Tag Archives: burundi

On a lighter note from Burundi.

A full month after it went to press, it’s dawned on me that I never posted a link here on my humble blog to my first story for The New York Times. A teaser follows:

AS rumors of a failed coup attempt swirled in the muggy evening air of Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, no one seemed inclined to let them dampen the mood.

This was salsa night at Le Kasuku, an eclectic French- and Belgian-inspired restaurant and club. And if the day’s cares in this war-weary nation seemed a bit too much to bear, you wouldn’t have known it from the hips that swiveled across the dance floor.

An incongruous scene? Perhaps, but a Burundian one all the same. Throughout the civil war that waxed and waned in this tiny central African republic for more than 15 years, a spirit of defiance seemed to infuse daily life. “During the war you never knew what the next day would bring,” said a young woman holding a cocktail at Kasuku. “Our generation was not afraid like our parents’ generation. We had to live.”

To read the rest of the story, click here.

Out of the frying pan, into Burundi.

It was not a pretty weekend in everyone’s favorite, dysfunctional, nominally democratic Great Lakes autocracy. (Whoops! Second favorite.) The fallout over Burundi’s disputed elections last week began as soon as the official results were announced on Friday, with President Pierre Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD party claiming a convincing 64.03 percent of the votes. The former rebel group, FNL, was a distant second, with just over 14 percent.

On Friday, the opposition parties “expressed outrage at the official results and demanded the resignation of the national electoral board.”

“Our position is crystal clear: we are still demanding the May 24 elections be invalidated and we also want the electoral commission to resign because it is not independent,” said FNL leader Agathon Rwasa.

He was speaking in the name of 12 opposition parties at a press conference held immediately after the annnouncement of the official results.

International observers, as I reported last week, were generally pleased with the outcome, if only because it wasn’t half as farcical as last month’s Ethiopian polls.

Meanwhile the United Nations’ independent expert on the human rights situation in Burundi, Akich Okola,

interviewed observers in Burundi to evaluate the elections. He said as far as he can see, the results reflect the will of the people. But he added that the necessary evidence might not be available to him.

“This is the third democratic elections that this country has held,” said Okola. “I was privileged to observe the second democratic elections in 2005 and this third series in this democratic process I think is indicating that Burundi is slowly maturing into a democratic state.”

Of course, that slow maturation process won’t come without some growing pains. And things quickly became painful this weekend, when violence erupted in Bujumbura during opposition protests over the contested results.

The opposition National Liberation Forces (FNL) said people began demonstrating in Bujumbura’s Kinama quarter when they found “several ballot boxes filled with balloting papers, some of them not counted.”

“The people protested and the policed intervened,” said party spokesman Jean-Bosco Havyarimana, adding that senator Petronie Habanabashaka and 50 party activists were taken in by police.

A police spokesman denied that the senator had been arrested, but a local official said that elsewhere in Bujumbura, things quickly began to spiral out of control. According to administrator Emile Ndayarinze:

“Election commission agents were collecting election material used in Monday’s vote. A large crowd arrived and started hurling stones at these agents and police fired in the air to disperse the crowd,” he said.

This was followed by a “real riot — the Kinama market was looted and was closed in the afternoon, police and civilians were wounded and a dozen ringleaders were arrested,” he said.

The violence escalated on Sunday, when a local leader from the opposition Union for Peace and Development (UPD) party was killed by a grenade blast in Muyinga province.

“At 16:00 GMT the UPD’s deputy chair in Buhinyuza commune, Asumani Nzeyimana, was talking to some people when someone in police uniform threw a grenade at them. It exploded and caused him fatal injuries,” said [party spokesman] Chauvineau Mugwengezo.

“Nzeyimana succumbed to his injuries while six other party activists were seriously wounded and are in hospital,” he said of the Sunday incident.

The spokesperson also said another local party leader narrowly missed death on Sunday after two men in civilian clothing shot at him.

“In both cases these are political crimes linked to the elections and ordered by the regime,” he said.

Ruling party officials denied any political motives behind the attacks, but Mugwengezo insisted both men “were investigating the fraud that characterised last Monday’s local elections, notably the ballot box stuffing we’ve seen everywhere.”

On Monday, in the campaign season’s latest twist, FNL leader Agathon Rwasa and four other presidential candidates announced they were withdrawing from this month’s polls in protest over the results of last week’s elections.

“I came to withdraw my candidacy in the June 28 presidential poll because I refuse to take part in a fraudulent election whose results are already decided,” Rwasa told AFP at the electoral board office.

This is troubling news, since despite the optimism and assurances of international observers last week, the political situation in Burundi appears to be rapidly deteriorating. Let’s not forget the high level of risk involved in this sort of brinkmanship: both the ruling party and the main opposition party (CNDD-FDD and FNL, respectively), are former rebel groups who spent more than a decade fighting in Burundi’s disastrous civil war, and who are believed to be armed to the teeth. UPD – another prominent opposition party – is itself a CNDD-FDD splinter group, widely considered to have stockpiles of arms. And even minor political players, like FRODEBU and MSD, have drawn discontented, demobilized rebel soldiers into their ranks. The widespread clashes in the weeks leading up to last week’s elections, however minor, have illustrated just how volatile the political climate is in Burundi right now. Let’s hope the gains of the past five years aren’t undone in the days and weeks ahead.

