Monday, May 11, 2015

How to Understand Protests in Bujumbura, Burundi's Capital.

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In an era in which massive income inequalities have produced global ghettos, protests by young people are becoming the order of the day. Yet, in a tiny country called Burundi, the protests are seen as causing the "imminent collapse" of the country. "Why is this the case?" one might ask.

With a per capita income of $264, Burundi is the "hungriest" country on the African continent. Despite the country's long history of civil war and even genocide, it is very rare that it makes international headlines. Certainly never for the right reasons.

For those of us who research Burundi, it is mostly a silent endeavor. Outside the continent, chances are that very few people have heard of it. Among those who have heard of it an even smaller percentage can identify it on the map.

The current crisis started on the 25th of April when the ruling party announced that Pierre Nkurunziza the current Burundian president would run for another term. Nkurunziza has been in power for ten years. However, his party claims that the first five years do not count. This is based on a technicality that is a result of Burundi's 13-year long civil war that started following the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye in 1993.

Torn up by ethnic divisions between the Hutu and the Tutsi, Burundi has been consumed by violent conflict for at least 80% of its post-colonial existence. During that period, it was led by three Tutsi dictators from the same village (Micombero, Bagaza and Buyoya).

Resistance by Hutu masses always triggered revenge attacks by the ruling Tutsi elites. Sometimes the violence spurned into massacres. At least once, it turned into a near-genocide that nevertheless, failed to capture international attention. "The people died but the hills formed an information border that prevented the outside world from finding out," Burundian friends who survived these killings often told me. Its fair to say that the majority of Burundi living in the hills remains vastly isolated from the outside (modern) world.

So much to say about Burundi's history but one has to limit themselves to a particular historical timeline. What is crucial to anyone who wants to understand Burundi is that history has an uncanny tendency to influence current events. Burundi is no exception.

So the ruling party in Burundi argues that since Nkurunziza was not elected by popular vote in 2005, his first term does not count. However this is a dubious interpretation. While Nkurunziza was indeed elected by parliament for his first term, the Burundian constitution also equates parliament with the "voice of the people." Article 7 states clearly that, "“[t]he national sovereignty belongs to the people who exercise it, either directly by way [voie] of referendum, or indirectly through their representatives.” Thus, Nkuruniza and the claims by the ruling party largely lack legal basis. That said, the Constitutional Court in Burundi has ruled in Nkurunziza's favor further highlighting the fragility of institutions in that region of Africa.

Protesters on the other hand are hoping that they can prevent Nkurunziza from pursuing a third term. Initially, protests were largely peaceful; however, large protests have a difficult time remaining disciplined and ideologically coherent. As of now, protesters have begun engaging in acts of violence--some targeting security officials. In some other cases, protest mobs have targeted (mostly Hutu civilians) who they accuse of being members of the Imbonerakure militia. In fact, a young man who also happens to be a dual French and Burundian national was roughed up almost to the point of death by protesters who accused him of being an Interahamwe.


Franco-Burundi kid roughed up by mobs who wrongly accuse him of being a member of the Interahamwe (Hutu) group

The ethnic labeling by protesters while quite extreme emerges out of what some have described as the "sociology of the protests." In particular, protests are organized by Tutsi youth belonging to the neighborhoods of Musanga, Mutakura, Ngagara and Cibitoke. Most of the other zones in Burundi remain largely peaceful or at least devoid of violent protests.

This is to say that ethnicity as a factor in Burundi's crisis is very real. However, that is not to say that everything is about ethnicity. It is well known that the ruling President enjoys support from both Hutu and Tutsi camps, especially among the very rich. While his militant struggle was supported by Hutu youth, once in power Nkurunziza has mostly pandered to both Hutu and Tutsi elites. 

I believe he struck the following agreement with Tutsi oligarchs. He would protect their wealth and they would allow and even facilitate the emergence of a Hutu oligarchy. In other words, Nkurunziza's main accomplishment is in creating a culture of tolerance between the Hutu and Tutsi elites. However, the masses (on both sides) remain largely frustrated and therefore easy to manipulate.

What is clear so far is that Nkurunziza will not back out of his decision to pursue a third term. The question then is how should the opposition respond? How should the international community respond?

