KIRUKU: EAC will lose meaning if Burundi bloodbath is not stopped

Burundi forcibly disarms those with illegal weapons
Chaos rock parts of Bujumbura city, Burundi in July 2015. PHOTO: Agencies

By Anne Kiruku, East African News Agency

The New Year message by the Secretary General of the East African Community Dr Richard Sezibera, to our brothers and sisters in Burundi sums up the prayers of all East Africans for that country’s citizens.­­

Since mid-December, cases of sexual violence have emerged – including the reported rape of five women in a single house during a search operation in Bujumbura’s Mairie Province. Reports indicate that cases of torture, too, are on the rise in the war-torn country.

The crisis is getting dirtier and nastier by the day. New reports of mass graves have been reported. So far, nine mass graves holding 100 bodies have been found, including one in a Burundi army base. At least 13 cases of sexual violence against women have been reported. We cannot wait for this deadly scenario to get any worse before taking action.

East Africans are tired of reading and hearing statistics of bombings, deaths, mass graves, injuries, ­­ rapes and the flight of thousands of refugees to neighbouring countries. If indeed Burundian authorities have failed to put their house in order, then the United Nations should consider sending peacekeepers to Burundi, in addition to other measures that will ensure that sanity returns to the country.

The genesis of the current crisis should not be forgotten. All hell broke loose when President Pierre Nkurunziza defied the Arusha Accord and vied for a third term, amid harsh criticism and serious opposition from the public. As expected, he won the presidential elections held last July, an exercise that was marred by violence and which the international observers said was a sham. The elections were anything but ‘free or fair’.

The sad statistics coming out of Burundi should be enough to galvanize action from regional leaders and the international community: Over 300 people have lost their lives, while another 170,000 have fled to neighbouring countries. Thousands more have been physically maimed or emotionally and psychologically wounded.

The UN, international organisations and Western embassies have been withdrawing their workers, leaving only a skeleton staff.

But exactly what are regional leaders, the UN Security Council and the international community doing to stop the bloodbath? Religious leaders, local and international women groups, and human rights groups around the world must do more to stop the violence.

Have we become so immune to suffering that we have taken a don’t-care attitude for what doesn’t affect our immediate families? It is alright to show solidarity with Burundians by putting up their flag as our profile photos on social media sites, but that is hardly enough. Decisive action is needed to ensure that sanity returns to this country, which is already the second poorest in the world.

As Dr Sezibera wished the people of Burundi a peaceful, stable and prosperous 2016, our leaders ought to make it happen. And indeed for a while last year, our four other Presidents focused their attention on the war-torn country. But if words are not followed up with concrete action, the EAC will have no real meaning, its grandiose mission and vision statements not being accompanied with a resolute spirit to do what citizens in the region expect.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging that the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) last week held a four-day public hearing workshop on the humanitarian crisis in Burundi. The House intends to establish facts of humanitarian atrocities as reported by a petition submitted to it by the Pan African Lawyers Union.

But this will only have an impact if the findings of the report are not allowed to gather dust in shelves, but are used as policy formulating documents to forge the way forward for Burundi.

Hard decisions and choices have to be made to force the hand of President Nkurunziza to toe the line and know that the responsibility of protecting human lives in Burundi lies solely on his government’s shoulders. Whether it takes sanctions on Burundi or whatever pressure may be applied by the EAC heads of state and international organisations, time is now of the essence.

President Nkurunziza must be made to respect the sanctity of human life; nobody deserves to die in order for anybody to realise their political ambition. As matters stand, only concerted efforts by regional and international community can drive this point home.

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