Burundi parties trade accusations over poll results.

As the week comes to a close, and President Pierre Nkurunziza’s ruling party revels in its landslide victory on Monday, mixed news out of Burundi on just how CNDD-FDD wound up with 70 percent of the votes.

Opposition parties rallied to protest the election results.

As I reported earlier this week, a coalition of eight opposition parties released a statement on Monday, urging the electoral commission “to take a wise decision and annul the elections and organize other communal elections on 28 June, the same day as presidential elections.” They alleged widespread intimidation and fraud, as well as a number of irregularities surrounding the ballot boxes.

Speaking on behalf of the protesting political parties, Chevineau Mugwengezo, spokesman of the Union pour la paix et le developpement (UPD), told IRIN: “Some ballot boxes were taken home and only returned [to the polling stations] the next day.”

Electoral bodies, I’m sure, alleged that this was only for safe-keeping.

A possibly tainted vote being cast this week.

FNL spokesman Jean-Bosco Habyarimana, according to the same IRIN report, “said postponing the communal poll twice gave the ruling party time to corrupt and intimidate voters.”

“How can you explain that on a given hill, a party like the FNL’s score does not even get to the number of its committee members?” he questioned.

Meanwhile Onesime Nduwimana, the spokesman for the ruling party, told IRIN on 26 May that voting had been closely monitored by local and international media, observers and representatives of political parties.

“In minutes from polling stations, co-signed by representatives of political parties without any reservation, no single irregularity was reported,” Nduwimana said.

EU observers said they were satisfied that the election generally met international standards.

Burundians patiently queued to be intimidated and harassed on Monday.

“In the 95.6 percent of polling stations monitored by the EU observers, they assessed that the voting system was very good or good. And in 42.9 percent of polling stations, the observers judged that the vote-counting was very good or good,” Renate Weber, head of the EU’s observers’ mission, told Reuters.

It wasn’t entirely clear how less-than-good vote-counting in 57.1 percent of polling stations constitutes a generally free and fair election, but T.I.A., I guess.

Burundi’s election body, meanwhile, told the opposition parties to back up their claims of fraud with hard evidence.

Supporters rallying behind the flag of the MSD party, in February.

“You don’t ask for the cancellation of an election for the sake of it,” Prosper Ntahorwamiye, the electoral board spokesman, told AFP on Thursday.

“You have to give tangible and irrefutable evidence that there is fraud that puts the results to doubt.”

Observers from a local group, the Coalition of Civil Society for Monitoring the Elections (COSOME), seemed likewise satisfied with the outcome.

“Our observers reported cases of voting officials who entered with ballot boxes and we also saw the power cuts in certain voting stations, but there were political agents and observers with torches,” said the group’s president, Jean-Marie Kavumbagu.

COSOME said the election had generally gone well despite some hitches, including voting stations opening late, ballot paper shortages, party officials trying to influence queuing voters and inadequate voting booths.

“But I must say that on the whole, the election went well and these irregularities were not of a nature that could affect the result of the vote,” Kavumbagu said.

With four days to lodge a formal protest – with proof to back up their claims – the ball is now in the opposition’s court.

Burundi kicks off marathon election season.

A few months ago, when I was fruitlessly shopping around proposals for a story on pre-elecion violence in Burundi, an editor at a major American daily came back to me with the following comments:

there are so many wonderful and important stories to be told, but we have extremely limited resources, as you know.
so we are trying much harder to be a newspaper that explains the world to our audience here in a way that feels relevant to their lives.
in terms of foreign stories, that means the bar is much higher. but there are many ways to do this.
for example, the kenya wind story was about a global issue. that would still work for us. but the burundi story doesn’t quite help
me understand something larger, something that translates into an issue or issues important here. does the u.s. figure into the burundi
story in any way? are there larger regional or continent-wide issues that this story could help us understand?

I will admit that my first reaction upon reading this email was less than charitable; so, too, was the second, the third, the fourth, and pretty much every reaction since. To be fair: the budgetary concerns and limitations of American newspapers in 2010 is hardly news, and that alone would have been, in this reporter’s opinion, grounds for a polite rejection.

But the idea that a story has to translate into something that readers can feel to be “relevant to their lives”? Really? Haven’t Americans’ onanistic media-consumption habits gotten us into enough trouble already? Can’t a story have a certain merit even if – or precisely because – it doesn’t matter to American lives at all? Do we really need more stories about African rape victims selling hand-woven baskets in Nordstrom and Macy’s, thanks to the plucky American woman who started a foundation to heal the lives of the tragic lost African masses? Really?

I racked my brain for different hooks.

Dear Editor,

In 2008, Americans went to the ballot box and elected their first black president. Now, this year, nearly 10,000 miles away, Burundians, too, will be going to the polls to elect a black president.

