COSSESSONA, union that arrested unionists

The two representatives of SYGEPEBU and SEPEDUC trade unions are jailed in Bujumbura. The origin of their imprisonment is the resistance of these unions to forcibly join COSSESSONA, the coalition of teachers’ unions. It’s panic among other affiliates…

The two unionists, currently in jail, never thought it would take on such a scale. Gérard Niyongabo and Antoine Manuma, respectively national representatives of SEPEDUC and SYGEPEBU thought they would discuss the monthly withdrawal of 500 BIF from the salaries of all teachers with the legal representative of COSSESSONA, Victor Ndabaniwe, shortly before their arrest.
According to some sources, Victor Ndabaniwe would have forcibly tried to make them understand that they must join COSSESSONA but the two unionists put forward another opinion favoring the “choice and will” to join a union. In short, freedom of association.

The boss of COSSESSONA union obliged them “solidarity at all costs”. “Ndabaniwe said that all teachers, members or not of COSSESSONA, must contribute for the benefit of everyone,” said a source.

There is no question of avoiding this good initiative, he explained. According to him, COSSESSONA also claimed benefits for all teachers without exception. He mentioned in particular the complaint and the struggle to end salary disparities of which the first victims were teachers. However, Gérard Niyongabo and Antoine Manuma believe COSSESSONA was not yet created during the time these complaints were lodged.

The petition: the straw that breaks the camel’s back

Cyriaque Manirakiza, the trade unionist imprisoned in Muramvya.

In this debate, Victor Ndabaniwe seemed to fail to understand why only SEPEDUC and SYGEPEBU do not want to join this coalition, which already has other 7 teachers’ unions as its members. The two remained uncompromising: “Membership in a union is personal and the permanent transfer of an employee’s salary is subject to the consent of everyone and certified by a signature.”
The debate continued but Niyongabo and Manuma, both of a hostile nature to any non-consensual decision according to sources, threatened to file a complaint before the court if COSSESSONA unilaterally withdraws the BIF 500 from teachers’ salaries.

Before this step, however, they wanted to know if they would not be wrong. “No one can and will be able to withdraw money from our salaries without our consent. Otherwise, all the measures provided for by law will be considered.”

This petition was launched on Monday, December 30, without distinction to teachers affiliated to the two unions, to those unionized elsewhere or non-unionized. Very quickly, the petition got several signatures. The representatives of COSSESSONA got furious at these representatives of SEPEDUC and SYGEPEBU determined to torpedo the project. Their persecution began shortly after.

Several arrests followed…

Antoine Manuma was arrested on Wednesday January 8 at around 6 p.m., not far from the office of Rutana province. At the same time, in Mwaro province, Gérard Niyongabo was arrested in Ndava commune.

Information gathered at the provincial capital of Rutana reveals that Antoine Manuma was arrested by the head of the intelligence services in that province. The latter allegedly explained to the accused that he was arrested over the complaint of Victor Ndabaniwe and Emmanuel Mashandari, president and vice-president of COSSESSONA respectively. He was then forcibly taken to the dungeon of Rutana police station.

Those who witnessed the arrest alerted his family. It’s a complete disarray and general panic in this family which had not yet recovered from the imprisonment of Antoine Manuma in 2015. Panic and despair once again, on the evening of April 8 especially that the reasons for this arrest are still unknown. A family member who wanted to remain anonymous expresses his astonishment: “It’s incomprehensible that Mashandari is among those who ordered this arrest. He had long been among Manuma’s close friends.”

According to their relatives, members of this family are still traumatized. In this family with 5 children, the youngest, currently sick, refuses to take medicines. “When his mother tries to give him drugs, he says that he cannot take them except when his father is there. It is the latter who usually used to give them to him”. Every morning during breakfast, he refuses to eat bread. “He demands that he be served by his father.”

