Tag Archives: “alexis sinduhije”

They don’t cook coups the way they used to.

While the dust has settled on the coup that wasn’t, opposition leaders here in Burundi are wondering if it’s just a matter of time before the other shoe falls.

FRODEBU spokesman Pancrace Cimbaye, speaking to AFP, said, “We think the government is trying to create a chaotic situation, enabling it to sweep aside all the politicians in its way.”

MSD’s Alexis Sinduhije, who I spoke to on Sunday, and who has recently been accused by the government of plotting a rebellion in the Rubuvu National Park (an accusation that was dismantled at length in the local newspaper, Iwacu), said simply, “We are waiting.”

There was a time when a good coup in Burundi could be counted on for family fun and entertainment. These days? You're lucky to get a couple of drunk, decommissioned soldiers trying to escape by canoe!

AFP reported on Sunday that Friday night’s security sweep netted 16 conspirators who have been charged with plotting to “destabilize” the country. The arrests took place with great fanfare on a public beach here in Bujumbura, played out in front of cameras for the state-run TV station. (According to a man I spoke to today, at least one conspirator tried to swim to safety.) Burundians might not be able to stage a coup like they used to, but they sure know how to stage the disruption of a coup’s planning.

This was, of course, less a coup d’etat than a pas de coup. After initial rumors of a failed military putsch swirled here in Bujumbura – threatening to upend the drunken bonhomie of salsa night at Le Kasuku – the government prudently shifted gears and retreated to less alarmist accusations, stepping back from charges that might have broader implications. According to the AFP report,

A foreign diplomat said the government originally planned to arrest a number of political opposition leaders suspected of being behind the mutiny. “But wiser heads prevailed and fortunately they decided to stick with the army.”

Good news, maybe, for opposition leaders (for now). It also provides a not too gentle reminder that this wouldn’t have been the first time the Nkurunziza regime cooked up a coup plot to silence critics.

All dressed up with no one to overthrow.

But long-simmering tensions in the army, should they erupt into a serious revolt, would open up, as one Burundian man told me, a whole new “box of Pandora.” Not for nothing was Sinduhije fearful that the Ministry of Defense would try to pin charges of fomenting an army rebellion on him, during the last wave of discontent in December. (“It would not be a scoop if I am arrested,” he told me, wryly, at the time.)

“We have a law which is privileging those on top, but nothing for the others,” a friend was telling me.

“They’re scared. The top of the army is scared,” he said.

That 2006 law promised housing and lifetime pensions to the widows of officers killed in the line of duty, while offering nothing to the widows and children of ordinary soldiers. This, understandably, has caused a great deal of discontent among the rank-and-file.

In fairness, these guys don't need too much provocation to begin with.

“The guys are angry because they are afraid if they die on the front, their families will be thrown out on the street,” my friend told me. “And that’s what is happening.”

He said a group of 36 widows and nearly 200 children have been living in tents outside of a barracks here in Bujumbura since October, protesting their ill treatment by the army. Most have houses to go to – relatives or friends upcountry – but they refuse to leave until they get fair treatment. “They’re protesting against what they think is injustice,” he said. They’ve already begun to form a political movement, and are planning to make a run on parliament in this summer’s elections.

“The problem with the widows is the country is refusing to face its past,” he said. “It symbolizes the sickness of this country. Nobody wants to turn back.

“It can be very dangerous for the country.”

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.”

Ballots, bullets and hand grenades: Burundi in 2010.

A Somali businessman tells me they found the guy behind last week’s grenade attack in Bujumbura’s central market. Seems he was an employee of Onatel – Burundi’s largest telecom company – but no word on what prompted him to methodically plant a grenade in a package, leave it with a trader, and melt into the crowd before the grenade went off. (This is the story I was told by my friend, which was also reported by the AFP.) Here’s the market in more peaceful times:

Bujumbura's central market

Maybe the perpetrator had a gripe with the jurassic pace of change at the state-run company. Maybe he was just pissed that he, like the rest of us, has hardly been able to send a single text for THE PAST THREE WEEKS.

The attack also came in spite of the heightened security around Bujumbura, after Somalia’s Al-Shabaab militants threatened Burundi and Uganda for supplying troops for the African Union’s fledgling peacekeeping mission in Somalia. (This “heightened security” includes a bunch of bedraggled police milling around the market, shaking down the odd tourist who, for example, snaps pictures like this one.)