Sadly, this did not fly. Even more sadly: the above rejection was, in fact, one of only two responses I got to the nearly two dozen pitches I sent out. (The other, priceless rejection informed me that a certain left-wing publication had correspondents in Africa “who cover this sort of story for us.” Yep, the Africa-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket beat is pretty well covered these days.) Though I blogged my little heart out during my months in Burundi, my forays into Serious Journalism were all for naught. In the end, it was just the usual round of travel stories that made it to your neighborhood newsstand.

Undeterred by my failures, unmoved by the calamitous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the ominous ash cloud still blowing its way across Europe, the audacious people of Burundi have decided to go ahead and hold an election anyway – a bunch, in fact, stretching from now until September. (The ever-helpful folks at Reuters have provided us with a brief primer here.) So for a few glorious days, the world will take notice of little plucky Burundi – unless the elections result in widespread violence, in which case we’ll pay attention for a few weeks.

These have hardly been uneventful times in what Reuters describes as “a coffee-producing nation of 8 million.” Reports of intimidation, threats of violence, and clashes between members of the various parties’ “youth groups” (“militias” in Burundi-speak) have been trickling in since last year. In March the International Crisis Group sounded the alarm bells over the risks of violence during the election season.

Intimidation of opposition parties in Burundi and the mobilisation of youth wings across the political spectrum could undermine elections this year in the central African nation.

Francois Grignon, director of the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) Africa programme, said the group had documented acts of harassment and intimidation by police and the ruling party’s youth wing against opposition parties.

“We are not saying that the country is at a risk of war. But it is at risk of an escalation of violence which could lead to the loss of lives during the period of elections,” Grignon told Reuters in an interview this week.

Perhaps a greater threat to the prospects of a peaceful election has been Burundi’s culture of impunity. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch called on Burundian authorities “to make clear to all political parties and their supporters that no one is above the law.” This appeal coincided with the publication of “We’ll Tie You Up and Shoot You: Lack of Accountability for Political Violence in Burundi,” a study of political intimidation and violence in the months leading up to the elections (which you can download here). According to HRW:

Most of the violence has involved the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) and its closest competitor in the upcoming elections, the National Liberation Forces (FNL).

“With a few exceptions, police have failed to carry out thorough investigations, and no one has been prosecuted for the vast majority of these incidents,” HRW charged.

“If the police and judicial authorities don’t investigate and punish politically motivated attacks, perpetrators will continue to believe they are above the law,” said Georgette Gagnon, HRW Africa director. “The situation is already extremely tense, with a number of party militants armed and ready to resort to violence to intimidate their rivals.”

The ruling CNDD-FDD party promptly responded by expelling HRW researcher Neela Ghoshal just days later, claiming with a straight face that she was “expressing views likely to be prejudicial to government institutions.” (Quick reminder, guys: HRW are the ones who are prejudicial to government institutions. The IMF and the WB are the ones who coddle up to them.)

As the election season heated up, Burundi’s top contenders took to the campaign trail, as News24 reported:

President Pierre Nkurunziza and former rebel leader Agathon Rwasa conducted high-octane presidential-style campaigns for the local polls, relentlessly criss-crossing the landlocked country, one of the poorest in the world.

The 45-year-old born-again Christian president spared no effort until the very last minute of the campaign on Tuesday evening, rallying crowds with his characteristic blend of song and dance.

“Work and pray,” he shouted from the rear platform of his campaign truck and wearing a pair of trendy sneakers, a tee-shirt and a baseball cap with the ruling CNDD-FDD livery.

“We will win this one. And if you still want me, in 2015 and 2020… But if you can find somebody who is better than me, then vote for him and I will leave,” he told supporters in Bujumbura of the June 28 presidential vote.

The President downplayed accusations that the ruling party’s Imbonerakure youth wing, and their counterparts from the National Liberation Front (FNL), were ratcheting up their intimidation tactics ahead of the polls.

“Those are not skirmishes we’re talking about. That is a story made up from scratch to create a false impression outside the country,” he said.

“What we see from time to time are isolated cases; the police have kept such incidents in check and any young people who commit crimes are handed over to the courts, something that was not the case before,” he insisted.

Nkurunziza then added, “No, really. Seriously. I mean it.”

Meanwhile, Burundian civil society groups reported an increase in the routine death threats and harrassment they’ve grown accustomed to in recent years.

Burundi’s vibrant civil society has come under huge pressure in the run-up to elections that start Friday and are seen as a key test of the war-scarred nation’s stability and democratic credentials.

Be they anti-corruption whistleblowers, members of groups against domestic violence or campaigners for prisoners’ rights, people have been dogged by death threats and anonymous calls and trailed by unknown individuals.

Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, head of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and the Rights of the Detained, recounted how the threats against him had grown more specific.

“We knew that we were to be eliminated through a car accident. We condemned it and wrote to the media about it,” he said.

