Burundian refugees have accused the country’s President, Maj. Gen Evariste Ndayishimiye, of making false promises, peddling lies and stoking conflict in the region, instead working towards unifying the country and restoring relations with neighbouring countries.
Representatives of Burundian refugees say that Ndayishimiye failed to live up to the promise he made during his swearing-in ceremony in June, during which he declared that he will ensure that all Burundian refugees who were still in neighbouring countries would return home, in a bid to reconcile the country.
The new accusations follow comments made by President Ndayishimiye on Thursday in Busoni, Kirundo Province, which borders Rwanda, saying that his government will not seek to make friends with a country which he did not name, which harbours his country’s enemies and holds Burundian refugees at ransom.
Burundian refugees say Ndayishimiye’s remarks are outrageous, reckless and betray efforts to ensure that peace is restored in the East African country, which remains in near isolation, following the 2015 political conflict which followed the then President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term.
“His comments are reckless, to say the least. To say what he said near a border of a neighbouring country is not only outrageous but also provocative,”
“What he said only confirmed what we suspected when he was sworn-in, that he would not genuinely ensure the return of refugees and ensure their safety,” said Emmanuel Nkengurutse, a lawyer and former lawmaker who fled the country in 2015.
Nkengurutse says the comments were directly referring to Rwanda, which up to now still hosts up to 72, 000 Burundian refugees, something he said is equivalent to provocation and confirms his lack of goodwill to ensure that peace returns in the country.
The Burundian leader’s comments came just few days after Rwanda said that it was ready to facilitate a process that would see refugees safely and voluntarily return home, after a group of refugees in Mahama Camp wrote to President Ndayishimiye asking him to hold talks with the host government to ensure that they repatriate.
In his speech, Ndayishimiye made outlandish claims that the said country was holding Burundian refugees hostage to cover up for individuals who committed crimes in Burundi, residing in that country.
The former lawmaker said that it is unfortunate that Ndayishimiye would make such allegations, directly referring to Rwanda, which has hosted refugees since 2015 and allows those who want to return to go home.
“Is Rwanda holding hostage the refugees in Tanzania, Uganda, DRC or other countries? The President is burying his head in the sand and is continuing the campaign to direct animosity towards Rwanda instead of addressing issues that have plagued Burundi since 2015,”
“This only confirms our fears that it was a mere change of guard when he came into office and that he would continue the same murderous policies under President Nkurunziza’s regime,” Nkengurutse said.
He added that it has emerged that the letter sent from Mahama Camp last week was the work of the Burundian government which used some refugees to write a letter and create an impression that they have been denied the right to return home by the host country.
“The Government of Rwanda made it clear it would facilitate voluntary repatriation of refugees, the United Nations High Commission of Refugees has also made it clear that they will support the process but the Burundian government however has chosen to focus on blame games,”
“This goes to show that it is not safe for refugees to return and that the government is only interested in peddling lies and stoking conflict even when other countries have expressed the desire to work with Bujumbura to normalise the situation,” Nkengurutse, who rules out the possibility of returning home, said.
In his speech, a part of which was posted on the official state house account, Ndayishimiye urged residents of Kirundo to welcome back their fellow countrymen, who he said his government is willing to do everything to ensure their return from a country which is holding them hostage.
He however said that his government would not pursue ‘hypocritical’ friendship with a ‘cunning, dishonest neighbour’ hosting his country’s enemies, instead of handing them over to be ‘punished’.
President Nkurunziza’s government, and now Ndayishimiye’s allege that Rwanda is host to members of the opposition, who it purportedly supported in 2015, to carry out an attempted coup to ouster the deceased former Burundian leader, whose decision to seek a third term plunged the country into a political conflict that led to over half a million people fleeing the country.
Rwanda categorically denied supporting Gen Godefroid Niyombare or opposition groups, which Bujumbura claimed wanted to wage war against Nkurunziza’s government. Over 150, 000 refugees fled into Rwanda following the violence.
Though Rwanda desisted from making any further comments beyond saying that it was ready to engage, Burundian authorities continued to pursue a line of animosity, including offering support and ground to groups hostile to the Rwandan government.
President Paul Kagame last month said that Rwanda remains ready to work with the Burundian government to address challenges that have plagued relations between the two countries since 2015, to turn a new page of bilateral ties.
However, with Ndayishimiye’s latest comments, the situation is far from over. Political commentators say that the current Burundian government is not ready to let go of its divisive and ethnic approach to politics and that it remains keen to carry on the grudge precipitated by the 2015 polls.