The family’s second born, since his visit to Rutana police station, has not been able to manage his father’s imprisonment. “He cries every time he thinks of him”.
The two were taken to Bujumbura two days later. In the meantime, Cyriaque Manirakiza, the provincial representative of SEPEDUC union in Muramvya province was arrested on Monday January 13.
This Maths teacher at Shombo Communal High School in Muramvya commune and province is currently detained at Muramvya police station. Unlike the other two trade unionists, he was accused of “undermining the internal security of the state”.

A crisis dating from a long time…

According to information from members of the two teachers’ unions, the crisis dates from 2017. In response to the food crisis that occurred in some communes of Kirundo province, following the drought, COSSESSONA unilaterally withdrew from all teachers, a sum of BIF 2000, in March and April.

At the time, teachers seemed to understand this because of the compassion for this natural disaster. The misunderstanding did not take long. Following the “lack of transparency” in the management of the amount collected, various trade unionists lodged complaints. “We asked for the total of the amount collected, the expenses made and the balance that remains,” said one of the SEPEDUC representatives.

However, COSSESSONA was unable to shed light on the complaints. 2017 went by and 2018, too.
Unilateral direct debits returned in the months of February and March 2019 for “social assistance” as COSSESSONA explained.
It was a monthly withdrawal of BIF 2500 at the source during the two months according to our sources.

In particular, the coalition of teachers’ unions (COSSESSONA) put forward the need to support teachers who find themselves “obliged to seek treatment abroad.”
Such an operation sparked revolt among the teachers, for the most part those who are not members of the coalition, with in mind those of SEPEDUC and SYGEPEBU unions. In response, SEPEDUC filed a complaint in September 2019, at the level of the Ministry of the Civil Service. The complaints were however not followed up.

SYGEPEBU in turn sent a correspondence to the same ministry at the beginning of October with the same complaints. In response, the ministry told them that joining a union is voluntary and personal and the contribution is consensual.

The declaration by COSSESSONA, in November 2019, of a monthly withdrawal of BIF 500 on the salaries of all teachers was perceived as a sword that is turned in the wound, says one of the representatives of SYGEPEBU.


CNIDH action appreciated

M. Nkeshimana

According to Egide Nkeshimana, vice-president of the Union of Professional Education Teachers (SEPEDUC), teachers welcome the initiative of the National Independent Human Rights Commission (CNIDH) to organize a meeting with COSSESSONA.

On Tuesday, January 14, this commission brought together the two unions (SEPEDUC and SYGEPEBU) and this coalition to find a solution to the dispute through a dialogue.
For him, CNIDH found that there were gray areas in the deduction operation of BIF 500 from teachers’ accounts without their consent.

As for the imprisonment of the three trade union members, the SEPEDUC vice-president asked for their release: “If they have committed an offense, they can appear before the court freely.” This union member also deplores the fact that these three people are not accused of the same offense. He specifies that Cyriaque Manirakiza, the trade unionist from Muramvya province is accused of “undermining the internal security of the State.”
With these arrests and imprisonments, Mr. Nkeshimana says that teachers fear that they might be arrested.

Reacting to requests for contribution to a social emergency, this trade unionist does not mince his words: “It is up to the Head of State to declare a social emergency so that we can contribute. We don’t know if COSSESSONA replaced the government.”
Thus, he asked that the signing of the petition by teachers who don’t wish that BIF 500 be withdrawn from their accounts be made in complete safety. “We ask that no teacher be arrested for signing the petition anymore.” CNIDH has set up a commission to work on this issue. Its report is expected late this week.
Caption: M. Nkeshimana

“No dialogue in progress”

Emmanuel Mashandari

According to Emmanuel Mashandari, deputy-president of COSSESSONA, there is no negotiation in progress between the two unions and his coalition. “They went on social media and wrote anything.” He rejects the idea that COSSESSONA would have withdrawn the complaint.
Asked about the arrest and imprisonment of Cyriaque Manirakiza, representative of SEPEDUC in Muramvya, he says that he has not been informed. “We only lodged a complaint against these two who are found here in Bujumbura.” For him, it is necessary to await the decision of justice.