A grave threat to national security

Whatever prompted the plot, grenade attacks are a sad and tragic fact of life in Burundi. (“When it was the war, this would happen every week,” my Somali friend tells me.) According to the AFP report (linked above),

A total of 616 people were killed by violence in Burundi in 2008, including 133 in grenade attacks, according to the country’s leading human rights group.

The UN Development Programme said there were more than 300 grenade attacks in Burundi in 2008.

I’ve been following the news from Burundi since April, and have read a number of reports of similar attacks. They usually stem from domestic disputes: quarrels between lovers, disputes over land. (“After a decade of civil war and years of daily violence, people have a tendency to resort to violence to solve their differences,” said one government official.)

The ready availability of hand grenades – both the relics of Burundi’s long civil war, and the spillover from neighboring Congo – has made them, according to the AFP, “the weapon of choice for everybody, from petty criminals to disgruntled lovers.”

“For a criminal, the grenade is convenient because it guarantees many people are killed in very little time and allows the perpetrator to vanish without revealing himself,” [local human rights group] Iteka chairman David Nahimana said.

The ease of anonymity – along with a chilling culture of impunity – makes it easy for perpetrators to disappear without a trace. In October, the Burundi Press Agency noted that “at least 10 grenades had exploded in several areas in the administrative centre of Ruyigi province [in the previous month] without any arrest being made.”

AFP reported on this “hand grenade epidemic” in June, noting that the weapons “go for around one dollar on the black market.” Despite a highly publicized disarmament drive which netted nearly 70,000 weapons in the past two years – including 14,000 in a single week in October – this remains a heavily armed country. Most estimates place the number of small arms at somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000. Securing those weapons remains a huge obstacle in the months leading up to this year’s presidential election.

Unfortunately, the seriousness of the government in tackling the problem remains…questionable. Already government-sponsored “youth groups” – militias to me and you – have been putting on shows of strength in rural communes. Opposition parties are retaliating. In November, AFP reported how

Burundi’s main opposition group (FRODEBU) massed youths at a weekend rally, warning that it was preparing to fight fire with fire after accusing the ruling CNDD-FDD of forming a militia ahead of polls.

One opposition politician I spoke to called FRODEBU’s bluff. “They’re using violent words to say we are going to fight,” he said. But it’s a widely known fact that the CNDD has the bulk of the weapons. And the ruling party has already proven its willingness to resort to violence to achieve its ends.

I’d been hoping to report on all of this when I arrived in Burundi last month. The militias seemed especially intriguing. But a friend – an American aid worker – advised me against it, calling it a “very dangerous” story. The biggest problem was that most of the militia activities – usually military drills performed in the street in the early morning hours, euphemistically described as “sports days” – take place in rural areas where security is most tenuous. (On a visit to the rural town of Bururi in mid-December, I apparently managed to sleep through a firefight that woke up the rest of the hotel.) In the collines, things happen. They happen to the poor harassed villagers who face the brunt of daily threats and violence; and they can just as easily happen to nosy foreign journalists who – let’s face it – aren’t exactly war correspondents to begin with. As a travel writer, I tend to spend my time doing things like this:

Reporting from the frontlines

and, occasionally, this:

Risking life and limb

and, abundantly, this:

Putting it all on the line

“Very dangerous” just doesn’t make me want to reach for my Moleskin.

After all, let’s not forget that the ruling party, CNDD-FDD, is itself a former rebel group, which came in from the bush just in time to win the 2005 election. (According to most commentators, it was the implicit threat of violence – that they would simply return to the bush and restart the war if they lost – that helped bring CNDD to power.) When President Pierre Nkurunziza returned from a trip to Rome in November – both to discuss the plight of the developing world at the World Food Security Summit and have a pow-wow with the Pope – he was asked by a local reporter what he thought of the disturbing rise in youth demonstrations. His deadpan reply – “the youth need sports” – sent a chill down more than a few spines of those present.

The youth need sports.

Which leaves Burundi in a very precarious place ahead of this year’s polls.

“To win against fear is not to take up a weapon,” Alexis Sinduhije, the controversial presidential candidate, once told me. “If you take up a weapon, you already have that fear yourself.

“If you don’t take up a weapon, you will win with the force of your ideas.”