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Sign outside the Muha High Court in Bujumbura, Burundi. Photo SOS Médias Burundi


(Nairobi) – Burundian authorities should drop baseless charges and release eight former Burundian refugees who were forcibly returned from Tanzania in August 2020. On February 26, 2021, the Muha High Court in Bujumbura ruled against their provisional release, even though the prosecution produced no evidence to justify their continued detention and their right to due process has repeatedly been violated.

“The Burundian state is adding insult to injury by prosecuting a group of forcibly returned refugees who have already been subjected to heinous crimes in Tanzania,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This sham trial highlights both how politicized refugee returns are and the influence the executive still holds over Burundi’s courts.”

The eight men – Anaclet Nkunzimana, Felix Cimpaye, Radjabu Ndizeye, Revocatus Ndayishimiye, Saidi Rwasa, Emmanuel Nizigama, Didier Bizimana, and Ezéchiel Stéphane Niyoyandemye – were arrested in Mtendeli and Nduta refugee camps in Tanzania between late July and early August 2020. Tanzanian authorities detained them incommunicado for several weeks at Kibondo police station, where they were tortured.

The refugees said that during their time at Kibondo police station, Tanzanian national intelligence and police abused them and asked for one million Tanzanian shillings (US$430) to free them. Unable to pay, the refugees were taken by the security forces to the Burundian border with their hands tied and their faces covered. Four are currently in Bubanza prison and four in Muramvya prison.

Tanzania’s transfer of detained Burundian refugees or asylum seekers to Burundi without basic due process violates the international legal prohibition against refoulement, the forcible return of anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to their life.

A first pretrial hearing in their case was held on February 24, 2021, six months after their files were transferred to the high court on September 7. Burundi’s code of criminal procedure gives the court two weeks to organize the hearing after it receives the file. Prison authorities only informed the detainees late on February 23 that their cases would be heard the next morning.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Burundi ratified in 1990, states that “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.” The Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that interprets the ICCPR, stated in a general comment that “Detention pending trial must be based on an individualized determination that it is reasonable and necessary taking into account all the circumstances, for such purposes as to prevent flight, interference with evidence or the recurrence of crime.”

During the hearing, one of the three judges said that the case was “political” in nature and the prosecution provided no evidence to support its charges of “participation in armed groups” and “threat to the national territorial integrity.” A source present said the prosecution failed to mention the first charge at all during the hearing. The prosecution accused the former refugees of discouraging fellow refugees in Tanzania from returning to Burundi to support the charge of threatening “national territorial integrity,” even though the refugees’ decisions to return to Burundi have no bearing on this issue.

The prosecution should drop these baseless charges, Human Right Watch said. Instead, prosecutors should investigate the role of state agents, including the national intelligence service (Service national de renseignement, SNR), in the forced return of the refugees and the intelligence service’s alleged collaboration with Tanzanian police and intelligence agents.

In December, a TRIAL International report found that entrenched structural deficiencies in the Burundian judiciary have been exacerbated since the country’s political crisis began in 2015.

The government should institute wide-ranging reforms to fulfill President Évariste Ndayishimiye’s promise to end impunity after the May 2020 elections, and address the underlying politicization of the judiciary that has led to other similar abusive prosecutions, Human Rights Watch said.

Between October 2019 and November 2020, Human Rights Watch documented that Tanzanian police and intelligence agents, in some cases collaborating with Burundian authorities, arbitrarily arrested, forcibly disappeared, tortured, and extorted Burundian refugees and asylum seekers. Since November, Human Rights Watch has continued to receive credible reports of threats, harassment, and arrests of refugees in Tanzania.

On December 15, the special rapporteur on refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and migrants of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights expressed concern about the situation of Burundian refugees in Tanzania and reported violations of fundamental rights such as access to asylum and the principle of non-refoulement. The commission and the Office of the African Union Commissioner for Social Affairs should urgently press for the release of the unjustly detained former refugees.

On February 28, the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, expressed concern about messages of distress “from a group of 10 asylum-seekers currently in a detention facility in Mutukula, in northwestern Tanzania… express[ing] fears for their safety upon being deported from Tanzania.”