“In essence, what the head of state is saying is that Rwanda should renege on its international obligation to protect refugees and hand them over to a murderous government to be executed,” says Alexandre Niyungeko, the president of the Burundi Union of Journalists (BUJ), who is exiled in Rwanda.
Niyungeko says that going by President Ndayishimiye’s comments, his government still harbours a grudge against people who opposed President Nkurunziza’s third term.
Niyungeko says that those who hoped that Ndayishimiye, who was fronted by Nkurunziza as his replacement, would be moderate or would pursue a different approach than that of his predecessor, had misplaced hope.
“I am not surprised that he said what he said. From the onset, I never believed that he would be different from the previous regime. It was a continuation of the status quo. It was wrong for anyone to think that he would have a more positive approach to issues,” Niyungeko said.
Like Nkengurutse, Niyungeko says that Ndayishimiye had an option of proving that he would be different but he chose to continue with the politics of hate and ethnic divisions rather than mend the country’s relations with neighbours.
According to UNHCR figures, by the end of June 2020, there were more than 430,000 Burundian refugees scattered in the region.
Tanzania hosts the highest number with 164,87, DR Congo hostes 103,690, Rwanda 72,007, Uganda 48,275, Kenya 13,800, Mozambique 7,800, Malawi 8,300, South Africa 9,200 and Zambia home to 6,000.
Niyungeko said that until now, refugees who wish to return home have been returning home since 2015, a big number returning in 2016 and 2017, which makes the claim that Rwanda holds refugees hostage, unfounded.
“People have been returning home whenever they feel ready. Those who haven’t returned have reasons not to do so and clearly from his [Ndayishimiye’s] remarks, you can tell that not many would feel comfortable to go back, especially those who faced unfounded allegations from the government,”
Niyungeko, who was targeted in 2015, along with other senior media leaders and owners, opposed government efforts to exert controls on the country’s independent media in the wake of the election violence, fled Burundi following sustained attacks by government officials.
“We fled for our lives. We never organised ourselves to become refugees. Some of us fled and left behind our families because our lives were in danger. It is absurd that he claims that there are no genuine reasons for people to be refugees, even when it is clear that they still want those people who fled to be handed over,” Niyungeko said.
Both Niyungeko and Nkengurutse say that some utterances by the Burundian leader and some of his officials, including the spokesperson of the national police, can tantamount to a diplomatic scandal.
In his speech, Ndayishimiye seemed to affirm what the Police publicist previously said, that the country’s security forces sneak into Rwanda to facilitate refugees who want to return home, using porous routes and other unofficial channels.
“What he said is a diplomatic scandal. It is unusual for a high-ranking official to openly admit that they violate the sovereignty of another country to smuggle back protected refugees into the country. This is something the Government of Rwanda and the United Nations should take seriously,” Niyungeko said.
On Monday, August 3, Rwanda’s Ministry in charge of Emergency Management said the government is ready to willingly facilitate a dignified return of refugees to their countries of origin.
“Rwanda reaffirms the principle of voluntary repatriation as a durable solution for refugees, in accordance with international and Rwandan law,”
“Rwanda reiterates its commitment to the protection of refugees on its territory, and stands ready to facilitate the safe and dignified return of those refugees who choose to repatriate, in collaboration with UNHCR and relevant governments,” a government statement said.
The UNHCR Spokesperson for Rwanda, Elise Laura Villechalane, told KT Press that the UN refugee agency was ready to support the process is there is dialogue between the two neighbours.
She said that until the outbreak of the New Coronavirus, Burundian refugees had been voluntarily returning home at an average of 200-a-month.
In bed with FDLR
Political commentator and Genocide Scholar, Tom Ndahiro, says that Ndayishimiye’s stance confirms the past and current Burundian government’s romance with anti-Rwandan forces such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
“On May 26, FDLR sent a congratulatory message to Ndayishimiye upon being elected. In that message, FDLR indicated that whatever Ndayishimiye does, he should not try to mend relations with Rwanda,”
“Indeed, he heeded to their advice and this can be seen in the appointments, from the Prime Minister Guillaume Bunyoni, to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Foreign, Albert Shingiro and now the Speaker of Parliament Daniel Gélase Ndabirabe. These are individuals whose close ties to FDLR are known,” Ndahiro says.
Ndahiro said that going by Ndayishimiye’s comments, there is no doubt that FDLR dictates Burundi’s foreign policy, adding that his accusations are a direct opposite of what his government is doing since it is a known fact that Burundi’s harbours anti-Rwandan and genocidal forces.