Report on the solidarity visit to Burundi by Archbishop Stephen Brislin, Bishops Abel Gabuza and Sithembele Sipuka

The context of this visit is the concern expressed in our last plenary meeting, having heard reports of political instability that focused on the insistence of the president of Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza to run for the third them. As we heard this resulted into violent protests, with many people being killed and others exiled. We made a resolution to request the Social Action department to do more research on the issue of Burundi, and the Denis Hurley Peace institute did this research and it was sent to all bishops. From that research we were made aware that the issue of the president seeking a third term was just a tipping point of a long political and social tension that had characterised Burundi for more than a decade.

The Denis Hurley Peace institute entered into discussion with SECAM and other regional Episcopal conferences on this matter, which led to the suggestion of a solidarity visit, under the hospices of SECAM and inclusive of regional Episcopal conferences. And SECAM, AMECEA and SACBC prepared for this solidarity visit, and from the SACBC, Archbishop Brislin, Bishops Gabuza and Sipuka went and Bishop Joseph Zziwa of Uganda came on behalf of AMECEA, and so there were 4 bishops.

After a meeting with Dr. Motshega on Thursday morning of 09 June, (on another matter) we flew to Burundi, where we were met at the airport by the delegation of the Burundi Bishops’ conference including the president of the conference on the 10 of June. Immediately on our arrival (without resting after a whole night journey) we had a meeting with all the 10 Burundian bishops who had just completed their plenary session.

It was hoped that this solidarity visit would consist of at least one of the two vice presidents of SECAM and two or three Cardinals to give it more weight. As things turned out, however, none of the two vice presidents of SECAM were able to come, and none of the expected Cardinals were able to be part of this delegation. In the absence of the expected executive of SECAM and Cardinals, bishop Sipuka in his capacity as a member of the SECAM standing committee representing IMBISA was asked to head the delegation.

From their introductory remarks, the efforts they put in preparing for our visit and their depth of sharing, it was clear that the bishops of Burundi appreciated our visit. They were visibly happy and encouraged by our visit. After stating our reason for the visit, they eagerly acceded to share with us in detail how they perceive the situation in Burundi. This is a summary of what they shared. They noted that while there has been some recovery and peace achieved since last year, the situation is not normal at all. Beneath the surface is there is anger and tension. Human rights are abused, people are being assassinated, jailed unjustly, tortured and harassed. 250 000 people have gone into exile, the space for opposition groups to organize has been closed, the independent media is not functioning (more that 100 journalists have gone into exile), leaders of civil society are under threat. More and more people are saying that they need to fight for democracy with arms. Although there are signs of hope as international pressure for open dialogue grows and the facilitation of the peace process by President Musiveme holds some promise, the situation remains abnormal. There is a strong call to return to and respect the spirit of the Arusha peace agreement of the year 2000 which Nelson Mandela helped broker in the aftermath of the civil war. That agreement was reached through participation, inclusivity and dialogue. While some aspects of it may be outdated, the spirit of the agreement should be respected and it has ensured some stability in the country from the year 2005 until last year. In seeking a third term the President has plunged the country into crisis. The Arusha agreement specifies a maximum of two terms for the President, which is also written in the Constitution. However, the Constitution also specifies that the President is elected by the people. In his first term President Nkurunziza was elected by the parliament and so he says it does not count as a first term. The Constitutional Court upheld this opinion but most people felt that the Court had been pressurized to make that conclusion. The result was demonstrations, protests, violence and an attempted coup. Many young people were involved in the demonstrations, some have fled, some disappeared, some arrested and some killed. Those arrested complain of brutal torture. The Catholic bishops believe that the only road to peace is through open dialogue, inclusivity and respect for all. They fully support the East African initiative. They have been outspoken about the repressive situation that continues in the country. One further point, the international community at time sees the problems of Burundi as arising from ethnic tensions, but Burundians now do not see the situation in that way, but in terms of a political crisis and the non-implementation of the Arusha agreement.

Our impression is that the bishops have a lot of insight about what is going on and are prophetic and not fearful. 3 of them are under threat and are guarded 24 hours by soldiers for protection. There are two things that strikes one when visiting Burundi. The first one is the presence of the armed guards for some bishops and the second one is the number of people who are using bicycles. These bicycles are not for leisure. They are used as means of transporting customers and goods. There were a number of these bicycles that had heavy burdens such as grass and logs. The weight of these items seemed to be far greater than the weight of the person riding the bicycle. This is perhaps indicative of the fact that the people of Burundi are carrying a lot of burdens in their lives. The size of the political, economic and social crisis in Burundi will need leaders willing to put the interests of Burundi as a top priority. The lack of respect and betrayal for what promotes the common of all will constitute to cause a permanent crisis in Burundi. The bishops appear to be very united in their stand and have credibility with the people of Burundi.