Meanwhile Gabriel Rufyiri, head of the anti-corruption watchdog OLUCOME, witnessed firsthand the subtlety of Burundi’s intelligence services.

In April, the vehicle of the OLUCOME chairman Gabriel Rufyiri was knocked in broad daylight outside the capital Bujumbura by a truck driven by a soldier.

Even if no one has proven the incident was intentional, many rights group activists here are convinced it was.

“Since 2003, we have been living under stress. We live in uncertainty,” Rufyiri said. “But you know… we cannot abandon this work because of fear.”

Perhaps most ominously, Bujumbura witnessed angry clashes between police and more than 200 demonstrators two weeks ago, during protests against the killing of an activist for the opposition MSD party of Alexis Sinduhije.

Against this tense backdrop – and the broader backdrop of the country’s recently ended civil war – it is a small miracle, perhaps, that Burundians peacefully went to the polls yesterday. Early returns favored the ruling party – so much so, in fact, that the opposition was soon crying foul.

“Opposition parties categorically reject the provisional results announced Tuesday by the electoral commission because of the mass fraud orchestrated by the ruling party which has marred this vote,” said a joint statement.

The document was signed by eight of the country’s main opposition parties, including the former rebel National Liberation Forces (FNL) led by Agathon Rwasa which is seen as the regime’s most serious challenger.

Rwasa, whose rebel group only last year laid down its arms to join the political arena, dismissed the results as “impossible” and threatened to pull out of presidential and parliamentary polls due in June and July respectively.

“We do not accept these results and the commission should take this into account. Otherwise, we will refuse to make fools of ourselves by taking part in the rest of the elections,” he told AFP.

Burundi’s 2005 elections, as the story notes, “were considered largely free and fair, but the string of polls that started Monday are the first in which all of the country’s political forces are represented.” In a sense, Burundi has turned a page: though Great Lakes Tutsis will perhaps always live in fear of ethnic bloodshed during periods of high tension, most observers agree that the greater likelihood of violence in Burundi stems from fierce competition for votes among the various Hutu-dominated parties. How the allegations of fraud play out – and how the opposition responds to the inevitable stone-walling by CNDD-FDD – will go a long way toward determining what the months ahead have in store for Burundi.

City of angels.

“When they killed the president, I had nowhere to go, because I am a Tutsi,” Maggy said, smiling a wide, self-deprecating smile.

We were sitting three weeks ago in the office of Maison Shalom, in a sprawling compound in the provincial capital of Ruyigi, and Marguerite Barankitse – “Maggy” to just about everyone in Burundi – was telling me about the war. In 1993, after the assassination of President Melchior Ndabaye, Burundi was in a state of panic. The killing of the country’s first democratically elected Hutu president sparked a wave of reprisal killings. Tutsis were being targeted all across Burundi. In Ruyigi, thousands fled the city for a nearby military garrison, hoping to be protected by the Tutsi-dominated army.

But Maggy refused to join them. “No, I am not a Hutu or a Tutsi,” she told them. “I am a woman, and the noble vocation of a woman is to give the life.” A former teacher, she had adopted seven orphans from both ethnic backgrounds. “I cannot abandon my Hutu children,” she said.

So she stayed in her home and rallied friends and neighbors – Hutu and Tutsi intellectuals – to stay behind with her. “Don’t go. Stay here. We will protect each other,” she told them. As the violence intensified, Maggy and her neighbors sought sanctuary in the home of Ruyigi’s bishop. “I was thinking it was a sacred place,” she said to me. For the first time, her voice began to crack.

After a wave of bloodletting against Tutsis, the Burundian army responded. Their reaction across the country was swift and brutal. When the soldiers arrived at the bishop’s home in Ruyigi, they felt none of Maggy’s solidarity with their Hutu neighbors. She watched them kill indiscriminately – old men and young mothers, infants and small children. “In front of me, they killed all those friends that I protected,” she said to me, dabbing at the corner of her eye. When the killing stopped, 72 Hutus were left dead.

Years later, Maggy was oddly calm as she told her story. “Today, when I talk about that, I am not so angry,” she said to me. “It can seem to a foreign person that I am cynique.” But Maggy’s incredible journey began that day in the bishop’s house. She watched the killings and refused to be overcome by anger and despair. “Since this day, my life has changed completely,” she said to me. It was on that day that Maison Shalom was born.

A nurse at the Rema Hospital, built by Maison Shalom

What began as an orphanage, with Maggy adopting the 25 children whose parents were killed in the bishop’s home that day, has turned into an ambitious project for rural development in Ruyigi. Maggy has built two guesthouses, Villa des Anges and Frieden Guest House, staffed by orphans (“Maggy’s children,” as they’re known in Ruyigi). She’s built a massive, modern hospital complex, which attracts patients from across Burundi, and from across the nearby Tanzanian border. And she’s built the Cité des Anges – the “City of Angels” – a complex that houses a movie theater, a library, a computer center, a hair salon, a tailor’s atelier de couture, and an auto body shop – all staffed by children and young adults orphaned by AIDS and war.

