By Sebastian Hicks
Burundi is a country you may have understandably confused with a number of other places beginning with ‘B’: Benin, Burkina Faso or even Brunei. But of all the B’s, Burundi is perhaps the most interesting and problematic in the hive today. Following an unsuccessful coup in the capital Bujumbura in May, the country has been plunged into a confusing and turbulent time. But the situation is as puzzling as it is severe; the press seems to be unsure whether to call it a crisis or simply a dilemma. The problem lies in the convoluted nature of the competing factions. It is often the case that one is searching for a Caesar and Brutus in these kind of political maelstroms.
President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a controversial (and perhaps illegal) third term may be a good place to start. His Brutus: the military officier Godefroid Niyombare who attempted a woefully under-dramatic takeover last spring. Nkurunziza could only watch the drama unfold from above as his plane from Tanzania was unable to land at the rebel-controlled airport — nothing worse than being stuck at passport control when you are trying to prevent your own overthrow.
But Niybombare hasn’t been seen since — to call it a battle between two sides seems to over simplify the situation and also make it less interesting. One might prefer to view it as a circle of ambitious Brutuses, or perhaps Brutii, surrounding a circle of Caesars of varying importance whilst Cassius looks confusedly at an upside down map of Rome desperately trying to find the centre of the action. With this frame in mind, we can begin to understand how this Burundian drama may well become a tragedy of the people.
Who’s who and why do they all begin with N?
In lieu of our Roman trio, we find a Burundian triumvirate of men made up of Foreign Minister Alain Nyamitwe, Armed Forces Chief Prime Niyongabo and of course President Nkurunziza himself. Nkurunziza’s authoritarian leadership should not be taken lightly and anyone trying to give him the run around won’t get far; jogging in groups is banned as it has been deemed a tacit method of political dissent. Although high cholesterol may be a long-term consequence of this for Burundians, in the short term it presents obvious difficulties for the transfer of information or lack thereof, and sets a precedent of subservience between the Burundians in the capital and the government.
Prime Niyongabo represents an important role in the Burundian leadership and despite suffering an assassination attempt he continues to lead a highly divided military leadership who have both opposed and supported Nkurunziza at one time or another. The police have become an ever more prevalent and powerful force under this duo: Manirakiza, a lawyer who defended hundreds of young men arrested by the police in Musaga, was in his turn beaten and jailed for 24 hours by the police.
In addition, the Imbonerakure (the government’s youth militia) play a decisive role in intimidating Burundians living in rural areas. They often harass and torture before handing people over to the Secret Service, which is responsible for most human rights abuses. Just last month, a driver employed by the chief of East African lawyers board Me Dieudonné Bashirahishize was killed in Kibenga in the south of Bujumbura on his way home.
Our final player, Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Nyamitwe, divides his time between accusing Rwanda of supporting rebels within Burundi and disagreeing over the ongoing conflict in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It is here that the internationalised situation becomes Shakespearean in its melodrama which plays out on the unlikely stage of the transnational bus services between the two nations. Bus services have slowed down dramatically and are regularly searched to find those associated with the rebels such as the National Forces of Liberation (NFL) who may be traveling back and forth from Rwanda.
When the agendas of these three figureheads harmonize, it can result in disastrous consequences for the people on the ground. There is little alternative to this kind of opportunistic governance.
Where is everybody else?
Rwanda is the most well-placed country to express strong opinions about the issues in Burundi. Its agenda is unclear, but the cultural and ethnic links between the two countries have a long history which highlights Rwanda’s vested interest. Rwanda differs immeasurably from a distracted Ugandan leadership which has remained fairly silent on the Burundian topic during important elections, and has often accused Imbonerakure of housing former DRC combatants who have not faced trial. It has also criticized the Nkurunziza’s third term and the government’s treatment of Rwandan travellers generally.
The East African Community and the African Union Peace and Security Council have both spoken out about the ongoing violence and have threatened to send a peace-keeping mission. The United States has come down decidedly on the side of Rwanda, and has banished Burundi from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act which reduces import duties on American products. Whilst it may seem a clear cut case of Burundi versus the rest of the world, the tangential agendas of various international actors makes them equally dangerous to the stability of Burundi.
Where are the people?
When Brutus opposes Antony and speaks to the people, we see that the master orator seizes control of the masses. But in the case of Burundi it is less clear what either the leadership or the divided factions (and there are many) of the country actually want. Democracy and freedom may be high on the philosophical agenda, but it is unclear whether this is a priority for Burundi over and above effective and coherent governance. The Burundian people are in the hands of a government which only came to power after an abysmal 30% election turnout. Young Burundians have expressed confusion over the lack of information, and the situation is likely to become increasingly heated. One Burundian spoke of “automatic gunfire and grenade explosions” every night and that he found more information in international media than in local Burundian outlets.
The convoluted and divided opposition faces violent riposte from the government; armed groups in the capital were given 6 days to surrender their arms last month and the resultant conflict has left several opponents and police officers dead. Indeed, it is particularly worrying that government officials often find the flamboyant vernacular that brought Brutus to the fore in such turbulent times. Nkurunziza stated that violent opposition would be “scattered like flour thrown into the air” — a shame that such melodious phrases are not used to advocate peace, unification and a Burundian national agenda.
As one of Africa’s youngest leaders, Nkurunziza has a huge weight to bear and his life has been one of tragedy. Of his 6 siblings, 5 have died in conflict, his father died during ethnic violence during the 1970s, and during the civil war he himself escaped the massacre of 200 people on his university campus. What such a leader should have learned from his early life is the futility of violent response. The complexities of the political situation in Burundi as it develops, read as a country requiring control and stability but attacking the very people who can make such control a reality.
Featured Photo Credit: “President of Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza” , Afrique Education