The following day we met the 1st Vice President of the country, who stood in for the president with whom the appointment was made. Except that he could not make it, there was not clear reason why the president could not meet us. We presented the attached statement to him. In response to our statement, the 1st Vice President (a young man in his 40s) spoke from the heart about the situation, basically saying that none of the opposition have the interest of the people in their protests, but their own. They are fighting for their own economic survival as political leadership is seen as means to survive materially. He agreed that something needs to be done to curb violence among the youth and bring exiles back home. He was however, illusive about inclusive talks among the parties concerned, and appeared to favour internal talks (which the Burundian Bishops interpret as meaning that the government wants to talk with those that they agree with, and those they do not agree with, they want to jail and kill them). The ruling party seems to be unwilling to have this dialogue with all the parties because it cannot guarantee that free and fair political completion will not lead to loss of power. And yet as long as the other parties remain dominated and excluded, there will be no peace in Burundi. The crisis in Burundi gives rise to broader questions as well, especially as many countries of Africa are going through similar crises. The Church should be proactive and not only respond when crises occur such as that in Burundi . Democracy is clearly the best form of government we have, but whether its present (western) form is suited for Africa should be questioned, and study made as to whether a more suitable form of democracy could be derived taking into account specifically African issues.

In the afternoon we met with one opposition party. We had hoped that as many as possible parties would be present but only one turned up. From their sharing, what came up as their concern is the abandoning of the Arusha accord by the government, the arresting, torturing, exiling and killing of those opposed to the government. The militarization of the youth to use as means of harassing and arresting the opposition. The dysfunctionality of the state, where even among the ruling party members there is no trust, and that between security and defense force there is distrust and actions of mutual elimination. After their sharing, we understood that perhaps the reason other parties could not come was because of fear to be targeted by the government. There is no doubt that the ruling party is determined to perpetuate political violence. One admires the courage and determination of the two members who came to speak to us. These two expressed their admiration for the clear stance taken by the Bishops of Burundi concerning the political, economic and social crisis in Burundi. The Bishops have been able to bring hope to the people of Burundi. We assured the two visitors of our support in various ways.

When asked how do they think we can be help to the situation, they asked us to help with the facilitation of dialogue among all the parties concerned, and not only those that the government picks. The bishops later confirmed that what the opposition shared was the truth. Privately, after the meeting, one member of the opposition suggested that instead of trying to convince President Jacob Zuma, we have a discussion with Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma who, he said, has a much better understanding and appreciation of the situation

In the evening we met with the bishops again, and asked them what do they think we can be of help and listed 4 things:

  1. That SECAM using its observer status in AU should put Burundi situation in its agenda, and that through AMACEA advocacy be done to strengthen the East African peace initiative;

  2. The we could help toward pastoral care of the refugees, (with skills, personnel and finance).

  3. That we give support to their Justice and Peace Commission in order to help it operate at institutional level and for programmes, especially among the youth;

  4. Financial assistance towards building a place that will be used to host meetings, conferences and training. This centre will be of great assistance in hosting talks and debates. It will be a place for training in matters relating to the Social Teaching of the Church.

  5. That we should pray for them.

On Sunday we all concelebrated in a packed Cathedral the Mass of the Uganda martyrs, and towards the end gave a message which appeared to be well received (see the attached message) and in the afternoon we left, again accompanied by some bishops. Our impression is that they were happy and felt supported by our visit as indicated in the attached response to our message of solidarity.

Our word of gratitude goes the support staff from SECAM (secretary Fr. Komakoma) and AMECEA (Secretary Fr. Lugonzo and Mr. Mbandi, coordinator of Justice and Peace) and the Burundian Bishops Secretary General Fr. Lambert who did a lot of work in capturing the content of our discussion and drafting the statements. We are grateful for the excellent work of the Dominican priest, Fr. Emmanuel Ntakarutimana, who was able to do the translation in various languages. We also thank our own Mr. Danisa Khumalo for background work he did in preparing for this meeting; in retrospect, it would have been good if he had also come.