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Burundi 'is in a state of civil war'

Interview: Eric ToponaFebruary 5, 2016

Burundi's government opposes the deployment of an African Union mission, despite the continuing conflict. For Burundian journalist Bob Rigurika, the chance for dialogue has long passed.

Burundi Sicherheitskräfte Soldaten
Image: Getty Images/S. Platt

DW: Mr. Rugurika, over 400 people have died in Burundi in the political violence that erupted over President Pierre Nkurunziza's controversial third term in office. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country. But the African Union (AU) doesn't want to send troops to Burundi without the government's permission. And the government in Bujumbara has rejected an AU-mission, arguing that no one in Burundi is at war. Is that an acceptable reason?

The government in Burundi has so far not provided any valid reasons not to let AU troops into the country. This illegal government is deceiving its own nation as well as the international community with its demagogy. The international community took note of Nkurunziza's reelection without taking any action and his government is now benefitting from that lack of action. The limited sanctions that are in place are not enough. The regime is continuing to slaughter its own population and silence critics. Nkurunziza's regime has a lobby within Africa and in Europe as well.

When you say "a lobby" - do you think the international community is turning a blind eye on purpose?

The international community has been speaking out, it is concerned. The problem is that it is also divided. You can see that by looking at other crises around the world. In Burundi you can sense that the international community wants to stop Nkurunziza but is being blocked by certain members of the African Union and the UN Security Council who might not even know what's going on in Burundi.

Bob Rugurika (DW / M. Müller)
Bob Rugurika formerly headed a radio station in BurundiImage: DW/M.Müller

Still, the case of Burundi is proof that the international community has failed on a massive scale. If Nkurunziza is allowed to carry on massacring people, then there will be no more world powers. The Hollandes, Merkels and Obamas of this world are in danger of losing their standing. If Nkurunziza's crimes remain unpunished, that will provoke other violence. The population of Burundi is convinced now that it can only survive if it arms and fights. That's the damage that international inaction has already done.

Using satellite imaging, Amnesty International has found mass graves in the capital Bujumbura. Do you think that the massacres are happening along ethnic lines?

No I don't. In 2006, Nkurunziza's regime executed members of the FNL [National Forces of Liberation – ed.] even though most of them are Hutus - meaning they are in the same ethnic group as the president. They were accused of being part of the political group that was rebelling against Nkurunziza. In 2010, 2011 and 2013, the United Nations and the NGO Human Rights Watch documented nearly 200 extrajudicial executions of Hutus and Tutsis. That shows that Nkurunziza doesn't distinguish between ethnic groups when he is trying to silence critics.

Is genocide in Burundi a real risk as critics have been suggesting?

The regime is currently coming up with a message of hate that has an ethnic component. The Arusha Agreement from the year 2000 gave people in Burundi the chance to live together peacefully and work together in state institutions. There are some ethnic Tutsis vying for favor within Nkurunziza's circle of influence. But he sees them as puppets. It's interesting to see that there are members of all ethnic groups in the opposition. Many of them are former allies and fellow party members of Nkurunziza's, like the party's former speaker, the former chief of intelligence, the former president of parliament and the second vice-president: they are all Hutus. The regime is simply using the ethnic component to manipulate the international community into fearing that there might be a genocide.

The opposition, civil society and the population of Burundi are hoping for political dialogue. Do you believe that is possible?

I don't want to disappoint the people or the international community. But in my experience, the current regime in Bujumbura is characterized by violence. The regime is not tolerant and does not have a democratic culture. That's why I don't really believe dialogue will be possible.

What would be your advice for ending this crisis?

Nkurunziza will only respond to severe pressure, particularly financial pressure. You can already feel its effects: Economic life in Bujumbura has come to a standstill; the central bank is heading towards bankruptcy. New laws have allowed the state to seize assets. Unfortunately, Nkurunziza doesn't care - as long as he and his family are provided for. His confidants should be restricted in their movements, his entourage should be denied visas, and of course international troops should be stationed in Burundi, no matter whether Nkurunziza likes it or not. Nkurunziza no longer represents the state of Burundi.

Many opposition figures have been accused of cooperating with armed groups. Doesn't that contradict what you are saying?

Because the international community missed its chance to mediate, the opposition has no other choice than to arm in self-defense.

Could the situation escalate into a civil war?

Burundi is already in a state of civil war. The government of Burundi has led the country down a path of spiraling violence. What is this if not a civil war? When a state is killing its population and that population decides to arm and fight back - what else should that be called? There have already been thousands of deaths.

Is there a way out of this crisis with Pierre Nkurunziza in power?

Nkurunziza is the cause for this crisis and the cause must be removed for us to find a solution. And that solution can't come from Nkurunziza.

Bob Rugurika formerly headed the radio station Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), which was closed because of its critical reporting. He now lives in exile.