Youth militia ratchet up intimidation in Burundi as violence continues

Violence in Burundi will increase in the run up to the election as a government-backed militia heightens its campaign of intimidation, according to analysts.

More than 50,000 Burundians have fled to neighbouring states since mid-April, when president Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would stand for a third term in elections due to take place in June.

Many refugees have reported intimidation and violence from the Imbonerakure, a shadow militia group which forms the youth wing of the ruling CNDD-FDD party. The young militants use tactics including daubing the houses of opposition supporters with red paint to show they have been singled out for violence.

One person died today as police opened fire on opposition protesters in the capital Bujumbura, bringing the total to more than 20 deaths in the two weeks of anti-government demonstrations against Nkurunziza's decision to stand for re-election, which opponents say is unconstitutional since presidents are only allowed to serve two terms in Burundi.

According to Dr Charles Laurie, head of Africa at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, the situation is only going to get worse as the election approaches, with the Imbonerakure ready to ratchet up their coercive tactics and opposition supporters standing firm.

"All signs would point to violence and coercion increasing in the run up to the election. The sides are entrenched and they are going to fight it out until election day," says Laurie.

There are reportedly 50,000 Imbonerakure members across the east African country. The militia consists of loosely-affiliated groups of young men who engage in night patrols and harass anyone who does not support Nkurunziza.

According to Laurie, members are generally poor and uneducated and are paid by the government to intimidate political opponents.

International charity Human Rights Watch have linked the Imbonerakure to the summary execution of at least 47 members of a Congolese militant group who had surrendered to the Burundian military and police.

Professor Clionadh Raleigh is director of the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), which catalogues incidents of political violence in Burundi and other developing states. She says that employing the Imbonerakure to carry out violent attacks enables the government to maintain a vestige of legitimacy.

"It is a cheap, effective and easy way to conduct violence without direct responsibility for that violence," says Raleigh.

The Imbonerakure are widely believed to be trained and even armed by the Burundian regime. Last year, local human rights groups disclosed evidence of youths being sent to paramilitary training camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a leaked UN cable accused the government of distributing arms to the militia.

Nkurunziza has rejected pressure from the European Union and US administration to delay presidential elections, which are set for June 26.

In response, the country's former colonial ruler Belgium said it would withhold a total of €7 million in funding to Burundi, some of which was earmarked for a police cooperation deal.

The president's supporters have argued that his first term did not count, since he was not democratically elected but appointed by parliament as part of an agreement to end a 12-year ethnic civil war between Hutus and Tutsis, in which more than 300,000 people died.

Of those who have left Burundi since mid-April, more than 25,000 have entered neighbouring Rwanda, which has had to transport up to 1,500 people per day from reception centres to a new purpose-built refugee camp to cope with the influx. Almost 18,000 have also fled to Tanzania and around 8,000 to Congo.

East African leaders from Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi will attend a summit in Tanzania tomorrow in a bid to ensure the elections proceed peacefully. The summit will also be attended by officials from Congo and South Africa and the leading US diplomat on Africa, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.