Irwin, forging a space for civil society in Burundi

A movement for the freedom of the individual

The organisation he has been working for is a movement geared at achieving justice and equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersexual persons. It is staffed entirely by Burundians, who work to document human rights violations and utilise this data to further research and advocacy on issues faced by sexual minorities in the region. Their programmes cover not only Burundi but also Rwanda and the DRC, where they support established groups – formal as well as informal – on capacity building as well as advocacy. The organisation partners with human rights mechanisms including the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In Burundi, part of their work focuses on advocating for inclusivity and community input in social programming – for example, HIV programmes which are not always inclusive to marginalised groups such as LGBTQ individuals. To tackle discriminatory practises, it facilitates safe space events for groups working at the local level, often in rural areas of the country where people face significant socioeconomic challenges. Irwin highlights that when it comes to capacity building, it’s not just about finding a way to share knowledge, but also finding a way to empower the next generation of activists.

The goal of creating a safe environment for the LGBTQ community goes hand in hand with pushing the government to alter its stance on LGBTQ issues. Irwin recalls that when the organisation began, the government’s official line was that there were no LGBTQ individuals in Burundi. After years of continuous pressure, the government position has shifted from denial to acknowledgement; however, there is still a ways to go before homosexuality is decriminalised. Irwin explains that early on in their organisation’s life, they were accused of wanting to legalise same sex marriage. Irwin puts it soberly: “No, that’s not actually our intent, because you need to have a number of conditions in place.”

Wading in a political quagmire

The government has long implemented a strategy of blaming Belgium for destabilising the country. It organises weekly demonstrations in the Bujumbura city center against Belgium specifically, and the European Union generally. They pay bicycle-taxi drivers to chant slogans and locals to attend protests. The government even provides transportation to these events. “It’s easy to find a scapegoat,” says Irwin. “This is also one of the things that they are using to rule people, to make the people forget that things are happening. But it’s not Belgium that is running this country. It’s not Belgium that is not providing jobs for young people. It’s not Belgium who is making people disappear.” Among the list of allegations directed at the former coloniser is that of promoting homosexuality in the Burundi. This has influenced the organisation’s fundraising policies; it will not accept funding from Belgium because it will only serve as an excuse for the government to put added pressure on them.

Similar accusations have also been directed at Rwanda, particularly that of backing anti-government sentiment and supporting the 2015 demonstrations. Burundians that fled to Rwanda during that time find themselves barred from returning. Most of them, Irwin describes, have been listed, “so it is not safe to come back,” as they would likely be arrested and accused of spying. Others fled to Tanzania and are now being pressured to return by the Tanzanian government, which has close ties with the current ruling power in Burundi. Irwin notes that “they both have bad records in terms of human rights.” The government claims it will be safe for them to return, while Tanzania has closed camps to pressure them to do so.

“I really think that the more you try to understand what is going on in Burundi, the more you may go crazy,” comments Irwin. “Because sometimes I wonder, are we even conscious of where we came from? And why we are putting so much effort and time to replicate the bad history that we had? It’s the same thing that is happening again, but it has another name.” Perhaps Irwin says it best when he sums up the current situation as “very complicated.”

Civil society as defiance

While defending the rights of LGBTQ individuals is particularly contentious in Burundi, Irwin explains that this is not the heart of the issue. While this is a country where “sexuality itself is taboo” and homosexuality is criminalised, the very act of speaking out as civil society is itself an act of defiance.

“At this particular moment, the issue is not working on LGBT issues. The actual issue that we have is around the civil space and also what it means for you as an activist to be doing human rights works in a country that actually represses human rights workers and human rights organisations.”

Ultimately, Irwin adds, it doesn’t truly matter whether someone is LGBTQ or not because “most of the time people are arbitrarily arrested under presumption or assumption” and “that alone is being used more and more to harass, to detain, but also to threaten the people.”

The ground in Burundi is not yet fertile for this kind of work. “Organisations that are working on civil and political rights, they are actually being targeted as organisations, but also as individuals, because their work also relates to governance, democracy – which is not the thing that they want you to talk about. You get in trouble for working on civil and political rights, but also if you work on women’s rights or if you have a specific focus on issues around sexual violence and rape. That’s also a sensitive issue because the people that are accused for such exactions are either the youth wing of the ruling party or people in the government – the police, the army; that’s a known issue, that you don’t need to bring to the table if you live here or if you want to be here.”

“I would say we shake tables because we confront the government and police. You are saying to the government, ‘You are lying’.”

Overcoming obstacles

The non-profit has had to take measures to be able to carry out its work in a country where the issues it tackles are considered controversial and sometimes downright undesirable. In 2015, amidst the political unrest[2] that unfolded in the run-up to the presidential elections at the time, Irwin’s organisation made the choice to register as a social enterprise. This means they are covered under trade laws which make it more difficult to freeze their organisational and personal bank accounts – a common tactic carried out by the government to shut down NGO “on the grounds that they are causing trouble,” as Irwin describes. With this comes an added financial burden, as social enterprises are required to pay additional taxes. Despite the added difficulties, the organisation regarded it a necessary step to defend not only their own work but also that of the organisations they support. “We also host some funding for the other organisations because they have actually been denied to register on the grounds of supporting LGBT rights but also ‘being homosexuals’ and ‘promoting immorality in the country.’ So they are not registered, but they do operate.”