Explanations by Célestin Nsabimana :”Union issues are resolved through negotiations and consultations”

Célestin Nsabimana, president of the Confederation of Burundi Trade Unions (COSYBU) expresses himself on the imprisonment of trade unionists, joining a union, withdrawal of a given amount at the source, intimidation against teachers who are not members of COSSESSONA,…

What do you say about the imprisonment of the three union members?

It is unfortunate that trade unionists are imprisoned especially on complaints from other trade unionists. This is what hurts.
Bad enough, the imprisonment took place while we were in talks to find a solution to the dispute.

What do you know about this conflict and the different protagonists?

It is in connection with the subscription that the Coalition asks its affiliates. We wanted to bring together all the parties. I had been contacted by the president of COSSESSONA and the president of the free confederation of trade unions of Burundi which is also a member of this coalition. Moreover, the two unions which are not yet members of COSSESSONA namely the Union of Professional Education Teachers (SEPEDUC) and SYGEPEBU contacted me. We had scheduled a meeting for January 15, 2020, at 8:30 a.m. to harmonize different points of view.

What happened?

First, I myself support the COSSESSONA initiative. Solidarity is a very good thing. Some unions have agreed to join on conditions: they need to know how this solidarity initiative will be implemented. How will the contribution be withdrawn, paid and managed? And they are right.

On our side, we had even gone further. We proposed that the first step be to get everyone to adhere to this idea and then expand it to other sectors, health, agriculture, etc. and finally move towards health solidarity for all workers. As it is in other countries, we could create pharmaceutical cooperatives and this, within the framework of the solidarity economy.
But the dialogue was bypassed. Surprisingly, three trade unionists were imprisoned.

What did you do after?

I called the president of COSSESSONA. He told me that these unionists are trying to fling mud at them on social media and that they have insulted them. He also told me that he and his vice-president Emmanuel Mashandari lodged a complaint with the judicial police.

What was your reaction?

I replied: “It is your most basic right, but we were in negotiations. I advise you to suspend the complaint and continue talks with them. If they insulted you, it’s individually. Here, I must thank the Independent National Commission for Human Rights (CNIDH) for its involvement in the resolution of this conflict. Under its leadership, we exchanged in transparency with leaders of COSSESSONA who agreed to start the process of withdrawing the complaint.
I await the response of Emmanuel Mashandari, vice-president of this coalition who had promised to get involved.

Among the points of divergence, there is the question of withdrawal of contribution at source. Is it legal to do this operation on someone’s salary without their consent?
An employee’s salary is sacred. It must be touched with their written and signed consent. Even in our union contributions, those who are especially in the public service sign, put their names, service number and amount to be contributed. The salary is individual. For it to be touched, the person concerned must be consulted individually and give a favorable opinion.

What about joining a union?

It is voluntary. Any member, any affiliate does so without forcing. For contributions, they give their authorization for the union to benefit from their contribution.
What is your comment on this phenomenon where workers’ rights defenders have other unionists imprisoned?

It’s too bad. Before, it was the state services which perhaps arrested trade unionists. Now things are going differently. It is unionists who are imprisoning other unionists. It is really surprising. Union issues are resolved by negotiations and not by the police. And that’s what we started.

Some teachers say they are intimidated by administrators to join COSSESSONA. What do you think?

It is deplorable. I ask the administrators not to get involved in trade union issues. They represent the employer. This interference by certain municipal or provincial directors of education in union affairs must be prohibited.

What do you ask specifically for the trade unionists?

We demand their immediate and unconditional release. COSSESSONA coalition has the right to file a complaint. But, is it really a serious offense for people to be detained? Couldn’t they respond freely to the summons?

I don’t think the three unionists were going to flee or leave the country because of this complaint. If I read the Criminal Code correctly, detention is an exception. There is the presumption of innocence.

Story written by Edouard Nkurunziza & Rénovat Ndabashinze and translated into English by Pierre Emmanuel Ngendakumana