Burundian authorities have repeatedly spoken of the need for refugees to return from exile. In a speech during his swearing-in ceremony, Ndayishimiye said: “We call on all Burundians who wish to return to their nation to come back.” Yet in the same speech, he also threatened countries that support “Burundians who indulge in sabotage,” most likely referring to refugees who fled the country due to their political or human rights activism.

A Human Rights Watch report in December 2019 found that the fear of violence, arbitrary arrest, and deportation was driving many Burundian refugees and asylum seekers in Tanzania out of the country. 

In Burundi, real or perceived opposition supporters, including returning refugees, are at risk of grave abuses, Human Rights Watch said. A UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry reported in September 2020 that serious human rights violations have persisted in Burundi. The commission found that some returnees continued to face hostility from local officials and the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, and that “[r]eturnees have sometimes been victims of serious violations that have forced them to go back into exile.”

“The real crime in this case is the forced return of refugees from Tanzania to Burundi and the absence of due process or an effective remedy,” Mudge said. “If the prosecution cannot provide evidence to support their allegations, they should immediately drop their case and release the former refugees.” - Human Rights Watch

Dr Stella Nyanzi

For those who may not know, Stella Nyanzi is the original People Power. She was People Power before many young folks appreciated the struggle – and before our dark-suited brothers boxed Bobi Wine into reducing his influence to just a political party. [Save me of the justification, please]. Perhaps the only Ugandan activist who is both eloquent online, and active in the streets, Nyanzi has directly suffered the wrath of Museveni shamelessness.

A state-persecuted scholar, and political prisoner, her NUP-identifying boyfriend was drone-kidnapped a few days after the election before Nyanzi fled into exile; and her three beautiful children were being trailed, and had to constantly move schools because of their mother’s public profile. 

Nyanzi is (or was?) personal friends with BW before many found reason to entrust him with their dreams. My point is, there are a thousand reasons for folks to be humble when Nyanzi voices her bitterness with Bobi Wine. She is the struggle itself. It will be a painful but sobering realization for many of his fans – in their millions – that while Bobi Wine was charismatic and inspiring [a job he has done exceptionally well], he was no revolutionary.

Understanding that the Promised Land – uprooting a 34-year-old autocrat – was too ambitious, or that Bobi Wine lacked the mettle and strategy to deliver on his promise, even when the opportunity presented itself, will hurt deeply. As a student of popular culture and politics, I hold Bobi Wine in high regard especially as an organic intellectual.

He is the physical manifestation of the guy Okot p’ Bitek theorized in Artist, the Ruler. Bobi Wine has given his compatriots discourse – funa endagamuntu, twebereremu, “people power is stronger than the people in power” – and enabled them to become active political subjects.

To the mass of young activists and politicians, Bobi Wine is their hero, and our mendacious chroniclers ought to be generous in memorializing his name. But as a man charged with revolutionary responsibilities, Bobi Wine might have lacked the sinews for the challenge.

I use the term ‘revolution’ and ‘revolutionary’ in a very strict sense; that is, being able to overthrow Uganda’s excessively molested constitution – from which Museveni derives legitimacy – and setting in motion a series of political crises. By overthrowing the constitution, Museveni and team would collapse with it before escaping Uganda via the Malaba border into Kenya.

If you ask any ordinary folks on the streets of Kampala, this was their dream impress of the new kid on the block, Robert Kyagulanyi. [Not toreplace Kizza Besigye, and take FDC’s place. This would be to ascribe small and inconsequential dreams to the wananchi who embraced BW]. Before and in the course of the election season, several revolutionary moments emerged – all in favour and around Bobi Wine.

We will never know whether Bobi Wine and team actually saw them, or were too cowardly to grab them. Yet, revolutionary moments tend to be fleeting and cursory. They appear and disappear only after a short time. They are supposed to be seized at the earliest opportunity. Let’s examine three major moments lost.

Closely appreciated, the events of 18 and 19, November 2020 were meant to set us on a course for revolution. As the news of Kyagulanyi’s arrest circulated, ordinary folks, fully conscientized and self-mobilized, took to the streets demanding his release. Museveni and his shameless vigilantes went on a shooting spree, and murdered indiscriminately.

