Burundi bans international NGOs

Burundi’s National Council for Security in September announced a blanket 3-month ban on international NGOs. CIVICUS speaks to a human rights defender who asked to remain anonymous on why this ban has been imposed and the situation in Burundi for civil society.

Can you detail the recent ban by the National Security on NGOs?

The decision to ban international NGOs for a three-month period starting 1 October 2018 was announced on 27 September 2018 on national radio by the Executive Secretary of the National Council for Security, an organ chaired by Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza. In the communique read by General Sylas Ntigurirwa, the Executive Secretary of the National Council for Security, there was little detail on why this three-month ban was being applied. Rumors that circulated on social media such as WhatsApp in the following hours listed almost 130 INGOs, which in majority (99%) are of European and American origin.

On 28 September, the Minister of Home Affairs invited all the representatives of the banned NGOs for a briefing to discuss the details of the ban at Hotel Source du Nil in Bujumbura, but this meeting was postponed. It eventually took place on 2 October and some more details on the ban were leaked. The banned NGOs were accused of not implementing ethnic quotas in employing their workers as dictated the Arusha Peace Agreement.

The Burundi Minister of Home Affairs, Pascal Barandagiye has insisted that NGOS have to re-register with his ministry and listed four documents that NGOs must provide prior to their reopening. The documents are a cooperation agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; a memorandum on the implementation of the provisions of the law on foreign NGOs and the national development plan; a commitment to the Ministry of Finance on compliance with financial regulations; and a plan for the progressive correction of ethnic imbalances in the staff of these NGOs. Also, only NGOs that support the health and education sectors are currently authorised to continue their operations.

How does this ban affect ordinary Burundians?

This is a very interesting question. Such a kind of measure taken by the Security Council has enormous negative consequences on the ordinary citizens. Although there are no accurate statistics, International NGOs in Burundi have more than 4 000 direct employees who have families and relatives they support. Some of those NGOs support vital sectors such as agriculture, poverty alleviation, conflict resolution, health, education etc. If their work is banned, one can imagine the consequences.

Another level at which this ban affects not only the ordinary citizen but the entire nation, is the fact that those NGOs, are for the moment the only source foreign currencies on which the economy of Burundi depends since the economic sanctions were imposed because of human rights violations committed by government officials since 2015. We cannot ignore the taxes also being payed by NGOs to the state. This kind of ban on NGOs is clumsy and clearly not well thought clearly.

What is the current situation of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression in Burundi?

The situation of freedom of assembly and freedom of association has not improved since the 2015 political crisis. Civil society organisations, human rights defenders and political opposition actors continue to face threats including imprisonment or death threats. No one dares to criticise the government or government officials or challenge any government decision. A most recent example is the interruption of a live radio show at Radio Isanganiro on 25 September 2018 by police forces. Discussants on the radio show were unpacking the upcoming fifth round of inter-Burundi dialogue set for 18-24 October 2018 and among interviewees were the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs and some opposition politicians.

What needs to be done for the situation in Burundi to improve?

Different measures such as economic sanctions targeting some top government officials have not produced the desired results in resolving the situation in Burundi. To date, different voices of the international community have had no effect on Burundi’s authorities and the inter-Burundi dialogue facilitated by former Tanzanian president, Benjamin William Mkapa and chaired by Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the president of Uganda are not seemingly bringing results to the situation.

Others have suggested a regional economic embargo. This measure worked well in the late 1990’s, when the government of Burundi was refusing to participate in negotiations to end the civil war. A regional economic embargo prompted the government to accept to negotiate. However, imposing an economic embargo will likely worsen the living conditions of the ordinary Burundians this time, so such a decision must be diligently taken.

But, in my opinion, some strategies that may work could include to lobby some of the regional leaders who have influence on the Burundi situation such as the president of Uganda, the president of Tanzania or the president of South Africa so that they put pressure of the authorities of Burundi to accept an inclusive dialogue in which all stakeholders are involved in finding sustainable solutions to the crisis that Burundi is going through

Any other information you would like to add on the situation in Burundi?

The situation of human rights in Burundi is worsening by the day. We are continuously witnessing forced disappearances, ransomed kidnappings and an ever-increasing number of people fleeing the country despite the movements of refugees returning from Tanzania. People live in extreme poverty and have limited access to health care as hospitals lack enough financial resources to purchase medicines. Burundi is in a dire humanitarian and political situation and is a danger to the whole Great Lakes region. A solution must be agreed on as a matter of urgency to prevent the further loss of lives.