April 2015 marked the start of a political and human rights crisis in Burundi that has claimed several hundred lives. In late April 2015 public demonstrations broke out in response to the late president Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a controversial third electoral term. The Burundian police used excessive force and shot demonstrators indiscriminately. After a failed coup d’état by a group of military officers in May, the Burundian government intensified its repression against suspected opponents and suspended most of the country’s independent radio stations. By mid-2015 almost all Burundi’s opposition party leaders, independent journalists, and civil society activists had fled the country after receiving repeated threats. Those who remained did so at great risk.
During Nkurunziza’s third and final term, independent civil society and media were relentlessly attacked, and their members killed, disappeared, jailed, threatened, and forced to leave the country. There has been almost total impunity for these crimes. The following charts key developments between April 2015 and June 2020, when current president Évariste Ndayishimiye was sworn in. The list is not exhaustive.
The ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) announces that then-President Pierre Nkurunziza will be its candidate in June elections, triggering widespread demonstrations in the then-capital, Bujumbura.
The government bans live reporting from the sites of the demonstrations by three popular radio stations – Radio publique africaine (RPA), Radio Isanganiro, and Radio Bonesha FM, suspends their broadcasts outside the capital, and cuts off their telephone land lines.
The government completely shuts down RPA’s broadcasts, including in Bujumbura, and shuts down the Media House (la Maison de la Presse), a gathering place for local media. The police arrests Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, president of the human rights group APRODH, who had gone to give an interview at la Maison de la Presse. The police kicked and roughed up Mbonimpa, aged 66, who was released the next day.
The Constitutional Court rules that Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in office was not contrary to the country’s constitution. The ruling – controversial after the court’s vice president revealed coercion and threats by authorities – removed a legal obstacle to Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term. As the demonstrations continue, several journalists are threatened, beaten, or arrested simply for reporting or taking photos.
The day after an attempted coup d’état, people presumed loyal to the president attack the offices of RPA, Radio Bonesha, Radio Isanganiro, and Radio- Télévision Renaissance. Armed men in police uniforms threw a grenade in Radio Bonesha’s office and destroyed its broadcasting equipment. The pro-ruling party Radio Rema FM is also attacked.
Bonesha FM was allowed to resume operations, albeit in a limited way, in February 2021 after signing an agreement with the government. RPA and Radio-Télévision Renaissance remain banned in Burundi.
In a five-page written statement, the then-government Secretary-General and Spokesperson Philippe Nzobonariba states that radio stations have become “agents that convey the insurrection by propagating the most alarmist rumors in the country.”
Esdras Ndikumana, the Burundi correspondent for Radio France Internationale (RFI) and Agence France-Presse (AFP), is severely beaten by intelligence officials after attempting to take pictures of the vehicle in which the powerful former head of the national intelligence service, Adolphe Nshimirimana, was killed. Intelligence agents broke Ndikumana’s finger and beat him hard on the soles of his feet.
Ndikumana remains in exile and those responsible for the assault have not been held accountable.
Pierre Claver Mbonimpa is shot in the face and neck on his way home from work by a man on a motorcycle who approached his car. Mbonimpa recognized the shooter as someone who worked with the intelligence services. Mbonimpa was severely injured and received medical treatment in Europe.
Mbonimpa remains in exile and there has been no justice for the attack.
Mbonimpa’s son-in-law, Pascal Nshimirimana, is shot dead outside his house in Bujumbura.
There has been no justice for the murder of Nshimirimana.
Mbonimpa’s son, Welly Nzitonda, is shot dead after being stopped by the police.
There has been no justice for the murder of Nzitonda.
Antoine Kaburahe, director of the independent newspaper Iwacu, is summoned to the prosecutor’s office in Bujumbura in connection with his alleged complicity in the May coup attempt. He fled the country four days later.
Kaburahe remains in exile.
The interior minister suspends the activities of 10 Burundian civil society organizations after the prosecutor general ordered their bank accounts to be frozen four days earlier.
Unidentified men in a vehicle believed to belong to the intelligence services pick up Marie-Claudette Kwizera, the treasurer of Ligue Iteka, in Bujumbura. The family paid a member of the intelligence services, through an intermediary, more than US$2,000 to secure her release. An intelligence agent and the alleged intermediary were subsequently detained. Information later received by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi indicates that she was targeted because of her human rights work and murdered by the national intelligence service (Service national de renseignement, SNR).
Kwizera remains missing to date and there has been no accountability for her disappearance.
Le Monde correspondent Jean-Philippe Rémy and British photographer Philip Moore are detained for 24 hours by national intelligence and their equipment is seized.
Radio Isanganiro and Rema FM re-open after signing an “ethical charter” with the National Communications Council (CNC), in which they committed to a “balanced and objective” editorial line, respectful of the “country’s security.”
Jean Bigirimana, a journalist with Iwacu, by then Burundi’s last remaining independent newspaper, disappears while on a reporting trip. Unconfirmed reports indicate that members of the Burundian intelligence services arrested him in Bugarama. In August, then-police spokesperson Pierre Nkurukiye announced the opening of an investigation.
Bigirimana is still missing and there has been no credible investigation into his disappearance.
October 19 and 24
The Interior Minister permanently bans or suspends 10 civil society organizations that had spoken out against government abuses.
The organizations remain banned in Burundi and their leaders and many of their members live in exile.
Authorities ban Ligue Iteka, Burundi’s oldest human rights organization.
Ligue Iteka remains banned. Its leader and many of its members live in exile.
January 23 and 27
Two new laws are adopted allowing for increased government control over the activities and resources of Burundian and foreign nongovernmental organizations.
