the European Union, Paris has so far been reluctant to voice criticism of the president.