A land of milk and honey.

I am living in Burundi, which is almost funny to say, because if you’d stumbled across this blog at home or at the office or on whatever Apple pleasure device you call your own, you might have felt a sense of ambiguousness, or amorphousness, at what you’re reading. I have used my little digital platform to talk about Angolan oil wealth and Ugandan homosexuals and the heartbreaking sincerity of letters from Malawi, but I haven’t always had a lot to say about Burundi itself – apart from observing that it is a useful butt for jokes that begin with, “If you think [insert impoverished country here] is poor…”; and a comedic foil for anyone hoping to make light of a particularly dire situation (i.e., “At least we’re not in Burundi!”)

Well I, for one, am in Burundi, along with eight million or so other people, most of whom, if my months here are any indication, are probably poor; most likely illiterate; guarded toward their neighbors; skeptical of their leaders; not at all unkind; worried for their children; unsure when the next meal will find them; hopeful, impossibly hopeful; and generally glad to be tilling their soil and drinking their banana beer and making do in whatever thrifty, belt-tightened way, if only there could be a few good leaders and a small dose of good luck to help this country back on the right track.

A good deal of the song sounds something like, 'MSD, MSD, MSDeeeeeee!'

I was at a campaign rally a few weeks back for the Mouvement pour la Solidarité et la Démocratie – Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, or MSD – led by the charismatic and controversial Alexis Sinduhije. The party was opening a new permanence – a permanent office, I suppose – in Bururi province, and during the obligatory flag-raising ceremony a strident, militaristic tune filled the air. Few in the crowd knew the words to the MSD anthem, and I could hardly blame them: the song carried on for six or seven minutes. Between the murmuring and lip-synching, I asked a man beside me to translate the refrain.

“When MSD gets there, the international community will recognize that we are again a country that will rise above our problems and again be a land of milk and honey,” he said. It was, admittedly, not the catchiest tune. But you sort of get the point.

The crowd lip-synchs its support

Say what you will about Burundians, but they sure know how to open a permanence in style!

This is a proud and anxious year for Burundi, which is holding its first direct presidential elections since its 12-year civil war officially ended in 2005. (The 2005 polls brought in a new parliament, which in turn chose former rebel, gospel singer, and football afficionado Pierre “Peter” Nkurunziza to lead the country.) Even after the formal peace was brokered in 2005, the Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL), the last and most recalcitrant of the Hutu rebel groups, continued to wage a small-scale war in the bush. They formally agreed to lay down their arms in 2008; last April, they finally carried through on their promise. Thus 2010 marks the first year since the civil war began in 1993 that no armed factions are at loose in the countryside, and that the government – ostensibly, at least – includes all of this country’s dissonant voices (43 officially recognized political parties, at last count).

Burundi’s past experiences with elections have not always ended well, and have always been surprising. Beginning with the election of the Tutsi nationalist Prince Louis Rwagasore as prime minister in 1961 – won at a time when Burundi’s colonial overlords in Belgium had shifted their allegiances to the country’s Hutu majority – Burundian elections have always defied by the conventional wisdom. Calling for elections in Burundi has, in effect, always been a precursor to defeat.

The lesson for Buyoya: don't hold an election unless you're sure you can fix it

In 1993, when Tutsi strongman Pierre Buyoya called for elections – prompted by a wave of post-Cold War reforms across the continent, and signaling the end of 30 years of Tutsi military rule – he was upended by Melchior Ndadaye, an ethnic Hutu whose brief experiment with reform ended with his murder at the hands of Tutsi extremists from the army. When Ndadaye’s Front pour la Démocratie au Burundi (FRODEBU) party, wayward custodians of the transitional government which brought the civil war to an end, called for elections in 2005, it was the Conseil National pour la Defense de la Démocratie -Forces pour la Defense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD) – a rebel group that threatened to return to the bush should they lose – which surprised everyone with a sweeping electoral win. FRODEBU, full of wounded pride, retreated to lick its wounds, and CNDD-FDD suddenly found itself, despite a complete lack of governing experience, at the helm of this tiny, troubled nation.

Incredibly, these men would prove unfit to govern

You can argue that the experiment was doomed to fail – that a party raised and founded on a culture of violence would find the tricky business of politics to be less palatable than their preferred gun-barrel diplomacy. But the Burundians I’ve spoken to all describe those first months as a time of great promise. The war had ended; the corrupt old guard of FRODEBU – tainted by years in power, however neutered – had been swept from office; and the new ruling party – running on a platform of human rights and good governance – had stirred hopes of a fresh start for the country.

The honeymoon was over before it started. Rights groups quickly uncovered a campaign of repression and political violence being carried out at the hands of the ruling party; and the corruption that, to some degree or other, had always played a part in Burundian politics, soon took on the momentum of a runaway train. Describing the disillusionment that set in once the first hopeful signs faded, one restaurant owner in Bujumbura told me, “It was like a dream had been taken away.”

The presidential jet: If found, please return to this address

The scale and audacity of the crimes was shocking, even to the most cynical observers. The presidential plane was sold under bizarre circumstances shrouded in sleaze and secrecy; and the free-for-all became so brazen in recent years that the anti-corruption watchdog OLUCOME, citing $30 million in stolen revenues in the first half of 2009 alone, called graft “a way of life” in Burundi.

“It is the first time that people have stolen more than $30 million at one time,” said Gabriel Rufyiri, the head of OLUCOME, when I met him last week. “That’s the first time in our history that such an amount was stolen. It was the first time that a presidential jet was stolen in view of everyone. And all the criminals are there, and they’re becoming stronger and stronger. They are becoming stronger than the state. We see that corruption is becoming more endemic than before. The corruption is being legitimized by those who were supposed to fight against it.”

Rufyiri, like most outspoken critics of the government, has received numerous threats on his life. He has been imprisoned, according to his own count, “at least five times since 2002.” Twice he has had to flee the country.

In the five years since CNDD-FDD took office, a culture of repression and impunity has come to dominate the political scene. And yet people are oddly hopeful – that particular, African hope that finds even the darkest clouds to have a silvery lining. While the threat of violence remains high around the elections, most believe the prospect of a return to civil war are slim. Nearly 300,000 lives were claimed by that lost decade; the country is only just getting back on its feet.

“The Burundian people are not ready for more war,” a pastor told me.

Today I met a man, Pacifique, who has spent the past 10 years living in Antwerp. He was sitting beside me at Aroma, the café, complaining about the heat (the first time I’d every heard an African pining for the cold of Europe). It was his first visit to Burundi in more than two years, and the difference to him was palpable.

“The mentality is changed,” he said. “In Bwiza” – one of the city’s poorest, liveliest quartiers – “people are doing some trade and commerce. They are talking about some things with politics they were afraid to talk about before.”

Pacifique’s daughter, a placid, pot-bellied little girl, came down the sidewalk and joined us. She planted a kiss on her father’s cheek and unfolded some schoolwork for him to look over.

“I don’t believe in all this politics, Hutu and Tutsi,” he said. “We speak the same language, we are the same people.”

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