Intelligence agents interrogate Joseph Nsabiyabandi, the then-editor-in-chief of Radio Isanganiro, about his alleged collaboration with Burundian radios operating in exile in Rwanda. He is later criticized for having “incited the opinion and the population to revolt.”
Security forces arrest three members of Parole et Action pour le Réveil des Consciences et l’Évolution des Mentalités (PARCEM), while they were organizing a workshop on arbitrary arrests in Muramvya province. They are charged with “threatening state security.”
Germain Rukuki, a human rights defender and former treasurer of Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (Action des Chrétiens pour l’Abolition de la Torture, ACAT) in Burundi, one of the banned organizations, is detained and later charged with several offences, including “rebellion.”
Iwacu’s website is no longer accessible to internet users in Burundi.
Access to Iwacu has not been restored.
Nestor Nibitanga of APRODH, which had by then been banned, is arrested at his home in Gitega province and taken to the headquarters of the SNR in Bujumbura. The police accused Nibitanga, via Twitter, of “threatening state security.” He is held incommunicado, without charge and without access to his family or a lawyer, until December 4. He is then transferred to an official prison in Rumonge, south of Bujumbura.
The three PARCEM members are sentenced to 10 years in prison for having “prepared actions likely to disrupt security.”
Iwacu receives a written decision from the CNC announcing a three-month suspension of its online comments section for “violation of professional standards.”
The ban was lifted on February 11, 2021.
Germain Rukuki is sentenced to 32 years in prison on charges of “rebellion,” “threatening state security,” “participation in an insurrectional movement,” and “attacks on the head of state.”
The CNC suspends the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for six months for “violating press laws” and “unprofessional conduct” after inviting Pierre Claver Mbonimpa to its program on March 12. At the same time, the CNC banned the Voice of America (VOA), also for six months, for the technical reason that it was using a banned frequency. The CNC warned RFI that it could face consequences for recent remarks it deemed “untruthful and partisan,” and Radio Isanganiro was criticized for apparently poor verification of sources.
Nestor Nibitanga is sentenced to five years for “threatening state security.”
Nibitanga was released on April 27, 2021, after serving over three years in prison.
A 2018 amended press law is adopted, which requires journalists to provide “balanced” information or face criminal prosecution. It also requires journalists to have a certain level of education to be eligible for a press card.
Authorities suspend the activities of foreign NGOs for three months to force them to reregister, including by submitting new documentation stating the ethnicity of their Burundian employees.
The three PARCEM members are acquitted upon appeal and released on March 21, 2019.
Some international organizations refuse to comply with new registration requirements, including providing information on the ethnicity of their staff, and leave the country. Humanity & Inclusion (formerly Handicap International), Avocats Sans Frontières, RCN Justice & Democratie, and 11.11.11 shut down their operations in Burundi.
The UN Human Rights Office in Burundi closes down at the request of the government.
The CNC announces it will extend the suspension order on the VOA and withdraw the BBC’s operating license. The CNC also bans any journalist in Burundi from “providing information directly or indirectly that could be broadcast” by either the BBC or VOA.
VOA and BBC remain banned and inaccessible in Burundi.
The Supreme Court president orders that the property of several high-profile exiled Burundian human rights defenders and journalists be seized.
The government suspends PARCEM and accuses it of tarnishing the image of the country and its leaders. PARCEM had been spearheading the “Ukuri Ku Biduhanze” campaign (“truth on the challenges the country faces”), which had been raising awareness of critical issues ranging from malaria to food insecurity.
The suspension of PARCEM was lifted on April 2, 2021.
The 32-year sentence of Germain Rukuki is confirmed on appeal. Judicial authorities told the media they had lost his file, which led to significant delays in the case. The Appeal Court’s confirmation of the 32-year sentence was overturned by the Supreme Court on June 30, 2020.
Rukuki’s appeal was heard again on March 24, 2021, but the verdict had not been delivered at time of publication, in violation of Burundian law.
A new Code of Conduct for Media and Journalists in the upcoming election period requires journalists to provide “balanced” information and prevents them from publishing information about the elections that did not come from the national electoral commission. It also requires journalists to obtain a press card from the CNC.
Four journalists with Iwacu – Christine Kamikazi, Agnès Ndirubusa, Egide Harerimana, and Térence Mpozenzi – and their driver, Adolphe Masabarakiza, are arrested while going to report on fighting between security forces and the rebel group RED-Tabara. Masabarakiza is accorded provisional release in November.
The four journalists working for Iwacu are convicted after a flawed trial.
The trial of human rights defenders and journalists in exile begins in their absence and without the presence of their lawyers.
Their guilty verdict was announced in February 2021 after a flawed trial. They were convicted on charges of “attacks on the authority of the State,” “assassinations,” and “destruction.”
According to an Iwacu statement, Anglebert Ngendabanka, a member of the National Assembly, threatens to “crush the head” of one of its journalists after the newspaper published an article implicating him in attacks against opposition members in Cendajuru commune, Cankuzo province.
Authorities pass several decrees creating recruitment committees and other mechanisms to enforce the application of ethnic quotas in the recruitment of local staff by foreign NGOs and ensure greater government oversight of their work.
Elections take place in a context of fear and intimidation, without any international observers. The media were heavily restricted in their coverage, due to the 2018 amended press law and the Code of Conduct for Media and Journalists in the Election Period for 2020. Some independent journalists report difficulty accessing polling places and getting information about the vote, and a social media shutdown further restricts their work.
The conviction of the four Iwacu journalists is upheld on appeal.
The journalists were released on December 24, 2021, after receiving a presidential pardon. Their conviction is maintained.
President Pierre Nkurunziza dies abruptly, officially of “cardiac arrest.”
Évariste Ndayishimiye is sworn in as president.