Burundi's second movie theater, courtesy of Maison Shalom

The need in Burundi is overwhelming. UNICEF estimated that there were 600,000 orphans living in the country in 2007 – a staggering figure for a nation of just 8 million. Maggy takes them into her “House of Peace,” feeds them, schools them; by Maison Shalom’s estimates, she has helped more than 30,000 orphans since 1993. (A video about her work can be found on YouTube here.) Most of her businesses turn a profit; occasionally there are contributions from abroad, or awards like the prestigious Opus Prize for faith-based humanitarian work, which cut her a $1 million check in 2008. She is a shrewd businesswoman, too: land owned by Maison Shalom has been leased to a Burundi Commercial Bank, and to a compound housing staff for the UN.

Maggy is a proud, defiant, outspoken woman. She recalled with relish the time she jabbed a finger in the face of a minister, accusing him of putting divisionist politics ahead of development. “You don’t prepare the new generation, but you prepare the rebellion,” she said to him, laughing heartily as she told the story.

Maggy in the chapel she built on the grounds of Maison Shalom

Despite her Christian faith, she refuses to look at Maison Shalom as a charity. “I want the poor people to be able to take care of themselves – not to become beggars,” she said. She frequently debates the role of the international community in Burundi, which sacrifices long-term development for short-term goals. “The mistake the NGOs make is only to distribute,” she said, “not to teach people to be independent. It is very dangerous.” She thought the UN spent too much time giving conferences in Bujumbura: the speeches, the presentations, the endless buffets. And the NGOs, who put up their placards all around Burundi, touting their good deeds. “It’s a sham,” she said, with a swipe of the hand. “Behind these placards, you will see there is nothing!”

She wanted Burundians to seize the reins of the country’s development. “We’ve become very lazy,” she said, “because we know the North will come and build something if we don’t.” She knew self-reliance was the only answer to Burundi’s problems, and that development was the only way to build a lasting peace.

“If the father can’t find a job, if a mother can’t afford to find a doctor for her child,” she said. “You can’t have peace when young people can’t study. You can’t have peace when the people are hungry.”

Prices for medical procedures at the Rema Hospital, at Fbu 1,200 to the dollar. Note the $13 c-section.

For 17 years she has built her House of Peace, believing that Maison Shalom is “a ship, conducted by God.” She knows its work will continue without her.

“Maison Shalom is a dream,” she said. “Maison Shalom is a message for all humanity to stand up and fight for dignity without violence, with love. I am sure evil will not take the last word.

“Our job as Christians is not to have a good car, to go to the moon. It is to love.”

Olivier Simbakwira, waiting for a meeting with Maggy

It’s all fun and games UNTIL HIPPOPOTAMUSES don’t actually ATTACK!

WARNING: The following contains photos of a not at all GRAPHIC or BRUTAL nature, as a pod of potentially LETHAL but actually harmless hippopotamuses descend on a group of swimmers at Bujumbura’s Saga Plage to scare them but wreak absolutely no unspeakable CARNAGE. Viewer discretion STRONGLY unnecessary.

As I wind down these last few days in Burundi, I’ve begun to say my sad farewells to Saga Plage, Bujumbura’s happiest little plage. Last week, I hit the beach with Jean Marie and Lucio, two Congolese friends studying at Hope University here in the city. It was their first visit to the beach, after more than a year of studying in Burundi. Scraping by in their little two-bunk room, hoping to make the most of whatever money they could scratch up from family members or odd jobs in Congo, they rarely had the time or money to hop on a bus for the 5km trip to the beach. Mostly they spent their time at the university library, or at the Centre Culturel Français, scribbling in their notebooks and talking about poetry, family, life.

Lucio, in the room he shared with Jean Marie and another Congolese friend in Bwiza

Jean Marie, rifling through paperwork from the university

I had met Lucio on a bus barreling along the Uvira road after a visit to the beach in December; he was on his way back from the DRC, and had hopped on the bus at the border. Since then he and Jean Marie have become as much a fixture in my Burundian life as morning coffee at Aroma, punishing workouts in my sweatbox of a gym at the Galerie Alexander, and that little kid with no legs and flippers for hands who hops around with a box between his teeth, soliciting passersby on the Ave. Prince Louis Rwagasore.

So we spent the afternoon shrugging off storm clouds and swimming in the lake, unaware that DISASTER would be totally avoided, but still kind of conspicuous in a creepy, near-miss sort of way.

Lucio zipping past the Brarudi brewery

Your intrepid reporter - briefly glimpsed in the mirror - with one of the UN's massive BINUB compounds on the right

Inspired by 'Jersey Shore,' your correspondent tries the blowback look

Saga Plage is generally safe and pleasant, as African plages go. None of the killer methane bubbles that have been known to asphyxiate swimmers in Lake Kivu; none of the aggressive touts who molest you along the Kenyan coast. Gustave, the legendary killer croc who is said to have devoured hundreds of hapless villagers around Lake Tanganyika through the years, only puts in the rarest of appearances around Buja’s beaches. (You can check out the BBC’s recent Gustave documentary here.)

