Nkurunziza says he's crazy, should we believe him?

The Burundian government has initiated the process to withdraw from membership to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Burundian government has initiated the process to withdraw from membership to the International Criminal Court (ICC). It’s a decision that comes on the heels of increasing pressure from the international community to conduct investigations into the ever increasing incidences of killings, torture, and disappearances committed by that government. The decision fits a pattern of responses that, left unexamined, may prove costly.

This time, the government’s reaction is particularly meant to counter two major developments. In April this year, the ICC Chief Prosecutor, Ms. Fatou Bensouda, announced that she intends to investigate human rights violations in Burundi committed since April 2015, and to hold those accountable under provisions of the Rome Statute that establishes the ICC.


Just recently, the United Nations – known to dither in the face of crises – decided to establish a commission to identify those responsible for human rights violations in Burundi, to presumably hold them accountable and to consider invoking some punitive instruments against the government.


For government, it was counterattack. After a cabinet meeting in Gitega – the now de facto political capital and presidential bunker – the first vice president, Mr. Gaston Sindimwo, observed that the decision to leave the ICC was because, “we found that it was necessary to withdraw from that organisation,” he said. “So we can really be free.”


The question is: free to do what, exactly?

A strategy of ransom

For a while now, the Burundian government has responded to pressure from outside through blackmail and ransom. It goes like this: “you intervene, we commit genocide.” Indeed, the government has done everything possible to show the world that the entire infrastructure is in place to do just that; that it has sprinkled the fuel and that all that’s left to light a match – which it holds firmly in both hands.

It’s a strategy – boneheaded as it is – that has worked thus far. Any time there are talks of intervening in Burundi, whether by the AU or UN, the government there has heightened the rhetoric – veiled and direct – about solving the problem once and for all.

Whether it was the Senate President doing this or local leadership mobilising ordinary people in songs of incitement, this was always the strategy whenever the UN or the AU tried to act tough; it was most evidently displayed during efforts to send UN/AU police officers in that country.

It worked. Intervention was kept at bay. Which is also the folly of the international community. If anything, that was the right time to call Nkurunziza on his bluff. However, dilly-dallying meant that he has actually taken the time to prepare and now has the capacity to carry out whatever he is bragging about.

He’s claiming to be a mad man who’s ready to do crazy things. He should be treated as such: a mad man is never entirely bluffing, not when he’s wielding weapon in hand – the match in this case.

Two questions are warranted: with Burundi on its way out of the ICC, are the killings likely to subside or to intensify? In which way is such intensity likely to manifest?

If we are simply being logical about it, a decision to withdraw has to signal the intent to commit crimes on a scale far worse than those committed prior to it. Moreover, since the government has, in its past pronouncements, expressed the nature of the crime it wishes to commit, it becomes imperative to take it on its word.

Let’s parse further. Given that Burundi is a signatory to the Rome Statute, refusal to submit to its jurisdiction – even that of the UN – raises red flags. As such, Burundi exposes itself to the counter-factual.

The government’s actions give credence to the suggestion that whatever is being suspected of it is somewhat true; that the only purpose of the investigations was to ascertain the exactness of this suspicion.

If the counter-factual is followed to its logical conclusion, Burundi’s refusal ought to lead to the activation of whatever tools would have been deployed in the event that the initial suspicions were confirmed by the investigations.

The specific suspicions are that if not held accountable, in due time an environment of impunity would escalate human rights violations to catastrophic proportions. In other words, to end impunity is to nip in the bud the need for future humanitarian intervention.

Implicit – if truth be told – is an admission that the human rights violations that predated the decision to set up investigations (murders, assassinations, refugees, etc.) were acceptable. The only reason to conduct an investigation is to signal a kind of response more radically different that the one that preceded it – indifference, really.

Since investigations cannot take place, evidence from the counterfactual is enough in order to err on the side of preventing a catastrophe – the radical response. And fast. That is because the Burundian government understands that it takes a minimum of 2 years from the time a decision is made to leave the ICC and for it to become effective. Moreover, it is aware that crimes committed prior to withdrawal cannot be rescinded from ICC jurisdiction.

Unless its plan is to carry out crimes that are worse in magnitude than those already committed, the decision to withdraw makes no sense whatsoever. Consequently, it leaves us with only one interpretation: that such a move is an expression of intent to intensify systematic killings of the nature previously disclosed by the government itself.

The Burundian government has all along claimed that those accusing it of preparing to carry out genocide were its enemies. It’s now providing evidence against itself: it felt bound by the likes of the UN and the ICC.

Now it can “really be free.”

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