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An African Voice Is Silenced

The FBI will help Burundi investigate the murder two weeks ago of one of the country’s most prominent anti-corruption activists. Ernest Manirumva was vice-president of OLUCOME (the Anti-Corruption and Economic Malpractice Observatory), arguably Burundi’s most important NGO. He was found dead in his home on April 8 from knife wounds to the head. Both his home and office had been ransacked.

Manirumva, who also served as vice-chairman of Burundi’s regulatory authority for public procurement, had recently received death threats. He and his team in 2006 uncovered the fraudulent sale of the presidential jet, leading to the finance minister being fired. The next year he exposed double billing of oil imports, resulting in the central bank chief being jailed and another finance minister fleeing the country. That scandal, a U.S. agency said, caused donor countries to delay funds, reducing the government’s ability to pay salaries.

After Manirumva’s killing, OLUCOME and others demanded an international investigation. The Burundi Tribune reported that on the night of the murder, unidentified men stole documents from Manirumva’s office in the city. The deputy police chief said “the killing was not an ordinary crime during a robbery.” Amnesty International said, “Local media and human rights defenders reported that up to eight men were looking for documents in Ernest’s possession which uncovered government corruption.”

Reuters reported that FBI personnel based in Nairobi will travel to Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, for the investigation.

Burundi, with about 8.5 million people, occupies a landlocked area in Central Africa the size of Maryland. Since independence from Belgium in 1962, its history has been a series of brutal regimes, political assassinations and massacres. In 1972, the minority Tutsi group killed an estimated 300,000 Hutus. And in 1993, the Tutsi-dominated army assassinated the new president, starting a decade-long civil war between the military and Hutu rebels that killed an estimated 500,000 people and forced hundreds of thousand more to leave their homes. After a partial peace deal, the U.N. deployed peacekeepers in 2004, leading to successful elections the following year.

The consequences of the turmoil have been staggering. Burundi has an average life expectancy of 48 years, one of the lowest in the world. The chance of not surviving past the age of 40 is 38% (in Singapore, it’s 1.8%). Less than half the youth are in school — child-soldiers as young as 10 are common and legal — and the adult literacy rate has just dropped below 60%. The U.N.’s Human Development Index ranks Burundi 172 out of 179 countries.

The U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office said: Some 68% of the population live below the poverty line with income of less than US$1 per day, and per capita income is estimated at $104, well below the pre-war level of $151, and much lower than the current sub-Saharan average of $536.

Corruption is everywhere — from senior government officials demanding large kickbacks on procurement tenders to low-level civil servants demanding petty bribes for services, licenses, or permits, according to the 2009 Index of Economic Freedom. “Corruption is present in every area of life,” it says.

Ernest Manirumva had taken a stand against corruption. That’s why he was murdered. The FBI can help find his killers. But bringing them to justice will be up to Burundi’s leaders.

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