So having scanned the waters pre-swim and detected no signs of danger, I didn’t think twice about splashing around and giggling like a little schoolgirl in the tepid water. Jean Marie, whose submariner skills were on full display when we spent Christmas in Rumonge, ducked under the surface and swam far out to shore, his little head bobbing darkly in the distance. Lucio rocked a mean doggy-paddle. It was a beautiful day.

After an hour, with a cold wind whipping across the water, I decided to towel off. Jean Marie joined me on the beach, where a malnourished, three-legged mongrel hopped across the sand. Only then, with Lucio bobbing like a piece of driftwood offshore, did something dark, ominous, and vaguely hippo-like raise its hairy maw above water. I gave Lucio a panicky little hand signal to return to shore, not long before a Volvo-sized hippo rose to the surface, water spouting from its massive nostrils. Lucio scrambled back to the beach; I scrambled for my camera. What you see below will not at all SHOCK and AMAZE.

A hippo ear - or a small wave - in the center of the frame

The horror! Something that sort of resembles part of a hippo, center-left

It cruised along like a patrol boat before vanishing beneath the surface. Minutes later it reappeared, showing off the sort of hairy, bug-eyed face that only a hippo-mother could love. We stood there on the beach having a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God moment. And if our myopic friend could have spotted our shivering bodies onshore, he might have been thinking, “There, but for the grace of God, goes lunch.”

Happily un-eaten on Saga Plage

Hippo-less times at Bora Bora

Just when you thought it was safe to leave Burundi…

Having spent the past three months getting neither shot by bandits nor maimed by flying hand grenades; having dodged Documentation – Burundi’s dreaded secret police – and suffered no more than a bit of sunburn after an epic session of doggy-paddling in Lake Tanganyika, it would seem like the perfect time to pack up shop, offer a few last merci beaucoups, and retreat to the cool, politically stable, corruption-free, soon-to-be-fully wired hills of Rwanda to catch my breath, before taking the plunge into the lawlessness of eastern Congo.

Sunburn, flaky skin, and other things you won't find in the State Department's latest travel advisory

But yesterday’s news out of Kigali, where simultaneous grenade attacks claimed at least one person and injured more than two dozen others, has been just the latest in a series of sobering stories from Rwanda in recent weeks.

Reuters reports that the three explosions went off within a half hour of one another; according to what I’ve picked up from the blogosphere, they occurred at the Nyabugogo bus station, the Rubangura building, and the restaurant Chez Venant. The latest update from AFP confirms that “two suspects have been detained in relation to simultaneous grenade attacks in the Rwandan capital Kigali that killed one person and injured some 30 others.”

“Two suspects were apprehended, they belong to the Interahamwe militia,” police spokesman Eric Kayiranga told AFP, referring to the extremist Hutu militia responsible for Rwanda’s 1994 genocide….

“Those who commit these kinds of crimes want to sow chaos, intimidate people and kill the genocide survivors,” Kayiranga said.

“We are continuing the investigation and questioning the two suspects,” notably on whether any link exists between the blasts and the August presidential election, he added.

For my Rwandan and Burundian readers, a Kinyarwanda-language article appears at igihe.com, and also offers some pics of the aftermath, including those posted below.

Kigaliwire, an ever reliable source of chatter out of Rwanda, notes that

there have been a number of grenade attacks in Rwanda in recent months. In July, 2009 an attack injured 2 girls at the genocide memorial in central Kigali. In September 2009 four people were killed and 52 injured in an attack in Karambo village, 60 miles south of Kigali. In addition there were three unrelated grenade attacks in December 2009 and another in January 2010.

I’ve reported in the past how hand grenades are a popular form of score-settling in the Great Lakes region, due to their nauseating ubiquity. In Rwanda, though, it’s difficult to dismiss the political dimensions behind such attacks – especially when they occur at the Gisozi memorial, or are used to silence witnesses in gacaca trials, as is so often the case. A grenade attack in Rwanda always seems to require an added level of scrutiny.

Or maybe it just seems that way, since the raison d’etre of the iron-fisted Kagame government remains the threat of Hutu barbarians at the gate. Yesterday’s attacks come against a backdrop of increasing tension and repression ahead of August’s presidential elections. Earlier this month Human Rights Watch published a report urging the government to end its intimidation of opposition parties. “Opposition party members are facing increasing threats, attacks, and harassment in advance of Rwanda’s August 2010 presidential election,” said a statement accompanying the report, published on February 10.

In the past week, members of the FDU-Inkingi and the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda – new opposition parties critical of government policies – have suffered serious incidents of intimidation by individuals and institutions close to the government and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). One member of the FDU-Inkingi was beaten by a mob in front of a local government office. The attack appeared to have been well coordinated, suggesting it had been planned in advance.

“The Rwandan government already tightly controls political space,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These incidents will further undermine democracy by discouraging any meaningful opposition in the elections.”

