Foreign Policy: Ahead of U.S. meetings, top Burundian official denies mass rape

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By Siobhan O'Grady

Willy Nyamitwe, a top advisor to Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, is in Washington this week to rally U.S. support after reports Rwanda is arming Burundian refugees and pressuring them to join opposition rebel groups.  

But unless Nyamitwe backtracks on his dismissal of other reports — that Burundian government forces have carried out mass rape and extrajudicial killings — as part of a slanderous, anti-government campaign, he might not be received warmly in his meetings at the State Department, currently scheduled for Friday.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Nyamitwe defended Burundian police and soldiers as professionals who would never engage in mass rape. Last week, the top U.N. official for human rights said his team has documented 13 instances of gang rape allegedly carried out by Burundian forces.

“Rape can be used as a weapon in some parts of the world, but not in Burundi,” Nyamitwe told FP on Wednesday, leaning across the interview table with his hands tightly clasped and his eyebrows raised. “Rape can also be used as a weapon to tarnish the reputation of people.”

He then pointed to allegations against former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn — both of whom were accused of sexual assault — as proof that those who call themselves victims at times accuse powerful figures of sexual abuse to advance their own political agendas.

“Some can be accurate, and others can be only a package of lies sometimes,” Nyamitwe said. In Burundi’s case, he said, the political opposition is using rape as a narrative to discredit the government’s legitimacy.

Claims like these, along with Burundi’s December announcement that it would treat African Union peacekeepers as an invading enemy army, have made the international community increasingly frustrated with officials in Bujumbura.  

In an email to FP Wednesday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner suggested Nyamitwe and his colleagues’ behavior is stalling progress on Burundi peace talks that could end civil unrest and restore stability in the small Central African country.

Toner said Nyamitwe “could be influential in finding solutions to the situation, rather than continuing the divisive rhetoric, stifling of political dissent, and violence and intimidation that has characterized the government of Burundi’s response to the crisis to date.”

Burundi’s slow descent into turmoil began last year, after Nkurunziza — a former Hutu rebel commander — announced his intent to run for a third presidential term. He claimed this did not violate the country’s constitution; his opposition claimed it did. And soon the two sides were pitted against each other in what quickly spiraled into mass civil unrest.

Roughly 250,000 civilians, fearing both retaliation from the government for their political views and a return to the civil war that killed 300,000 between 1993 and 2005, have since fled Burundi as refugees to neighboring countries, including Rwanda. At least another 439 people have died since last April, and nine mass graves have been identified by the U.N., which is concerned minority Tutsis are being targeted.

Those who have stayed behind have told human rights groups that clashes are often ethnically motivated. But Nyamitwe told FP that a genocide in Burundi would be “impossible” because the military is evenly divided between Tutsis and Hutus, the two major ethnic groups in Burundi and Rwanda. That policy is the result of the Arusha peace accords, a power-sharing agreement signed by Burundian officials that set quotas to allow the minority Tutsi population significant representation in the military and other ministries.

But Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told FP that although the agreement allowed a multiethnic community to flourish in Burundi, the Nkurunziza administration’s recent targeting of Tutsis could now threaten to dismantle the relative ethnic stability the country has managed since the end of the civil war.

After rebels stormed multiple military bases in mid-December, observers said government forces retaliated with their own series of attacks. Most of those victims are believed to be Tutsis.  

“The claim that there’s no risk of genocide and everything’s under control — that’s a way of playing the international community, and it’s part of an ongoing approach by the government,” Siegle said. “That’s what they want you to believe, but unfortunately they’re deploying ethnic violence as we speak.”

Tutsis are not the only ones believed to be targeted by government forces: Many journalists have also been killed or have mysteriously disappeared. At least 100, fearing for their safety, have reportedly fled the country. But when FP asked Nyamitwe about restrictions on press freedoms, he denied any journalists were being killed or intimidated.

When asked specifically about Christophe Nkezabahizi, a cameraman who is widely understood to have been executed alongside his family by Burundian officers in Bujumbura in October, Nyamitwe said he does not know who killed him but that it was “maybe by accident.”

“He has not been killed because he’s a journalist,” he said. “He was not killed on duty.” Ernest Ndabashinze, Burundi’s ambassador to Washington who attended the interview, nodded along. “Wrong place, wrong time,” he said. “That’s all.”

Human rights organizations, including Refugees International, claim evidence that Burundians who fled to Rwanda have been armed by Rwandan government forces. It’s believed Rwanda is now siding with Burundian rebels and dipping their toes in what was initially an internal conflict next door.

Toner echoed those concerns Wednesday, saying that such allegations are “credible” and that Washington “has called on the government of Rwanda — in cooperation with [the U.N. refugee agency] and others — to conduct a full investigation into these allegations, and hold accountable those who are found to be involved.” FP reached out to the Rwandan Embassy multiple times Wednesday but could not reach a staff member.

And Nyamitwe seemed unaware the United States had taken any measures to recognize the Rwandan threat whatsoever. “Until now we have seen nothing,” he said. “The U.S. should take a position and make its position very clear so that Burundi can understand the U.S. doesn’t support any external aggression against Burundi.”

In a phone call with FP, senior Amnesty International official Adotei Akwei said such polarizing rhetoric only harms Burundi’s chances of garnering support from Washington, which is concerned by Rwanda’s potential involvement in the conflict — but also cannot ignore human rights violations taking place within Burundi’s borders.

Amnesty is “extremely concerned about how close the country is to an all-out civil war,” Akwei said. And Toner said that in meetings set for Friday, officials will raise “the need to ensure accountability for the violence and human rights abuses that have occurred in [Nyamitwe’s] country.”

But Nyamitwe didn’t seem too fazed by the allegations. He said he knew of only one rape case that had occurred since violence began in Burundi last year and that it was a supporter of the ruling party who was raped and maimed in an opposition neighborhood. Any other cases of rape that may have occurred, he claimed, were not tied to the conflict.

Still, the Burundian government would go ahead with its own investigation into the mass rapes by security forces, he said. And if they do find any officers to be responsible, their behavior will “not be tolerated.” When asked whether Burundian officials could be trusted conducting an investigation into human rights violations in the country, Toner told FP the State Department does “not believe that President Nkurunziza’s government can conduct a credible, impartial investigation into these matters.”

And Nyamitwe made it clear government officials already have their minds essentially made up that the reports are false.

“We reject this because it is only in order to tarnish the reputation of the Republic of Burundi,” he said. “Really, there is no mass rape.”