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A First Step Toward Reform: Ending Burundi’s Forced Contribution System

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NIGERIANVOICE 08 APR 2020

As May elections approach, Burundi’s ruling party says it has stopped demanding payments from citizens to finance the polls. But the confiscatory practice persists. Bujumbura should move decisively to halt it as a prelude to wider-ranging improvement of governance in the country.

What’s new?* In 2017, Burundi’s government imposed an ostensibly voluntary contribution scheme on its citizens to fund the country’s May 2020 elections. But the ruling party has collected the contributions coercively, has not made clear how it is using the funds, and continues to demand payments months after declaring the practice over.

Why does it matter? As Burundians chafe under the pressure of political repression, this confiscatory and arbitrarily administered system of forced contributions can only increase public resentment, and hence the risk of violence, in the run-up to the 2020 elections – and potentially thereafter.

What should be done? International partners should pressure the Burundian authorities to end permanently the collection of forced contributions of money and goods, do a public accounting of how funds collected for the election were spent, prosecute perpetrators of serious abuse and embezzlement, and launch a conversation about human rights and governance reforms.

* Crisis Group conducted the field work for this briefing before the COVID-19 pandemic. Some dynamics examined in this publication may have changed in the meantime. Moving forward, we will be factoring the impact of the pandemic into our research and recommendations, as well as offering dedicated coverage of how the outbreak is affecting conflicts around the world.

I. Overview
As Burundi’s government has escalated political repression, it has also squeezed the country’s exhausted citizenry for material support. Since 2017, it has been extorting “contributions” from the Burundian people, ostensibly to fund the May 2020 elections. The government officially ended the contribution scheme in the summer of 2019, but the Imbonerakure youth militia continues to collect money and goods. Although the ruling party has chosen a new candidate for the elections, indicating that President Pierre Nkurunziza will leave office after a controversial third term, pre-election tensions are still running high. Burundi’s leaders could reduce the chances of trouble ahead of the polls and start to repair relations with external partners by stopping the practice of forced contributions for good, sharing information about the use of funds, and investigating (and where appropriate prosecuting) the main offenders in channelling monies away from election preparations. Broader reforms will remain critical but ending these contributions and associated measures could be a confidence-building first step in that direction.

Nkurunziza’s third-term bid in 2015 prompted street protests, a failed coup attempt, a violent crackdown and a prolonged period of political and economic instability in Burundi. Five years later, despite government efforts to portray the country as stabilising and returning to normal, it is anything but.

The government continues to deny civil society the ability to operate freely and uses intimidation and violence against the political opposition.

In the run-up to the May 2020 presidential, legislative and district council elections, the regime has cracked down on supporters of the main opposition party, the Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL), and other perceived dissenters. The Imbonerakure ruling-party youth militia, which acts with impunity, is the main tool of this campaign of repression.

Against this backdrop, the government’s heavy-handed collection since 2017 of ostensibly “voluntary” contributions to fund the upcoming election is yet another hardship the Burundian people have been required to bear. The Imbonerakure, working with a range of government and security services, intimidated and harassed people into paying amid ongoing reports of embezzlement and indications that the militia is becoming increasingly dependent on financing itself in this manner. By heaping financial pressure on Burundi’s already exhausted population and straining the country’s creaking economy further, the contributions system could only ratchet up political tensions in a country that has yet to recover fully from the shocks of 2015.

The Burundian authorities optimally would make the human rights and governance reforms that international partners have been demanding as a prerequisite for restoring aid to the government severed in the aftermath of the 2015 violence.

But, realistically, they will not do so in the handful of weeks between now and the elections, so Bujumbura’s international interlocutors should focus on the more modest goal of prevailing on Burundian officials and candidates to: commit to ending all schemes for the forced contribution of money and goods in any context outside the formal tax system; come clean with the public about how the proceeds collected for the elections were spent; and ask the police to investigate those suspected of serious embezzlement and human rights abuses in the course of collections so that they can be brought to justice.

Evariste Ndayishimiye, the presidential candidate for the ruling Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie – Forces pour la défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD), has shown signs of wanting to mend ties with international actors.

Burundi’s outside partners should encourage Ndayishimiye to make this set of modest commitments with respect to forced contributions as a prelude of sorts to the reform agenda they would like to see him pursue.

The road to broader reform will remain long and difficult. But taking these steps with respect to forced contributions would be a good way to demonstrate that Burundi’s present and future leaders are at least serious about moving in the right direction.

II. The Continuing Fallout of the 2015 Crisis
In April 2015, President Nkurunziza’s controversial decision to run for a third term helped kick Burundi into a state of protracted crisis. Protests filled the streets, and state authorities aided by the brutal Imbonerakure youth militia cracked down on civil society and private citizens. The country’s senior army ranks split and several former close allies of Nkurunziza led a failed coup attempt in May of that year.

The repression that surged in 2015 has continued since and the country’s human rights situation has deteriorated again in the run-up to the 2020 elections.

The jittery government in Bujumbura has continued to use state security services and the Imbonerakure to maintain its hold on power by cracking down on the political opposition, many of whose members have been attacked, arbitrarily arrested, summarily executed or disappeared. A UN Commission of Inquiry found that the pattern of abuse appeared to be “intensifying in the run up to the 2020 presidential and legislative elections”, identifying the Imbonerakure as the main perpetrator, and political opponents of the regime (especially CNL supporters), as the main victims.

At the same time, the Burundian authorities have mounted a steady campaign of repression against independent voices that might report on its abusive activities to the public. In February 2019, the government forced the closure of the UN Human Rights Office in Burundi. In March 2019, Bujumbura permanently revoked the BBC’s operating licence and upheld a previous suspension of Voice of America’s operations. In June, the government shut down Parcem, one of the last human rights advocacy groups operating in Burundi. Four journalists at Iwacu, one of Burundi’s few remaining independent media outlets, were arrested in October while reporting on clashes in Bubanza province. At the beginning of 2020, they received sentences of two and a half years in prison.

Diplomats and other observers underscore Nkurunziza’s insularity: he hardly leaves the country and frequently refuses to meet foreign emissaries.

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