The Rwandan government and the RPF have strongly resisted any political opposition or broader challenge of their policies by civil society. On several occasions, the government has used accusations of participation in the genocide, or “genocide ideology,” as a way of targeting and discrediting its critics.

Notable is the case of Victoire Ingabire, a controversial politician who returned to Rwanda last month to prepare her candidacy for this year’s election, after spending 16 years abroad. An ethnic Hutu, she quickly found herself on the wrong side of the famously crotchety government and, according to HRW, “has been widely condemned in official and quasi-official media and described as a “negationist” of the genocide for stating publicly that crimes committed against Hutu citizens by the RPF and the Rwandan army should be investigated and those responsible brought to justice.”

Ms. Ingabire: Voted 'Most Likely to Get Pushed Down a Flight of Stairs By an Innocently Whistling Paul Kagame' in her high school yearbook

Two weeks ago, in a case whose details remain contested and ambiguous, Ingabire and her driver were attacked inside a government office as they waited to register their upstart political party.

Police spokesman Supt Eric Kayiranga said Ms Ingabire had jumped the queue at the local government office in Kigali, Rwanda News Agency (RNA) reported.

He said a group of local men attacked her because they were angry that a person who “negates the genocide” could be served before them.

The BBC also reports that he said this with a straight face.

The row over Ingabire has, predictably, taken center stage in the Rwandan press. The New Times – which is to President Kagame as a finely tuned 1733 Montagnana cello is to Yo-Yo Ma – notes in its typically understated manner that Ingabire has “earned herself the most vicious distinction for being the first and only person to publicly espouse a revisionist and Genocide denial position, in relation to the Genocide against the Tutsi, on the Rwandan territory.” The paper also took umbrage with an interview with Ingabire in The East African, noting with a dark sense of foreboding:

Reports that Ingabire’s interview with The East African was masterminded by some intelligence organizations within the region, with a long history of using journalists as agents and assets, if true, do not augur well for regional stability.

The suspicion that this is all an elaborate conspiracy, as opposed to just an earnest bit of reporting on a controversial figure, offers a revealing snapshot of how the Kigali junta views the role of the press in an ostensibly free society.

Which isn’t to say The East African can be excused for its own unbiased approach. “The big question now,” write Charles Kazooba and Esther Nakazzi, “is whether Kagame is ready to tolerate political opposition, or he will continue to use the past as a pretext to crack down on legitimate political dissent.” Sure, it’s not quite as comically one-sided as The New Times’ onanistic View From Kigali; but “tolerate” and “legitimate” are pretty loaded words, given the context.

Still, the interview makes for a fascinating read. On some points, Ingabire comes across as a reasonably sane and level-headed opposition figure. She says,

Kagame’s government is not ready to accept opposition. This is why they sent young men to beat me and my aide two weeks ago – which was a true reflection of the lack of democracy and freedom of expression in Rwanda.

This treatment extends to all opposition politicians. Kagame must accept that there is an opposition that needs political space. We are not enemies. Instead, he uses the genocide ideology against us. The genocide took place 16 years ago and now is the time for democracy.

These are points that, in various diplomatic and civil society circles I’ve encountered in both Rwanda and Burundi, are rarely disputed by anyone whose name doesn’t rhyme with “salami.”

But Ingabire’s relationship to the FDLR remains ambiguous. Some of her assertions are a bit too cannily worded to be taken at face value.

The FDLR claims to be fighting for peace. They also accept that some of their members took part in the genocide. Everybody involved in genocide and crime against humanity committed in Rwanda has to be judged. Our argument is political space – it would solve the problem.

While lack of political space is certainly a problem in Rwanda, I’m not entirely sure that extends to the FDLR, for whom a campaign of murder, rape, violence and general thuggery seems to be the more salient problem. And when she fussily refuses to “discuss with the media details concerning the sources of [her party's] funds,” you have to wonder whether the clumsy, heavy-handed assertions of The New Times about some of Ingabire’s political and financial allegiances might not have some small basis in fact.

In the end, the paper seems to hit the nail squarely on the head. “To certain Rwandan politicians, Genocide is an unfinished business,” says the paper, while referring to Ingabire. And the same could just as well be applied to the RPF leadership who continue to use the legitimate horrors of the genocide as a means to enforce an emergency rule without end. In Rwandan politics, the genocide is always an unfinished business.

Back to the Future-ish.

After a week of first-class grass-watching in rural Burundi, I’ve returned to what passes for civilization in these parts, courtesy of the country’s second – ahem – “city,” Gitega. I am finding the place exceedingly pleasant. Yesterday I planted my butt under a tree and closed my eyes, I felt the sun on my face, I listened to the ringing of bicycle bells and the steady hum of sewing machines being pedaled in the shade. It was a perfect bit of happiness, if only for the 20 minutes or so before the ants got to me.

In the afternoon I had lunch at a bright little restaurant with a cheerful staff in blue-and-white striped shirts, like sailors on the Good Ship Gitega. The very pregnant matron, Consolé, hummed happy tunes as she busied herself about the place. Richard and Penier, the waiters, talked to me in a Swahili I could barely understand. There was joy in all of this. Consolé’s were the tastiest stewed bananas I’ve had in Burundi, and if the only thing I remember about Gitega is her banane spéciale, I wouldn’t complain about those memories in the least.

