Burundi: A Truth Commission as political diversion

Burundi: A Truth Commission as political diversion©Vincent Hornsperger/Flickr
The Bujumbura Mausoleum of Prince Louis Rwagasore - Burundi accuses Belgium of ordering assassination of this "Independence Hero"
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A new law adopted by Burundi’s parliament on October 25 prolongs the mandate of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for four years and extends it to cover the colonial period from 1885. It will thus give the government ammunition against former colonial power Belgium, but does not give the commission power to look at crimes committed in the last ten years.

The initial mandate of Burundi’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), created in May 2014, was to investigate the interethnic conflicts that scarred the small central African country since independence from Belgium on 1 July 1962 to the signing of a ceasefire with the last rebel group on 4 December 2008. The government has now almost tripled the period of history it must cover, extending it back to 1885.

Ever since its creation, the TRC has been accused by the opposition and civil society of being an instrument of the regime and the ruling party. It officially started work in March 2016. The TRC was launched in a political context marked by extra-judicial executions, arbitrary arrests and acts of torture often blamed on the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza, according to human rights groups and UN investigators.

Investigations to cover 123 years

The Commission, chaired by senior Catholic Church leader Monsignor Jean-Louis Nahimana, filed its interim report to Parliament after four years of its mandate and two and a half years of activities. But after debate, both chambers of Parliament recommended not only prolonging the TRC’s mandate for another four years but also extending it to cover the colonial period starting on 26 February 1885 with the Berlin Conference that divided Africa up between the colonial powers. This profound modification was approved on 25 October by the National Assembly, in which President Pierre Nkurunziza’s party has a big majority. The amendment was approved by the Senate four days later. So the TRC is now to cover a period of 123 years, from 1885 to 2008.

“It is clear that the cycles of violence of a political nature that have scarred Burundi have their origins in colonial times,” Justice Minister Aimée-Laurentine Kanyana told the Senate whilst presenting the plan. The aim of the Burundian authorities seems clear: to point the finger at Germany, the first colonial power in Burundi, but especially also to vent their anger at Belgium, which had from 1918 a supervisory mandate in Burundi. Relations between Bujumbura and Brussels have deteriorated sharply since the start of the crisis sparked by President Nkurunziza’s April 2015 announcement that he would run for a third term, deemed constitutional by the opposition and civil society. At least 1,200 people have been killed in violence triggered by the political crisis and more than 400,000 others have fled their homes, according to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC has opened an investigation, with which Bujumbura refuses to cooperate.

Relaunching the conflict with Belgium

Since then, the isolated Burundian government has often accused Brussels of mobilizing the international community, starting with the European Union, against it. On 14 October, Bujumbura stepped up the rhetoric. The government claimed in a statement that Belgium held “a big responsibility in the assassination of Prince Louis Rwagasore and his family, and in the various socio-political crises that have bloodied the country”. Prince Rwagasore, considered a hero of Burundi’s independence, was murdered on 13 October 1961. The statement further says that the Burundian authorities plan to “set up an ad hoc technical commission” on this assassination. They also accuse the former colonial power of sowing ethnic hatred in the country through a “divide and rule” policy.

According to some observers, these accusations and the new law on the TRC are aimed primarily at diverting attention from the crimes committed more recently. “It definitely will help to distract from the violations of the current regime,” says Thomas Unger, a transitional justice expert at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.  

It is extremely rare that a truth commission covers such a long historical period. In Canada, for example, a truth commission covered a period of 100 years, from 1880 to 1980. However, it investigated only one type of crime, committed against the children of indigenous people who were taken from their families and put into homes. Thomas Unger thinks this new, long mandate of Burundi’s TRC is “completely unique” in the history of transitional justice. “Truth Commissions are fact finding bodies, who rely on material, interviews, testimonies etc.,” he says. “The longer back a truth commission needs to investigate, the more difficult to find accurate evidence. Also it will require different expertise, such as historians, which the current truth commission does not have.”

 “Crimes still being committed”

During a parliamentary session on October 25, some Burundian MPs called for the TRC’s mandate to be extended to crimes committed after 2008, particularly after the failed coup attempt of May 2015. “If we want real reconciliation, why keep the truth of what happened after 2008 from Burundians?” asked opposition parliamentarian Simon Bizimungu, as quoted by local media.

“Crimes are still being committed today,” said Fabien Banciryanino, who has a reputation for speaking out, even though he belongs to a party in the governing coalition. The justice minister replied that the country now has “democratically elected institutions to settle people’s differences” and that acceding to the demand would be to undermine them. She was backed by National Assembly president Pascal Nyabenda. “Crimes committed when there are judicial bodies should be punished through the justice system,” he said, urging Banciryanino to have faith in his country’s justice system.

In its latest report, published on 5 September, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi nevertheless accuses the Burundian government of promoting a climate conducive to ongoing human rights abuses. Thomas Unger stresses that “the current political situation is not conducive for operating a truth commission”. “There is political interference and any opposition is suppressed,” he says. “Truth Commissions need some form of independence to operate effectively. They also depend on victim testimonies. It is unlikely that victims are able to speak openly at this moment, fearing persecution.”