What you need to know:
- Agathon Rwasa, head of the National Freedom Council (CNL), Burundi’s main opposition political party, talks about his political liberation struggles and addresses war crimes accusations in an exclusive interview with Mpoki Thomson, Managing Editor of The Citizen, while also asking the Tanzanian government to rethink its relations with President Evariste Ndayishimiye's administration.
You are no stranger to Tanzania; what is the purpose of your current visit?
Tanzania is my second home; from 1988 to 1991, I lived in Tanzania as an asylum seeker. At that time, the situation in Burundi was worsening year after year. In 1993, Burundi entered a civil war. I think it was madness because if Burundians had decided to discuss and resolve their problems, we could have avoided the bloodshed. Unfortunately, people who are in powerful positions think that they can crash those who claim their rights. They annihilate people just for selfish reasons. This was the situation at that time, and this seems to be the situation today. I think we Africans should sit down and try to think twice about our destiny as a continent and as a people instead of putting our focus on sectarianism.
The civil war in Burundi, which lasted more than 10 years, saw the involvement of regional and international communities. Julius Nyerere was the main mediator. When he died, Nelson Mandela took over. Burundi is indebted to Tanzania as the host of those negotiations.
From Nyerere’s administration to date, the government of Tanzania has always been friendly to Burundi’s government.
However, Burundi’s government has continued to suppress its people.
So, my request today is for the Tanzanian government to shift its relationship with Burundi.
It should be friends with the people of Burundi more than with the government of Burundi.
That way, the Tanzanian government will have full disclosure on what is going on in Burundi and prevent the situation from worsening.
You have met with members of Tanzania’s opposition party, ACT-Wazalendo. What relationship does your political party have with ACT?
Our relationship with ACT-Wazalendo started in February 2022, when we had a meeting in Zanzibar that involved political parties. There are similarities between Tanzania and Burundi when it comes to elections.
You know what happened in Tanzania in the 1995 and 2000 elections. Fortunately, Tanzania has always succeeded in getting reconciliation between the ruling party and the opposition. This hasn’t happened in Burundi.
Do you think reconciliation and structuring an alliance between the opposition and the ruling party will help address the challenges that Burundi is facing?
Indeed. First of all, Burundi is not a new state; it has a history, and throughout that history, we have always seen some kind of exclusion in the appointment of people to leadership positions. Now, when you make exclusions, you affect performance.
If you have to rely on exclusion to manage a society or a country, forget about accountability and good governance. The lack of these two elements may one day lead to chaos, and we don’t want our country to go back to chaos. We want Burundians to share power. Burundians are not just Hutus and Tusti.
Is this reconciliation your personal political wish or the wish of the people?
I don’t have personal political wishes. I embraced the political struggle out of genuine concern.
I hate injustice and don’t like people who rely on injustice to rule society.
The best way for Burundi to get away from these kinds of instabilities and injustices is for everyone to participate.
Monopoly in setting up institutions doesn’t help Burundi but leads to more mismanagement and a lack of competence.
You were the leader of the National Liberation Forces (FNL), but you were ousted in 2010 when you were in Dar es Salaam amid political changes in your country. You then went on to assume leadership of a coalition of independent groups and built it into the second-biggest political force in your country. What drives your political ambition, and what is your ultimate goal?
I engaged myself in politics not for selfish ambitions but because I hate injustice. Discrimination based on ethnicity or political party is nonsense. Considering the struggles that Burundi has been through, people today and those who will come in the future need to have broad minds and embrace inclusion.
Equity and justice are the basis of everything; without these two, forget about peace.
During the civil war, you fought with some of the people in Burundi’s government today for Hutus against Tutsi, including President Evariste Ndayishimiye. What was the big shift that has led to major political contentions and divisions presently?
The divide today is over how the country is being managed. There is a place in Burundi where the people who are in power today buried their fellows, and they put inscriptions that read: It isn’t a tribe or ethnic group that kills, but a bad government. I’m not going to talk about the toll of deaths that have happened since CNDD-FDD came into power, but I can tell you that what we have witnessed in this period is worse than what we witnessed before. Yes, we witnessed massacres in the past, but we could go years without hearing that someone had disappeared or seeing the corpse of someone who had been assassinated. But today, it’s like life is meaningless; people can be killed, and the perpetrators are not properly dealt with by the police and the justice system. Everyone has a right to live.
