Crisis in Burundi: Carnage on the ground and chaos in the media

Roughly 3 months after the contested re-election of President Nkurunziza for a third, arguably unconstitutional term at the helm of the state, the political crisis and violent repression have grown chronic. Throughout the past months – starting as early as in April – cyclical outbursts of violence, including numerous killings and abductions, have spread fear and terror in the country’s capital Bujumbura and parts of rural Burundi. Alongside certain peaks – for instance after Nkurunziza’s declaration for a third term bid, his re-election, the killing of his ’eminence grise’ General Nshimirimana, and many other moments, the continuous level of insecurity has marked the country’s most recent history. All the while, the Burundian crisis has bifurcated into two levels of confrontation – the actual, real one, and its virtual companion. While tit-for-tat attacks, usually marked by a more vast violence from the government side and its  counterparts on the opposition side, have blossomed in many boroughs of the capital, social media has increasingly become an additional battleground, with front lines as difficult to identify as on the ground. Observations from Bujumbura underline this reading.

The United Nations and various human rights bodies speak of, meanwhile, a several hundred of deliberate killings following myriad confrontations between (mostly police) security forces (helped by the government-friendly ‘imbonerakure’ militia) and opposing insurgent groups, most of them based in the so-called ‘quarters contestataires’. In addition, earlier rumours over armed rebellion, allegedly arising from circles around the earlier putschist army factions (and according to Bujumbura with Rwandan support), appear to materialise with late October’s uprising in Gitega province. In Bujumbura, both state security forces and opposition members are left in wild guesses about whether of not this new movement may actually gain momentum and whether of not it was linked with the CNARED, a kind of unofficial ‘shadow-government-in-exile’ (including ‘frondeurs’ who left Nkurunziza and long-standing opposition figures. In the meantime, two main dynamics reign over Bujumbura: first, brutal repression of various types (killings, arbitrary detentions, torture, etc.) is committed by pro-government forces (mainly police, intelligence services, and ‘imbonerakure’). In boroughs like Ngagara, Cibitoke, Mutakura and others to a lesser extent, every onset of the night is literally accompanied by more or less heavy shooting, explosions, and hardly identifiable armed squads looking for potential opponents (but often indiscriminately addressing impartial parts of the population). The ‘insurgents’ in turn, have grown increasingly organised and appear to be well-armed, allowing for numerous brutal attacks on policemen or other pro-government actors. While it is likely that the ‘government-side’ killing toll is higher, also these opponent are responsible for numerous killings. In the meantime, public life in Bujumbura is more and more affected. Even in Bujumbura’s city centre, streets are deserted as early as 6pm every night. Many people are unable to commute from their daily jobs to their homes and nervous tension is a bodily experience in town – including for visitors. This has not been quite as bad around 6 weeks ago.

But the war that happens online (in particular on twitter – check #Burundi and other hashtags – but also on Facebook and elsewhere) is another chapter. Reliable information is as scarce as never, even renowned international media report contradictory stories, and the independent local media scene remains (with the exception of Iwacu) largely shut down with state media controlling the floor. In social media, the cleavage between opposition is arguably harsher than in reality. Massive accusations, exaggerations, and disputes is the everyday between diehard government supporters (perhaps most eminently Nkurunziza’s spokesperson Willy Nyamitwe, brother to the current foreign minister) and opposition protagonists (see for instance certain civil society leaders or diapora activists). This is a problem, and it has not yet helped the actual suffering of Burundians. Online, the existing tensions are rather exacerbated than tamed. Inflammatory speech, often built on a repertoire of ‘ethnic’ cleavages has become a key driver of Nkurunziza flag bearers (notwithstanding the president himself has mixed parents). But also on the opposition side, the Hutu-Tutsi dichotomy is increasingly mobilised to point at discrimination and a threat of genocide. However, a view from the ground suggests different patterns. Senior police officers from both groups express implicit criticism against their government and a wish for reconciling speech. Opposition members voice more and more concern as to whether the narratives employed by the famous, often diaspora-based human rights defenders actually help or rather ossify the differences and cleavages within the political contestation. In that sense, the virtual counterpart to the bloody crisis in Burundi has become – in many instance – a war over principles and mutual accusations. At the same time, many of the less twitter-versed human rights activists and opposition politicians bear the brunt of both government propaganda and detached diaspora activism. But also factual truth suffers: while the government basically blames all attacks against its forces as ‘terrorism, sponsored by foreign forces’, the twitter activists sometimes blur the thin line between truth, rumour, and its interpretation. The alleged attack against a funeral convoy on October 31 is a telling examples. A member of the funeral convoy (having, for its personal position and history, absolutely no need to protect the government from accusations), confirms that it was not the convoy targeted but a bus driving alongside. While this does not make the attack less heinous, it shows that – as far as we have come with the Burundian crisis – truth has become a barter, a merchandise in a parallel media war.

Burundians, especially while facing an intensification of violence in the past weeks, deserve better. They deserve protection instead of aggression from a government largely seen as falling apart while increasing brutality. But they also deserve genuine action from opposition actors, including a focus on essence rather than sensationalism.


2 Responses to “Crisis in Burundi: Carnage on the ground and chaos in the media”
  1. Abi says:

    Burundi so called elite is failing the people whose aspiration is only peace….whether the government or the opposition, no one is looking for a real solution. Mutual accusations and endless fighting wont help

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