Since late April 2015, Burundi been immersed in a violent political crisis. The trigger was President Pierre Nkurunziza’s candidacy for a third term in office, which was seen to go against the spirit and provisions of the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement as well as the Constitution of Burundi. Between April 2015 and April 2017, U.N. figures indicate that 401,573 Burundians have become refugees. According to the International Federation for Human Rights, “the human toll is more than 1,000 dead, 8,000 people detained on political grounds, 300 to 800 people missing, hundreds of people tortured, hundreds of women victims of sexual violence, and thousands of arbitrary arrests.”
Amid this crisis, dangerous scare tactics have emerged that have serious implications and require international attention. One of the most alarming is the use of rhetoric promoting sexual violence by members of the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD, as a tool to control and intimidate political opponents. The CNDD-FDD—Burundi’s ruling party—does not seem to be taking serious interest in curtailing these crimes. In a rally that took place in Kirundo province, in the northeast of the country, members of the Imbonerakure were recorded singing: “Impregnate the opposition so they give birth to Imbonerakure. There are lots of girls. Impregnate them, Imbonerakure!” After the release of the video, CNDD-FDD issued a statement condemning this chanting, but no further action has been taken. This statement can thus be interpreted as a move to simply maintain public relations and international opinion. In fact, according to a statement from Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, “recent reports indicate that similar, larger rallies have been organized across the country by officials from the Government and the President’s party.”
In a very tense environment, like the one currently in Burundi, this type of rhetoric, especially when it comes from a government-affiliated group like the Imbonerakure, can lead the country into the abyss. In another statement in response to the rape chants, Al Hussein said: “The Government needs to stop pretending that the Imbonerakure are nothing but a community development group. Such blatant and brazen hate speech and incitement to violence must not be tolerated, nor encouraged. In a region which has suffered so many massive outbreaks of violence and atrocities, this type of organized incitement rings very loud alarm bells.”
In certain situations, inflammatory speech can even serve as a catalyst for mass atrocities. As pointed out in a report, The Role of Speech in Violent Conflicts, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “the context in which speech occurs helps determine its impact, as does the position of the person or persons speaking. Additionally, hate speech alone does not indicate impending violence. It is only by analyzing contextual clues that the potential threat of any given speech can be evaluated.” As U.N. Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng explained in a statement, public officials connected to the ruling party have made incendiary comments. Their prominent positions heighten the danger that their words could incite violence.
The report adds that the local environment in which the speech is taking place is important: “Hate speech, propaganda, and incitement often rely on symbolism, vernacular, and coded language deeply rooted in a historical and cultural context specific to the region.” The Imbonerakure used coded language in their chant connected to Great Lakes region, and their words can be interpreted as a call to rape, to use sexual violence as a tool to intimidate opponents, and ultimately to commit other atrocities. This has disturbing parallels to Rwanda in 1994, at which point years of sexual violence-related propaganda helped fuel sexual violence toward Rwandan women on a massive scale. In November 2015, the “ethnic dimension” of the Burundian conflict was a topic of discussion at the U.N. Security Council, and at the same meeting Dieng cautioned, “no one should underestimate what was at stake, as history in the region had shown the consequences of failing to act when leaders incited violence.”
As the number of inflammatory speeches grows, including those made by members of Burundi’s ruling party that incite sexual violence toward women, the East African Community (EAC) should intervene and take concrete action to avoid another mass atrocity in the region. The time for addressing the Burundi crisis through meetings and statements is over—the EAC must transition to practical action. First, in the spirit of the U.N.’s responsibility to protect, the EAC should push the African Union to deploy forces to protect Burundian civilians. The Burundian government has already proven unwilling to prevent or stop the massacres and serious violations of humanitarian law. Second, the EAC should impose economic sanctions on the Burundian government to incentivize an inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders, without any conditions. Third, the EAC should impose targeted sanctions, such as travel bans and asset freezes, against the Burundian leaders whose actions and words contribute to the persistence of violence and hinder progress toward a solution—and this includes those who are complicit in speeches that promote sexual violence. Finally, any action from the EAC should privilege a return to institutions reflecting the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement as well as consider the current President Nkurunziza’s illegal and the illegitimate third term and campaign of repression as the source of the current political crisis. Anything less would be a disservice to both Burundian and regional peace and security.
Amilcar Ryumeko worked as political adviser to the parliamentary assistant to the premier of Quebec in charge of economic issues. He graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Sherbrooke. In 2017 he became a member of the Human Rights committee of The Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center.
[Photo courtesy of European Commission DG ECHO]