The world was appalled. Anger was everywhere. Interestingly, while Museveni congratulated himself for having sent a strong threatening signal to NUP revolutionary mindset, he had actually created a sumptuous revolutionary moment. Bobi Wine had to grab it by both hands and throw it back.

He did not have to return to the campaign trail. He had to demand the release of all persons arrested, demand for accountability of all guns seen on the streets, and demand that all victims are compensated.

This moment had to be escalated. He had to issue clear public statements to this effect, including stating that no one is buried before investigations are complete. Sadly, he didn’t grab the opportunity and simply returned to the campaign trail like no major event had happened.

Indeed, Museveni was even energized to brag about it and even abuse his campaign more. He not only often denied him easy access to venues, but wantonly murdered more members of his team, before finally detaining all of them – detained to this day. Kitalya prison is overflowing with young men and women that Museveni’s state arrested for sport. Then came the house arrest.

In pure revolutionary spirit, Bobi Wine’s lawyers should never have gone to court for Museveni’s soldiers to leave his premises. The world was demanding it, and Bobi would have simply escalated it. Bobi would have called on all his newly elected MPs and other persons in lower positions – who had recently got elevated to public profiles – to come to his house for deliberations.

He would then turn to the People Power society and ask them to do whatever they could to have him released. Indeed, campaigns such as “Magere ku Bigere” were beginning to gain momentum. But more importantly, he had to accept his new identity as a political prisoner.

As ‘essential’ lawyer Isaac Ssemakadde recently emphasized, being political prisoner is politically productive. The world was starting to come down hard on Museveni, and then courts – on Bobi Wine’s insistence – threw him a victorious exit window. Has Bobi Wine checked the global media coverage while he was under house arrest? We were being interviewed by journalists from Lithuania and Kazakhstan!

Then there is the electoral petition: as many revolutionary-minded persons have argued, to go to court was un-revolutionary. But to withdrawal the petition and fail to communicate a clear agenda moving forward is catastrophic. What does “taking the case to the court of public opinion” mean? What else could be absurdly vague and cowardly than this!

No wonder, social media is awash with men with towels and bathing rags over their heads playing judges in the so-called court of public opinion. Sadly, there are explicit constitutional provisions, which Bobi Wine and team would have used to guide themselves and country on the next course of action.

All they have is to invite ordinary folks to challenge the outcome of elections, and change in the fortunes of their country. Case in point, is Article 29 (1) (d). It is on those revolutionary moments above, and several that are coming but will be sadly missed, that the revolutionary Stella Nyanzi is furious.

Unbeknownst to many uncritical followers is that Nyanzi’s attempt to dismantle the apparently cowardly and blind superhero that Bobi Wine has become, is that her intentions are good and visionary for the revolution. I know, it appears like pulling down the hero, and advantaging the villain.

But you have to understand the pain of loss of the moments narrated above, and their implications thus far. Let me explain: by waiting on Bobi Wine to call the next course of action, revolutionary foot-soldiers have been thrown into inertia, and extreme vulnerability.

Museveni is droning, jailing, torturing and murdering assumed revolutionaries while Bobi Wine encourages them to stay calm. And because Bobi Wine is the queen bee, they believe him, and look on as the paranoid state slaughters them without resistance.

And there can only be one queen bee. So, Bobi Wine has to be exposed as fallible, cowardly and inactive so as to remind ordinary folks that they are on their own, and have to look around for a new superhero. By YUSUF SERUNKUMA

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University.

Photo Anadolu Agency


South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir has proposed a visa waiver between his country and East African nations so as to ease the movement of people and goods.

“It is in our best interest to ease the movement of people and goods within the region in order to facilitate trade and investment as well as contributing to our end goal of East African regional integration,” Kiir said at the 21st ordinary summit of the heads of states of countries in the East African Community on Saturday.

He also proposed the removal of visa fees, saying it will be a win-win situation for every country.

The summit was attended by regional leaders -- including Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Burundi President Evariste Ndayishimiye and Tanzania’s Deputy President Samia Suluhu.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that his country will remove all visa restrictions for South Sudanese citizens on the basis of reciprocity as requested by Kiir to allow free movement of people in the region.

The citizens of East Africa counties currently pay a $50 visa fee to travel within the region. - Benjamin Takpiny, Anadolu Agency

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