The Burundi government has been sending its forces and members of the ruling civilian youth party in a clandestine mission to fight Burundian armed opposition groups in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a rights group said.
In a report released on Wednesday, the Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) detailed how hundreds of military and Imbonerakure – members of the ruling party’s youth league – were sent since December 2021 to DRC to fight RED-Tabara, a Burundian armed opposition group.
According to the report, the mission was not in conjunction with the Congolese armed forces. Instead, the Burundian army had formed alliances with armed groups in the country – some of who oppose the Congolese army.
“The secretive nature of the Burundian military build-up in the DRC, along with the militarisation of Imbonerakure and the openly hardline rhetoric of senior ruling party officials in Burundi, should concern international actors,” BHRI said.
“The drift towards a more authoritarian and militaristic approach could signal a backsliding towards an even more repressive form of governance.”
The rights group interviewed soldiers and civilians from both Burundi and DRC, including ruling party and opposition members, and Imbonerakure and their relatives.
From the information gathered, BHRI said that the military operation is linked to “a trend of increasing militarisation” in Burundi, countering President Evariste Ndayishimiye’s attempts to present a conciliatory and acceptable image on the international stage.
Despite the operation being an open secret, the government has not officially acknowledged sending troops to the DRC.
The report says that some Imbonerakure were effectively misled into carrying out a combat mission in a foreign country, for which they were wholly unprepared for and did not receive military training. They were paid between 50,000 and 200,000 Burundian francs ($24 to $96), and were warned to not talk about their role or the military operation.
According to testimonies from soldiers, troops crossing into the DRC were ordered to change into civilian clothes so that the international community could not identify them as Burundian soldiers.
There are also reports that at least 40 soldiers who had allegedly refused to go to the DRC or who had asked to see official documents greenlighting the mission were executed in two separate incidents in Cibitoke province between late January and mid-February. BHRI could not independently verify these claims.
The man leading the mission against armed Burundian groups in the DRC is Joseph Mathias Niyonzima, also known as Kazungu, BHRI said.
Niyonzima is a member of the Burundian National Intelligence Service (SNR), and has been sanctioned by the European Union and the United States since 2015 for his involvement in several cases of extrajudicial executions, torture and other human rights violations in Burundi.
Other SNR agents who played prominent roles in the violent political repression in the country, along with high-profile members of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, are using this clandestine mission as a ploy to secure their party’s long-term dominance across the country, BHRI said.
“Despite securing victories in the last three sets of elections and maintaining control over the country, the CNDD-FDD’s paranoia has persisted, as evidenced by its violent repression of opponents and critics, even those who have not taken up arms,” BHRI said.
This is evidenced by an increasing ultra-nationalistic fervour led by the CNDD-FDD, which has embarked on a more politicised training programme on “patriotism” for Imbonerakure across the country.
A family member of an Imbonerakure who received such training said that the youth league was instructed “to oppose all those who are opposition members, to love only one political party and to make sure there is no other political party”.
“Anyone who isn’t a member of their party should be considered an enemy of the nation, a coloniser,” the relative said.