The government pressure on NGOs, which are often viewed with suspicion of potentially furthering foreign and/or anti-government agendas in the precarious political climate that is Burundi, is exacerbated by the political tension currently plaguing the country. As a means to secure control, the government cracks down on dissenting voices while simultaneously endorsing groups that complement its own agenda. “There is a new breed of organisations that are either endorsed by the ruling party or affiliated somehow with the ruling party, so if you are not amongst them that means it’s just crazy to operate.” The situation this creates is that there are organisations that “cannot denounce some human rights violations because they are affiliated to the ruling party.”

Irwin’s work does not come without its risks. Last year, seven LGBTIQ individuals were arrested, during a peer-education activity. Irwin explains that at the time, “we were being quite visible.” The organisation was in the midst of an educational public outreach campaign promoting safe sex behaviours and awareness about HIV. They also began working on a case where someone had been detained without legal process, and their staff were “going to the police, trying to release them or have a legal procedure because sometimes they can arrest you and hold you in jail just like that.”

They began facing harassment from police officers, which culminated in arrests. These were “justified” by allegations that the staff had been in breach of a policy imposed by the authorities since 2015, where households are obligated to have a ‘cahier de ménage’ (household booklet) which holds the names of all people living in a particular residence. “Police could go around checking the registry and if your name is not there, then they arrest you or extort money from you. So you are not supposed to be at someone’s house unless it’s during business hours.” This form of strict social control was initially aimed at cracking down on those suspected to be behind the anti-government demonstration taking place at the time. Irwin puts it succinctly: “You cannot hide in Burundi, that’s it.”

With heavy-handed repression comes a culture of impunity for those in power and their affiliates, Irwin describes. “I would say the actual human rights violations are being perpetrated by the youth wing of the ruling party because there is this endorsement or impunity that comes with it, of ‘we are with the ruling party so we can do whatever we want.’ But there are also cases that are perpetrated by the police or the intelligence service – like the case of many activists. The people who are harassing us…it would be easier for instance if they would come to my house in a police car and arrest me, but that’s a privilege. Instead, they anonymously threaten you or harass you because of the authority of the power that they have.”

[2] In the runup to the 2015 presidential elections, opposition leader Zedi Feruzi was targeted and killed, prompting political opposition to standing President Nkurunziza to flee the country and waves of protests that were aggressively shut down. Since then, repression of real and believed opposition has been rampant. As the 2020 election approaches, there are fears that similar events will take place as in 2015 despite President Nkurunziza’s promise that he would not seek another term in 2018.

An ominous barometer reading

Mounting pressure and outright harassment have taken their toll on Irwin. He recalls that he was at a gathering with fellow activists from across East Africa in 2017 – a group that calls itself the ‘East African Collective’ and meets twice a year to collaborate on advocacy projects. A friend pointed out that he looked tired, perhaps in need of some time off, and told him to look into Justice and Peace Netherlands’ Shelter City Programme. Irwin applied, and was accepted in April 2018. From the end of April until mid-July 2018, Irwin left Burundi behind for Maastricht in the Netherlands. “I was lucky I went in summer,” he comments. “I remember the friends that I got there would say, it’s so hot today! And I was like, ‘You need to come to Burundi to understand what heat is’.”

After only a few months away, and with full knowledge of the pressures that would once again face him when he returned, Irwin chose to return to Bujumbura. The decision to do so, he says, “has to do more with me as a person, but also as a Burundian. Because I was born and raised here in Bujumbura…during that time it was quite hard for me, because you see messages and people that you know are being killed or shot dead. There is a level of harm that it does to you. So I was like, ‘at least let me receive these news while in Burundi.”

Irwin’s love for his own country has been a strong motivator for his return. “Even when in East Africa, I am going around saying, ‘I need to go back home.’ Because the people there are not so hospitable or willing to talk to a stranger and have random stories, like in Burundi. We are that kind of people. There is a lot of social chit chat in Burundi.”

Since he has been back in his home country, however, the now familiar pressures have returned. Under continued harassment and threats, Irwin does not enjoy freedom of movement in his native city, mentally and physically. “One of the things that I really miss is to walk around,” he says. “Because this is not possible for me, to just have a normal life, go around, walking on the street, taking the bus…Internally, it drains you as well, because… I will not say that I am living in an open prison, but it’s like that, because I cannot interact with people as much as I should.”

“The reason why I’m still here? I would say, you see how much you have been losing, so you tell yourself there is no way to go back because otherwise your efforts would have been in vain. And you know, there is discrimination, but also the relationship that you have with your family; they actually make you think twice.”

“I wish I knew before what would happen. I would say, ‘No, no, I don’t want to get into activism.’ That’s the story.”

But rather than regarding it a form of respite, Irwin laments he may be forced to leave again.

“At this particular moment,” he says, “I am also tired because I have been convincing myself: ‘You should stay a bit.’ But since we are going next year to the presidential elections and things may be as tough as they were in 2015, I think this is my last year here.” While the security situation is a main motivator for the move, Irwin adds that “it is also linked to the fact that I think my time is now done, because at my organisation I was actually employee number two. I think it’s my time to go to something else.”

The organisation, too, is preparing to move its offices to Rwanda or the DRC in anticipation of upcoming turbulence. After years of being under scrutiny and having often been subject to police raids of their offices, the organisation already has a ‘light office,’ and the move would not be overly difficult.

Through all the sacrifices and suffering Irwin and his fellow activists and advocates have undergone, he admits that it is often hard to see progress. As he puts it: “You feel like you are powerless despite the situation that is happening, that nothing is really changing.” But the sober reality does not diminish his devotion to Burundi in the least.

“I really love this place. And if we have peace, stability, I would never want to move from Burundi, ever.”

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