Burundi’s political crisis took a further downturn after this past weekend when the opposition decided to boycott peace talks with the government because an opposition leader and his bodyguard were murdered.
As the Burundian situation worsens, much of the negative attention has been focused on President Pierre Nkurunziza usurping the country’s constitution and republican institutions by seeking a third term.
While Nkurunziza cannot continue to govern as that would delegitimize if not destroy Burundi’s fragile political apparatus, few people have asked what alternatives exist. There is one challenger to the incumbent’s reelection bid who is currently the only candidate able to pose any noteworthy threat at the ballot box: Agathon Rwasa, the main opposition leader.
Rwasa has been very outspoken against the Burundian government’s actions in recent months and is pitching the election as a choice between democracy and authoritarianism, justice and criminality. The media is portraying the race in such a fashion by not examining the opposition leader’s past and only focusing on Nkurunziza, intentionally or not.
Unfortunately, if one looks into Rwasa’s life, it is easy to see that he is no benign alternative to Nkurunziza. Rwasa was a Hutu militia leader during the Burundian Civil War – a Hutu-Tutsi ethnic conflict that lasted from 1993 to 2005 – working his way up to seize control of the National Liberation Forces (FNL) rebel group in 2002, which he still leads today.
FNL is responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed during the civil war, including the Titanic Express Massacre. On December 28, 2000, passengers on the “Titanic Express” bus coming from Rwanda were robbed and then separated by ethnicity. The Hutus were released while the 20 Tutsis aboard and one British woman were stripped, forced to lie face down, and killed. International Crisis Group attributed the attack to FNL troops under Rwasa’s orders.
Furthermore, FNL combatants massacred at least 152 Banyamulenge Congolese civilians and wounded another 106 at Gatumba refugee camp in August 2004 near Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital. The Banyamulenge are Tutsi, further illustrating FNL and Rwasa’s sectarian history. Unlike the bus incident, FNL claimed responsibility for the Gatumba attack, and the Burundian government issued an arrest warrant for Rwasa. Several African countries then declared FNL a terrorist organization amidst mass international condemnation.
The Hutu rebel group is also accused of killing Papal nuncio Michael Courtney, the Pope’s principal representative to Burundi, although the group denies the allegations.
The United Nations and Human Rights Watch, among other groups, have accused FNL of using child soldiers by abducting and forcing them into the militia’s ranks. While in recent years FNL has reportedly reunited children with their families and stopped such recruitment, tragedies like summarily executing two children aged between 11 and 13 for providing FNL positions to government soldiers after being bribed with food occurred under Rwasa’s leadership.
FNL was the last Hutu rebel group to make peace with the Burundian government, holding out as long as possible. Elements of the militia, however, reassembled in the Democratic Republic of Congo and continue carrying out attacks. Rwasa also extended his militant behavior beyond the civil war, allegedly demanding $12 million to stop killing people in 2007.
The FNL leader went into hiding in June 2010 out of fear of Nkurunziza’s government. According to Rwasa, “The government plans to jail me, pretending to have proof that I have distributed weapons with the aim of destabilizing security in the capital Bujumbura. All this is nonsense.” The government denied having an arrest warrant out for Rwasa, who reemerged in 2013 with plans to run for president in the 2015 elections. He officially registered as a candidate on May 9th, 2015.
Rwasa is evidently responsible for a plethora of crimes but is nonetheless a prominent figure in mainstream Burundian politics. This fact must be emphasized to raise awareness that FNL’s head is not the man of democracy and justice that some may assume he is simply by virtue of opposing Nkurunziza’s unconstitutional actions. FNL and the president’s ruling CNDD-FDD party are political rivals, and Rwasa has ulterior motives in condemning the government and seeking power.
Unfortunately, this means that at present there are no good choices in Burundi’s upcoming presidential election.