Marguerite Barankitse

Burundian activist: Zuma has destroyed what Mandela built in my country

Burundian activist Marguerite Barankitse, who received a $1.1m humanitarian prize on Sunday, has accused President Jacob Zuma of destroying Nelson Mandela’s legacy of peace-building in her country.

“Thanks to Mandela, we completed a peace and reconciliation deal,” she said in an interview. “And now today, it’s a South African president, Jacob Zuma, who has brought shame and destroyed what our hero Mandela had built.”

“South Africans themselves want to tell him no, and he resists… [African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma] decided to send 5 000 soldiers to protect the Burundian people. And it’s African presidents, including her ex-husband, who refused to do that. This is serious.

“Zuma, he’s corrupt. And that makes a mockery of us. Quite frankly, it’s a mockery,” she said.

Burundi plunged into crisis a year ago when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to seek a third term in office, despite the two-term limit imposed by the constitution created as part of the peace deal brokered by Mandela.

Mandela’s efforts in Burundi

Mandela’s relentless efforts at peace in Burundi helped ended a civil war that left 300 000 dead and forced one million people from their homes in genocidal violence between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis.

Barankitse said her country has returned to a “situation of total fear” with 250 000 people again fleeing the country.

Armed opponents of the president in December attacked a military barracks. The government responded by sending troops into the streets who killed people indiscriminately and buried them in mass graves.

That level of unrest has stopped, but fears remain of a return to the genocidal violence that devastated neighbouring Rwanda in 1994.

Although opposition to Nkurunziza comes from both ethnic Hutus and Tutsis, the crackdown has targeted neighbourhoods with large Tutsi populations, while Tutsis in the army and the government are increasingly sidelined.

AU ‘corrupt’

An African Union plan to deploy peacekeepers was rejected by Nkurunziza, who branded the proposal an “invasion”.

Barankitse said the African Union’s efforts were hobbled by corrupt presidents seeking to cling to power themselves.

“How can you expect the African Union to help Burundi when it has so many corrupt presidents?” she asked.

“Do you want Sassou Nguesso in Brazzaville, or the president of DRC who wants to run again?

“They give us a mediator like Museveni. He’s now spent 30 years in power. They’re making a mockery of us and I’m convinced they’re going to come when it’s too late, like in Rwanda, and they’re going to cry crocodile tears.”

Peace prize

She was speaking in the Armenian capital Yerevan, where on Sunday she became the inaugural laureate of the Aurora Prize, created in memory of the Armenian genocide with the aim of honouring individuals who have risked their own lives to save the lives of others.

She received $100 000 to support her own work and a further $1m to donate to other charities who support her causes.

Barankitse is Tutsi, but sheltered her Hutu neighbours when the civil war erupted. When they were discovered, she was forced to watch their executions.

After that incident, she started caring for orphans and refugees, eventually caring for 30 000 children through her Maison Shalom and opening a hospital that has treated 80 000 patients.

The violence last year forced her to close Maison Shalom but she is now working with Burundian refugees in neighbouring Rwanda.

She is considered a moral voice of her nation, and is sometimes referred to as Burundi’s Mandela.

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