Human rights groups have accused Burundi’s government of targeting opposition supporters and members, most of whom belong to the CNL. As the party leader, can you state whether there have been members of your party that have either disappeared, been tortured, or that you believe have been murdered? If so, what is the government’s response?
The response of the government has always been that everything is okay. But how come everything is okay yet they don’t allow the UN human rights committee to come and investigate?
How come they say everything is alright, yet when it comes time to discuss Burundi’s human rights, the local delegation does not allow other Burundians to sit with them just because they are refugees or do not agree with the regime?
If everything was alright, we would have been brokering for people to come and see what we had achieved.
The situation is not as the government portrays it to be.
The Burundi government has suspended your party’s operations, citing ‘irregularities’. How did you cope with that restriction, considering your objection to its validity?
Currently, CNL is under threat from the government. The Minister of Home Affairs, relying on false claims from a tiny group of ten people, decided to suspend all party activities.
We cannot meet in our office or organise public rallies. We have not violated a single article of the law of Burundi.
Even if we had done so, it wasn’t the minister who should have made that sanction; it should have come from the Supreme Court, but we have no case in court.
So, the government can go on talking about democracy, but democracy must not be just simple words we speak; it should be seen in our deeds and behavior, where rights are respected and protected and those who are in power are not afraid of losing such power.
It is believed that the move risks rekindling the political turmoil that has affected Burundi in recent years. As the leader of CNL, what is your response and position?
I agree. If you prevent people from enjoying their rights, at the end of the day, something worse will happen. They have gone beyond infringing our rights. For instance, one of our members has been put in a maximum-security prison. He doesn’t have the right to be visited; he is not presented to the court, and no one knows why he is imprisoned. He is not a criminal; he has done nothing wrong. All this is because they don’t want CNL to exist.
There seems to be internal conflict within the CNL, with some members opposing your leadership. Even though you dispute their assertion, what is being done to address these dissenting voices?
We have addressed them; we met on February 17 and 18. We concluded that those people have to stop such behavior.
We then decided to work hand-in-hand with them. We organised a national party conference on March 12, and they attended and contributed.
The fact that they didn’t dispute anything means they are now in complicity with the CNDD-FDD to try and sabotage our party.
But I will challenge this. If at all they have been to school, they will know the end result of hegemonies—they don’t last forever; if they did, we would still have the Roman Empire to date.
You disputed the validity of the 2020 elections in Burundi; how prepared are you for the next elections, and what measures do you think need to be implemented for a fair and impartial election outcome?
First of all, they have to give up their plans of dividing CNL, and instead they should try to help political parties strengthen themselves so that we can have elections where parties compete based on their manifestos.
Secondly, they must avoid their habitual way of doing things: appointing commissioners to the national electoral board; this is a board for Burundi and not a political party.
Thirdly, we as Burundians have to sit together to analyse the election laws and see where the problem lies. A biased law is a source of election conflict.
We always wonder why is it that Burundi is reluctant to host international election observers but is the first to run everywhere where there is an election to observe. There must be a hidden agenda.
What role do you think can be played by EAC heads of state to address the challenges faced by Burundi?
The EAC has got to play a role in improving regional democracy.
The heads of state must pressure their fellow leader in Burundi in order to influence him to alleviate this current situation he is trying to corner CNL into.
It is an effort to try to divide the opposition. We need leaders who can tell this government that Burundi is not the property of CNDD-FDD. Burundi is for Burundians under a multiparty political system, and so all political parties should enjoy their freedom.
During your leadership of the FNL, the party was accused of using hundreds of child soldiers and other atrocities such as rape and murder. What do you have to say about these accusations?
FNL is different in its behaviour from other rebel groups. Even the people of Bujumbura appreciate and support CNL today because we treated them fairly and protected them.
We even prevented their women and daughters from being raped, something that was common in that area before we got there when it was under the national army.
The issue of child soldiers is that the crisis could have left Burundi desolate. There are children who have lost all their parents.
We didn’t recruit any child soldiers; we even helped some enrol in school.
If any children were used as soldiers, it wasn’t our aim; if it happened, it must have been by accident.
I do not agree with youngsters being trained militarily and going back to their villages. Those who train must go to the battlefield.
As the leader of the main opposition, what is your hope for peaceful coexistence in Burundi?
Change is mandatory. But, as you know, those in power are resistant to change.
However, it is just a matter of time. I’m convinced and hopeful that positive change for Burundi is ahead of us.