On Monday morning, panic spread after rumours began circulating on social media that Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, Burundi’s leading human rights activist, had been killed. In reality he was alive and well, working away as usual, documenting human rights abuses and trying to alert the world to the crisis engulfing his country.
Rumours are common in Burundi and, thankfully, many of them turn out to be false. So I breathed a sigh of relief for Mbonimpa – for a few hours. At around 6pm, I started getting calls informing me that Mbonimpa had been shot. I immediately phoned his family and colleagues in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, hoping it would prove to be just another false rumour. But this time, it was true. Soon after Mbonimpa left his office, at around 5pm, a man on a motorbike fired shots into his car, injuring him in the face and neck. He was rushed to hospital and taken into intensive care. He is slowly recovering but still very weak.
The fact that these rumours had been circulating since the morning is disturbing. There is no easy explanation, but one thing is clear: this was a well-planned, targeted attack, and one of Burundi’s most prominent human rights defenders only narrowly escaped death.
Mbonimpa, 67, is president of a well-known human rights organisation that he founded in the 1990s – after a spell in jail – to defend the rights of prisoners. But he is more than just a figurehead for the group. He is a hands-on, indefatigable activist, campaigning on the frontline every day and refusing to succumb to repeated threats from the government.
In May last year he was thrown into prison, charged with endangering state security, for comments he had made on the radio. After he became seriously ill, he was released on medical grounds in September, but the charges are still hanging over him. Despite this, he has continued his work.
The situation for Mbonimpa and other activists has worsened significantly in the last few months. Burundi has been in political turmoil since April, when public demonstrations began to protest against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in office. Police responded with a brutal crackdown, and scores of people were killed. Human rights activists, journalists and members of opposition parties were among the prime targets, with many forced to flee the country. Mbonimpa is one of the few whose chose to remain.
I was last in Burundi in June, just before the controversial elections. The mood was gloomy. There were frequent clashes between police and demonstrators, and shooting almost every night in certain neighbourhoods of Bujumbura. Most people were getting on with their lives, at least in the daytime. But come nightfall, the streets emptied, and private conversations revealed deep fears. Almost everyone I spoke to said they didn’t know what would happen from one day to the next. It was not uncommon to find that a person I spoke to one day had vanished the next, joining the more than 140,000 who have fled the country.
Nkurunziza wasre-elected in July, but the polls were boycotted by most opposition parties and by many voters too. In a rare show of international consensus, many governments, as well as the United Nations and the African Union, agreed that basic conditions for free and fair elections had not been met.
Burundi seems to be heading into an increasingly uncertain and chaotic situation. The day before Mbonimpa was shot, the former head of the intelligence services, General Adolphe Nshimirimana – a powerful figure and close ally of Nkurunziza – was assassinated in the capital.
The attacks against Mbonimpa and Nshimirimana, both targeting senior, high-profile public figures, seemed deliberately designed to provoke. It’s imperative that the Burundian authorities act swiftly to prevent revenge attacks, investigate these incidents, and bring the perpetrators to justice.
Just as pressing as the violence gripping Burundi is the almost total suppression of independent media: the main private radio stations – the primary source of information for most people – were taken off the air more than two months ago. In a country where rumours are rife, the lack of independent news quickly becomes not only frustrating, but also dangerous.
Until this week, I was tempted to think many of these rumours were nothing more than hearsay – but after what happened to Mbonimpa, I am no longer sure.