Burundi today, or why people take to Bujumbura’s streets

The following article is a guest post by Dirk Gillebert Every day, new reports on Burundi come in. What is happening in the capital, what is the government doing, and what is the international community saying about it? Sometimes, we get a heart-breaking story from the refugee camps in Rwanda and Tanzania (for instance about the cholera outbreak that has already cost more lives than the events in Bujumbura). In the media, the protests are mostly portrayed as a justified struggle of the people, firmly based on the indignation over the violation of their constitution and Arusha Peace Agreement. And that is it. But is it really that? Is that what makes thousands of young Burundians take to the streets, defying government orders, intimidation, and death threats? This piece will not pretend to paint a comprehensive picture of today’s reality in Burundi, nor will offer an in-depth analysis. The main goal is to give some perspective beyond the hot topic that is the third mandate and the government’s handling of the protests. Burundi is the second poorest country in the world with almost the highest prevalence of chronic malnutrition (in 2010, 66% of 2 year old children suffered from stunted growth). The GDP grows barely quicker than the population and it remains to be researched where that growth ends up. It ranks 159th out of 175 in Transparency International’s corruption index, worse than DRC, Uganda, Paraguay, Tajikistan and other notorious ill performers. And it is not getting better. One of the most dangerous realities in Burundi is that of the simmering land conflicts. In a mainly agrarian economy where most citizens live from subsistence farming, having a sufficiently large plot of land is a vital necessity. People have fled the country in waves during the many crises in the past fifty years. Stuck in refugee camps or in exile elsewhere, they massively returned over the past ten years either by choice or being forced by their host countries. These returnees more often than not find other people with equally legitimate claims to the land that was theirs when they left. Meanwhile, with an average birth rate of six children per woman, the family plot gets divided at every turn of a generation. This makes for millions of desperate people trying to scrape a living together for their families which in turn puts enormous pressure on society. Meanwhile, the government apparently intends to turning the country into a one party system, rather than building a sustainable future for its people by, say, developing its industry and service sectors. For years, security forces intervene when opposition parties try to organize meetings. A divide and conquer strategy is in place to break formations that are getting too powerful. Many opposition strongmen have been jailed or forced into hiding or exile. I would not want to downplay the opposition leaders’ own role in their demise, as they let themselves be played or even sometimes broke the law. However, it can be argued that the restricted space in which they were forced to manoeuvre qualifies as an extenuating circumstance. As for the Burundian people, it is impossible to know for sure what most of them think. One does not easily speak out when potentially armed youth militia and the secret service are intimidating people with opposing views. Hundreds of extrajudicial killings registered by human rights organisations have gone largely unnoticed by the Burundian justice system. And the party puts on a good show. SUVs distributing bags of rice in the hills during weekends, the president literally building the country during community working hours, playing football and praying with the people… They are quite convincing. So why not get that party membership, especially as it is an essential requirement prerequisite to get a real job. Taking huge shortcuts, one can say Burundian culture requires a man to build or buy a house, financially secure his future and then find a woman to start a family with. If you do not have the former, it is all but impossible to get the latter. As a Burundian girl, you only fully reach womanhood when you have a family. So as a hungry youth with no prospects of improvement, what are your options really when they are trying to force a five year status quo – at best – down your throat, regardless of the constitutionality of the third term? On the bright side, we can accredit the government with at least two points of progress. First off, it managed to retain a relative form of peace for almost ten years after a thirteen years long civil war. However, they are jeopardizing this by violating the Arusha Peace Agreement. Secondly, the government has created enemies from all social, ethnical and economical sides, thereby strongly reducing historical divisions in Burundian society. Although, many commentators describe the current struggle as an ethnical one, this rhetoric does not (yet) stick, which proves that Burundi has changed. Dirk Gillebert is an observer of the Great Lakes region. He lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 2010 to 2011 and in Burundi from 2012 to 2014.

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