Burundi’s democracy suffered greatly in 2015 and now it is dying a slow and tragic death; there is no else to blame but the country’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza.

Last week, Burundi’s National Intelligence Service (known by its French acronym SNR) arrested a popular comedian in the country for making fun of the president.

The radio host and comedian, Alfred Aubin Mugenzi – popularly known as “Kigingi” – was apprehended while on a promotional tour for a beer company and has since been remanded in the SNR dungeons. Kigingi has been charged with “insulting the president,” however, his family members fear that he may suffer the same fate as others previously taken by the SNR – torture, death or disappearance.

Restrictions on the fundamental rights of speech and expression. and the existence of a widely known security agency which “deals with” perceived enemies of the state are usually exclusively characteristic of a dictatorial government. It is the situation which exists in countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and, more notoriously, Ethiopia, but not expected in a potentially thriving democracy such as in Burundi.

On the surface, the country enjoys a vibrant and robust democracy. Its courts are fully functional, the constitution is still in active force and their president was democratically elected. However, appearances are deceptive.

Burundi’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech but this right has not been upheld neither is it enforceable in practice. It is severely weakened by the country’s penal code and other state laws which allow harsh fines and prison terms of up to five years for the broadcasting of information that insults the president or is defamatory towards other individuals.

In 2013, President Nkirunziza amended the 2003 Media Law which imposed the restrictions in the first place – restrictions which might have been capable of rationalization at the time they were imposed as the country was at war – but his amendment offered a major setback as opposed to the progress it was anticipated to bring. It imposed criminal sanctions on offences of defamation, and other inexplicable offences tagged as “discrediting the state,” “insulting the head of state” and “threatening state security.” It prescribed punishments such as exorbitant fines, suspensions and withdrawal of press cards for broadly worded offences constituting poorly defined actions which are deemed to “undermine national unity.”

The law also sought to restrict the protection granted to journalistic sources and journalists have been compelled several times to give up their sources. Journalists are now required by law to meet certain educational and professional standards, and the country’s media censoring board, the National Communication Council (CNC) – which is perceived to be controlled by Nkurunziza himself – have been granted increased regulatory powers.

Nkurunziza: Burundi’s ex-“Golden Boy”?

President Nkurunziza, who believes that he is president by “divine will,” prides his administration on the restoration and upholding of peace in Burundi since his election by parliament in 2005. His appointment came in the aftermath of a civil war that left about 300,000 people dead and was one of the final steps in a process to restore peace and end fights between the Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-controlled army. Although a former Hutu rebel leader, Nkurunziza has worked hard and conscientiously to rebuild his country and in the process, brand himself as a man of the people. This new image is one which he is keen to protect as it has endeared him to the people in remote rural areas – the avocado fruit has been renamed “amaPeter” after Nkurunziza – and was perhaps also instrumental in ensuring that his 2010 bid for re-election was successful.

However, since 2010, Nkurunziza’s administration has been accused of progressively serious acts of authoritarianism, characterised by attacks on the opposition and the media, police brutality and the youth wing of his political party targeting houses of his political opponents. His romance with the people ended when opposition parties and human rights groups started to refer to him as a dictator who was unwilling to give up power. Nkurunziza appeared to confirm the accusations when he made the decision to run for a third term, rejecting pressure from protesters and foreign governments to step down. This refusal toppled the existing peace and robust political freedom that was previously enjoyed and set off violence which killed hundreds of people and drove about 200,000 out of the country in the ensuing pre-election conflicts.

Amid tensions and widespread dissention towards the president’s re-election bid evidenced in street protests, a law suit – which was resolved in his favour after the court’s judges were reportedly “placed under enormous pressure” and issued several death threats if they acted in the contrary –  and a failed coup, an obviously unfree and unfair election was held which granted Nkurunziza the mandate to continue to rule Burundi.

Nkunrunziza and the violation of fundamental human rights

Prior to the amendment of the Media Law, Nkurunziza’s administration consistently came down on journalists and those who criticised the government were treated as part of the opposition and subsequently harassed by government security agencies.

President Nkurunziza has also attempted an amendment of the Constitution to grant more powers to his political party and to restrain the constitutional rights of the minority Tutsi in the country.

