In the run up to recent elections in Burundi, members of the Imbonerakure were instrumental in the killings, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, intimidation, and harassment of political opponents. The youth league of the ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), terrorized the population, as it has done for many years.
In 2011, I spoke with relatives of Wilson Ndayishimiye, a 4-year-old boy who had been shot dead two months earlier while sleeping in his house outside of Bujumbura. “This is what can happen if you refuse to join the Imbonerakure,” a family member told me at the time. Wilson’s father, a demobilized rebel combatant, had indeed refused to join the Imbonerakure and had been warned that his refusal would bring retaliation. On May 17, suspected Imbonerakure gunmen shot through the air vents in the house, killing the little boy.
In the nine years since, the Imbonerakure have emerged as enforcers of the ruling CNDD-FDD. Between December 30, 2014 and January 3, 2015, Imbonerakure members participated with Burundian soldiers and police officers in the extrajudicial executions of at least 47 members of an armed group, some of whom had surrendered. I drove out to the site of these killings in early 2015 and the local Imbonerakure, once they caught wind of our presence, surrounded our vehicle. The brazen authority with which these young party members threatened us was striking.
In April 2015, protests broke out in response to Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a disputed third term, despite a two-term limit set forth in the Arusha Accords, the peace agreement brokered at the end of a brutal civil war that left an estimated 300,000 dead. As government security forces cracked down on real and perceived opponents of the ruling party and government, particularly since 2015, the Imbonerakure grew more powerful, protected by a near-total impunity that has encouraged further abuse.
Refugees we met in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019 told of their rampant abuses, from petty extortion and intimidation to terrifying beatings and killings.
Ahead of last month’s elections, people told us of how the Imbonerakure, often wearing t-shirts identifying them with the ruling party, were posted at markets, hospitals, schools, local administrative buildings, or on the roads to check if people had given their co-called “voluntary” financial contribution to fund the polls.
The Imbonerakure are the legacy of President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose death was confirmed in a government statement on June 9. Although the late president eventually stepped aside in favor of his party’s candidate, Évariste Ndayishimiye – who won the May 20 election with 68.72 percent of the vote – he firmly established the system now in place today. With the CNDD-FDD’s victory last month, there is a real risk the Imbonerakure’s abuses will continue.
In 2018, before a constitutional referendum, we had the opportunity to interview five former Imbonerakure members. It was a rare glimpse into how the group has been operating since 2015. The youths spoke of the key motivator to join the Imbonerakure: money. “Because of poverty, the Imbonerakure have recruited so many youths. We are all unemployed and we are promised reliable work,” said a 21-year old former Imbonerakure member from Gitega province.
Financial gain, as the prime motivator, is not surprising in one of the poorest countries in the world. But the former members we spoke with said that the promise of money was never delivered. Instead, violence became part of their daily lives.
A 21-year old from Bujumbura who fled to the Congo, told us how he joined the Imbonerakure in 2015, when he was 19: “I was tricked. They promised me a government job, but instead I got blood on my hands.” He explained the growing the impunity the group has become accustomed to: “Sometimes we were used in place of the official security forces and sometimes we worked together with the police and the army. We could very easily arrest or kidnap people and beat opponents…. The police would help to erase any trace of the Imbonerakure.”
In April 2014, a leaked internal cable sent by the United Nations Office in Burundi reported that in one province, two members of the military had supplied Imbonerakure with weapons and military and police uniforms. The government denied these allegations but took no steps to investigate them.
Ndayishimye was the head of the ruling party during some of its youth league’s bloodiest years. But the new government can break with the past and immediately and publicly order Imbonerakure members to stop illegally detaining, ill-treating, and killing. Likewise, orders should be issued that they are to no longer extort money from the population.
Judicial authorities should go beyond the few isolated cases in which members of the group have been prosecuted and conduct thorough and transparent investigations into the Imbonerakure’s role in crimes committed under Nkurunziza’s rule. “God will never forgive the sins of the Imbonerakure,” a member of the group we interviewed in 2018 told us.
But such sins will define Nkurunziza. It’s now up to the new president to form his own legacy.