The release of Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom index this week coincided with a grim anniversary for Burundi, which now ranks as one of the least free countries for media in the world. Almost exactly two years ago, President Pierre Nkurunziza secured a third and constitutionally questionable term in power. And since then, silencing the media has been one of the key tactics used by the Nkurunziza regime to attempt to solidify its legitimacy. While the Trump administration has shown its willingness to flex its muscle with the world’s strongmen with the likes of North Korea or Syria, the relatively low-priority crisis in Burundi has hardly raised an eyebrow in Washington.
The situation in Burundi, a complex crisis with deep historical roots, has elicited little interest from the United States since the change in administration. The UN Security Council, meanwhile, as not taken any meaningful action in months, and the world’s attention once again withdraws.
Nkurunziza’s decision to hold on to the presidency, despite what many – including the international community – decried as an unconstitutional power grab,precipitated Burundi into a state of perpetual conflict. It’s an insidious conflict, fuelled by the regime’s control on the levers of power. Burundi has already decided to suspend all cooperation and collaboration with the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), following damning a damning report to the UN Security Council. A 2016 resolution of the UNSC resulted from this report, requiring Burundi to accept some 200 military and human rights observers, which Burundi has yet to comply with.
In March, the UNSC issued a press statement expressing its “deep concern” over the situation, but little has changed. The new US administration is still very much in the process of establishing a comprehensive foreign policy, which would include places and issues that require a degree of understanding and finesse currently not yet in place.
Under Obama, Ambassador Power – a genuine champion of human rights and democracy – visited Burundi three times — notable for a country in which the US has very few strategic equities. These visites were significant demonstrations of American attention on the issue, and that Americans support civil society and human rights, not just at home but globally. In the January 2016 video below, Samantha Power tells Burundian police not to touch her when they attempt to prevent her from speaking with the press.
This lack of attention on Burundi is giving free rein to Nkurunziza and his government to continue to pursue a dangerous agenda. The fact that Burundi dropped another four places in the RSF press freedom index – and is one of three new countries that went from red (difficult situation) to black (very serious situation) – is a symptom of a very toxic situation.
It’s been two years since Nkurunziza squeezed into a third presidential term, despite having had to change the constitution and silence any opposition – including destroying (actually physically bombing, in the case of African Public Radio) Burundi’s key media outlets – the country’s independent radio stations remain shuttered since 2015.
There have been stories of harassed, exiled, murdered and missing journalists, which surface once in a while, but seem to have become the new “normal” in Burundi. 85% of Burundians get their news from the radio, and only government-owned national broadcasters are now on the air. Meanwhile, the Imbonerakure militia — the youth wing of the ruling CNDD-FDD party – have been terrorizing civilians for years. A few weeks ago, the UN Secretary-General’s spokesperson noted in a press briefing the “widespread pattern of rallies in several provinces across Burundi where young men from the Imbonerakure repeatedly chant a call to impregnate or kill opponents,” describing a “campaign of terror that is being waged in Burundi.”
Dissent and opposition are effectively being suppressed in Burundi, at a great human cost. Hundreds of thousands have had to seek refuge in neighboring countries, while extrajudicial killings, disappearances, as well as random, daily terror and intimidation inflicted upon the population are creating a climate of fear. While there is broad consensus – both within Burundi and internationally – that any meaningful conflict resolution is in the hands of Burundians, there is a role for the US to demonstrate leadership in standing for democracy and human rights. Stopping Nkurunziza from continuing to drag his country further and further into an autocratic morass should be on the Trump administration’s radar, if it is to be taken seriously in its commitment against strongmen.