Protests have already caused the death of at least 18 people. The youth in Bujumbura continue to barricade their neighborhoods as I write this. With smoldering tires and smoke billowing over the sky in Bujumbura, there is no indication that the Bujumbura opposition will stop protests either. Hence the current deadlock.

I believe that the best way out of this crisis, at this stage, is to hold a free and fair elections. I do not mean this facetiously. Burundi, even under the most difficult circumstances, actually has a proven history of holding fairly transparent elections. If you recall, it is election organized in 1993 just a few years after large-scale massacres in 1988-9 that brought the first democracy into power. What is important here is to put in place structures that will ensure free, fair, competitive and transparent elections. In the event that an election happens, the government has relayed their willingness to accept whatever verdict the people give.

Some steps that would ensure free and fair elections include nominating well-known opposition activists to be part of the national electoral commission. Moreover, it would be crucial that the votes are counted at the ballot station with the population as witnesses. This would help stamp out ballot stuffing.

Otherwise, given the tenuous condition that Burundi is in, there is need to restore order which might require temporary regulation of protests. The lack thing you want in such a massively poor country is the erosion of public order. Anarchy would provide a void that would aid the "entrepreneurs of violence" to cause havoc.

Importantly, no single politician is so important that the country should be sacrificed on their behalf. Burundians must keep in mind that politicians come and go but countries must remain. Without that idea of preserving their motherland, Burundi risks to escalate into another potentially endless cycle of (ethnic) violence.

Another issue is that of refugees. Why are they fleeing? BBC Kirundi service did some great investigative reporting among the refugees in camps located within Rwanda. The constant refrain is that its a mixture of fear, hunger and rumors. As I have stated before, the rumor mill can cause tremendous anxiety among rural communities. Radios must be encouraged (by both the government and international actors) to report responsibly and avoid inciting ethnic hatred through the perpetuation of rumors. That said, the government MUST unconditionally allow the media to operate.

Over and over again, women from the camps stated that they had "fled because they saw others flee." This is really an issue that could be resolved with a strong and reputable media. Building such institutions will take some time but require close collaboration with the donor community. The hunger issue also relates to the neglect of Burundi by western donors. Even though its the hungriest country in Burundi, it receives relatively very small levels of aid in comparative terms. At the very least, donors must help Burundi  to achieve food security.



(a map comparing aid to Rwanda and Burundi over the years. Notice the rapid expansion of aid to Rwanda since 2002).


Another important issue that merits discussion is the role if any that propaganda is playing in this conflict. What is clear and perhaps worrisome is the interest that Rwanda has in the conflict. For those on social media, this can be seen in how well known Kagame supporters enthusiastically "support" Burundian protesters. They do this by starting Twitter hashtags such as #Sindumuja and #stopNkurunziza. Ironically, these same people support Kagame's third term in Rwanda. Not surprisng even Kagame has been drawn in the conflict stating that Nkurunziza should consider stepping aside.(Kagame on Burundi).

The reality between Rwanda and Burundi is very complicated. Because of history, many important officials close to Kagame (particularly his wife and security detail) grew up in Burundi. They maintain cross-border contacts with their kin. In the same way, many members of the Nkurunziza's ruling party grew up in Rwanda. Because of that, ethnic sympathies that extend beyond the border cannot be ruled out. 

However, at least for the last ten years, both Nkurunziza and Kagame seemed to have a great working relationship. In fact, the relationship seems to have soured after the discover of 40 bodies in plastic bags on the shores of lake Rweru, which separates Rwanda from Burundi. It was widely reported that the bodies came to Burundi from Rwanda, something which the Rwandan regime did not take kindly. There are some who think that Kagame's support Burundian protesters out of the need to retaliate. (Bodies found wrapped in plastic in lake bordering Rwanda and Burundi)

What seems to be clear is that tensions are on the rise. As of yesterday, Burundi made the decision to expel a high ranking Rwandan CEO whom they accused of espionage. Moreover, the Rwandan government through its foreign minister has given weight to the rumors that Interahamwe are currently active in Bujumbura. No one can fully predict how the tension will play out especially if Nkuruniza continues for five more years.

Lastly, some have called for the international community to slap sanctions on Burundi. Already, Belgium has terminated or suspended aid. However, as some have suggested, it is unhelpful to do so. Burundi is a very poor country, even by African standards. It is unclear how more sanctions or termination of aid would make the situation better.

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