Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Burundi: Covering the mouth with the gun

By JOSH KRON - June 1 2009

Across the street from the Obama Phone Store in downtown Bujumbura, a disarmament billboard advertises a young Burundian woman with her hands over her mouth, an AK47 to her head, eyes wide open.

The image is prominent in spots around town, but it tastes uncunningly sarcastic for guns is what’s going around here these days.

Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world, home to a one-month old peace, forgotten about as a Rwanda without a genocide, is having its most outspoken saviours, a league of few in this tiny vibrant capital on the banks of Lake Tanganyika, silenced; mouths covered like in the poster.

While officialdom glorifies the laying down of arms by the National Liberation Front as a 16-year civil war comes to an end, federal court judges have been kidnapped, civil society members stabbed to death and political-party members shot in the head.

The plasma of the country’s political parties, former rebels used as grassroots organisers, are switching sides with fatal consequences.

The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into the circumstances surrounding the murder of anti-corruption activist and civil society pioneer Ernest Manirumva in early April.

Meanwhile, Alexi Sinduhije, a former journalist and poster-child of a new resistance to the government that transcends ethnicity in a land ruined by ethnicity, is accusing the government of pushing false charges on him to put him back in prison before the elections.

The numbers are tiny — five murders since January that local and international watchdogs say are without a doubt politically-motivated.

As for the others, Burundi’s Association for Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH) says there are over 300 murders that the government must explain.

Ligue Iteka, another human-rights organisation that believes over 100,000 grenades and mines lace the countryside, say the number of mysterious deaths is worrying.

“The threats are being translated into reality,” one officer says under anonymity. “They are telling us to shut up.”

Who is “us?” A small and loose confederation of opposition groups, civil society and even factions within the party that are all equally in different ways a threat to the status quo here.

Ernest’s death has brought us closer together,” says Gabriel Rufyiri, the president of corruption-watchdog Olucome, that Mr Manirumva worked for at times.

Manirumva’s case is shrouded in mystery. The door to his office was forced open, files and flash-disks went missing from his home, and a young servant who claims to have witnessed his death has been missing — neighbours say he is with the police — since the day Manirumva died.

The claims are difficult to prove. Burundi is a country bristling with weapons and many areas, especially upcountry, have little police surveillance.

The government has actively denied accusations that it is training a loose militia of former fighters in the country’s northern provinces, and readily admitted that Mr Manirumva’s death was not an accident.

Along with accepting the FBI’s help, the police have put together a task force to investigate the murder.

Presidential hopeful Alexi Sinduhije is a good example of preaching non-violence while recruiting a large amount of former rebels disarmed only this past April.

It hasn’t done a lot of good. Sinduhije says the government is preparing to send him back to jail. While he is worried, he is aware of the political benefits of being a victim.

“I always like to take risks.”

He’s taken them before, saying that, while his people were starving, Nkurunziza was “playing football and praying.”

In November last year, he was put in jail for “insulting the president” and released in a controversial decision this past March.

But those who freed him — two of the federal judges involved in his release and another accused of influencing them — are now seeking asylum in Europe after continued death threats.

One was kidnapped in early May and told that if he didn’t reveal how much he paid the judges to release Mr Sinduhije, they would bring him his “daughter’s head.”

The president, a popular and publicly pious footballer, is making his rounds upcountry planting avocado trees for farmers, shaking hands.

A hard-fought peace with the FNL’s formerly Hutu-centric rebellion in the northwest is over and roads around the capital are finally being paved.

On the palm-fringed beaches, well-to do Burundians and aid workers sip cocktails and shoot off e-mails at chic nightclubs; around them the status quo tightens.

In early January, a ruling-party member and security service officer in charge of 120 party activists named Misago, moved to Frodebu, the country’s largest opposition party.

Later that month, Misago was summoned to a meeting with his former employers where he was told to return. He refused and was shot in the head the next day.

Frodebu claims that the ruling party, specifically the country’s secretive security forces, known here as Documentation, are behind a number of murders and disappearances of its party members, most of whom left the CNDD-FDD this year.

Mr Sinduhije’s still-unregistered Movement for Security and Democracy claims two of their own were killed. Sinduhije himself claims the government is preparing to arrest him again, under the pretext that he is trying to assassinate the judges who first put him in jail.

“I can operate in jail, but it’s better to be free,” he says.

The government rigorously denies allegations and, truth be told, in Burundi it can be hard to know whom to believe.

As for the kidnapped judge, he claims his kidnappers, clad in police blue, told him they would chop him up so well the FBI would never find his body parts.

After requesting help from the American embassy and the UN mission in the country, he now shuttles between residences and carries a pistol in his waistband.

Since his kidnapping, he has received routine death threats. He doesn’t know from whom.

“If they kill him, it won’t be political violence,” says Ligue Iteka, “It will be a state crime.”