The judiciary in Burundi, most especially the Constitutional Court, has been accused of being corrupted by the ruling party. However, reports continue to come to light of the government “manipulating” the court and forcing the judges to pronounce rulings only in its favour.

The 2012 conviction and subsequent life sentence given to Hassan Ruvakuki, a journalist with Bonesha FM and Radio France Internationale for “participating in acts of terrorism” came amidst claims that the government had pressured the court to arrive at the decision. He had been arrested in November 2011 over an interview he conducted with the alleged leader of a rebel group that carried out deadly attacks near the Burundi-Tanzania border.

Journalists and media outlets continued to suffer harassment and attacks and the hostile atmosphere encouraged a high level of self-censorship.

The CNC suspended a radio station, Radio Rema, for airing supposedly slanderous criticism of political figures. The CNC has also instigated the institution of criminal proceedings against an independent news outlet, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) for allegedly accusing the plresident of corruption. In 2014, the government brought charges against several journalists after a confidential UN cable which exposed several illegal government arms dealings was leaked to the international media.

Eloge Niyonzima and Alexis Nkeshimana, of the RPA and Radio Bonesha were charged with “undermining state security” for reporting on the population’s fears about the alleged arms distribution. In May 2015, Alexis Nimubona of the RPA was charged with defamation after implicating certain provincial officials in the arms distribution case. Other journalists were called upon by prosecutors in connection with the story forcing Alexis Nibasumba of Radio Bonesha to go into hiding for more than a week out of fear of a potential arrest.

In June 2015, Eloge Niyonzima of Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) was attacked overnight by members of the ruling party’s youth wing, which had supposedly been carrying out nightly patrols.

The Freedom Report on Burundi accurately encapsulates the problem:

“The lack of a freedom of information law in Burundi facilitates the arbitrary application of media laws, as the government frequently targets journalists for crimes related to vaguely-explained state interests. Furthermore, ambiguous legal language is interpreted by a judiciary that lacks independence from political forces.”

Independent media came together to protest against harassment in 2012. In June, four independent radio stations asked members of the public to honk their car horns simultaneously at a set time to protest the harassment of journalists. During another campaign in August, six private and two public radio stations produced a shared broadcast disparaging the press bill under consideration by a parliamentary committee.

In 2014, the Burundian Union of Journalists challenged the Media Law in the Constitutional Court, and the court merely ruled in support of a reduction of some of the excessive fines provided for in the legislation. However, the union, with the aid of the Media Legal Defence Initiative in London, is currently challenging the law in the East African Court of Justice.

The need for Burundi to protect its democracy

No matter the rationale behind restricting the people’s right to free speech – for example, Ethiopia’s excuse of “guiding and nurturing democracy” to foster economic growth and stability, democracy always suffers. As was rightly expressed by ISS Africa’s Gatimu in an interview with Ventures Africa on the issue in Ethiopia,

“This is a time bomb. We have seen many nations come down in search of democracy. Key among these is Egypt, Libya and Tunisia among others. You cannot suppress people’s voice forever…”

He went further to predict:

“Any growth that leaves out a huge segment of society is not sustainable. Without democracy, good governance and protection of human rights, such growth are bound to be reversed at some point in future. Mending the gap therefore becomes a necessary ingredient to ensure inclusivity for sustainability.”

It has been posited that perhaps the existence of these restrictions is the singular reason why Burundi’s financial and economic problems continue to exist. Burundi’s greatest challenge at the moment might be the need to preserve its democracy and avoid a totalitarian government at all costs. Nkunrunziza is successfully spreading his propaganda as Burundi’s internal battles are properly concealed from the outside world.

Nkurunziza appears to be toeing the line of other notorious African leaders who treat the Presidency as a personal right. From his ingenious methods of retaining power with the backing of the constitution, to his constant violations of fundamental human rights and attempted amendment of the constitution, Nkurunziza has the makings of a despot.

It is apparent that Burundians possess a high level of political and social consciousness. However, if nothing is done to nip these violations in the bud and Nkurunziza continues to be in power, Burundi might be in danger of going the way countries like Zimbabwe have gone.

Elsewhere on Ventures

Triangle arrow