There are places I’ll never get to know for more than just a couple of days, but sometimes it’s towns like Gitega, or Nanyuki, Kenya, or Cuamba, Mozambique, that stay with me, if only for the memory of how absolutely content I felt when I was there. As a writer, I always feel the pressure to be on the look-out for the next story; it’s nice to sit around sometimes, to listen to the wind in the trees and simply be.

While it lasts. Sad, after all these weeks, to realize it’s almost time to leave Burundi behind. I feel like I’ve only accomplished about 16% of what I’d hoped to before coming here, but it’s been a perfect three months, in its own way. Next week, when I get back to Bujumbura, I’ll be putting in some round-the-clock blog sessions, I suspect, to catch up on all the things I haven’t said. I’ll be writing up the next round of proposals, researching the latest news out of eastern Congo, emailing ahead to plan for my return to Kigali. I’ll be saying my goodbyes, too, or avoiding the scenes altogether. Sometimes it’s easier to just disappear, to send a few heartfelt texts as your bus barrels away over dusty mountain roads.

At some point, too, it’ll be nice to catch my breath. The great joy/exhaustion of traveling in rural Africa is the steady stream of greeters and well-wishers, the endless meetings on the road, the invitations to meet one’s wife and children and share lukewarm Fantas in the shade. As a life-long codger and born-and-bred New Yorker, I treat my solitude like a religious relic; in some ways, it makes me a very peculiar and reluctant sort of traveler. After a week of rural immersion, I have an urgent need to retreat and decompress; the world outside – the whirl and tumble of African life – almost becomes too much for me to bear.

And so on Tuesday afternoon, as torrential rains flooded the roads and sent everyone ducking under the nearest rusty awning for cover, I curled up in my queen-sized, $5/night bed, popped Lost: Season 3 into my laptop, and spent a narcotic eight hours or so staring at Evangeline Lilly’s ass. On the nightstand was a jar of Nutella and a bag of plump, greasy loaves of ndazi. For the rest of the afternoon, I retreated into a cozy little shell. Jack and Locke were at each other’s throats. Hapless Charlie bit the bullet. It was a bit of familiar furniture in an unfamiliar home. Outside the rain pelted the tin roof, the domestics sloshed about in the yard. I dozed off dreaming of new adventures.

Exposed! UN shines spotlight on Congo’s super-secret, ultra-illicit mineral trade; world shrugs, buys more cellphones.

A friend here in Buja, a foreign national who I’ve come to consider the smartest person in Burundi, urged me to give a second look to the UN’s damning report on the illicit flow of weapons and minerals into and out of the Congo, which was published back in November. In case you missed it, this more or less amounted to the UN shaking its fist and saying, “Damn you! Damn you!” amid the general solemn nodding of the international community. A summary from the UN flak office noted that:

the mainly Rwandan Hutu rebels of the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR) continue to exploit gold and cassiterite in North and South Kivu provinces with the help of trading networks in Uganda, Burundi and the United Arab Emirates, while irregular arms deliveries have come from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Sudan.

Though the international hack-factory was far more intrigued by the titillating reports of involvement by the Roman Catholic Church and the dirty-money Maytag that is Dubai, the accusations against the ruling party’s inner circle were big news indeed here in Burundi. One analyst, who was happy to speak on-the-record about just about everything else in the Great Lakes region, quietly asked to remain anonymous when the UN report came up: the government, he said quite bluntly, was seething over the report’s details, and was just dying to make an example of someone.

(On a completely unrelated note, BINUB’s Youssef Mahmoud – essentially the highest-ranking UN figure operating in Burundi, who had seen about all there was to see since arriving in Bujumbura in 2007 – was unceremoniously dismissed from his post in December, under the flimsiest of pretexts. He has since been replaced by a jar of pickles.)

Of particular note were some of the high-level figures in Burundi’s military and security apparatus who were linked to overseas arms deals.

The Group has hard evidence of an attempted purchase of a cargo of 40,000 Steyr AUG assault rifles and ammunition officially for the Burundian police and organized by a Burundian delegation which travelled to Malaysia. The Group estimates that such an arms consignment for the Burundian police is excessive, given that the Burundian police number no more than 20,000.

For those of you who consider Burundi’s problems to be newsworthy in their own right – and not simply footnotes to the African catastrophe du jour next door – these are worth considering. Many here in Burundi believe the final destination for those weapons was not, in fact, the FDLR fighters in eastern Congo, but the youth militias of Burundi’s own ruling party.

(Burundian officials, for their part, countered that the national police force was being trained by repeated viewings of Dolph Lundgren’s 1992 magnum opus, Universal Soldier, and that officers are consequently expected to carry and fire weapons with both hands.)

As opposition parties and international observers continue to accuse the ruling CNDD-FDD party of training and arming its youth groups ahead of this summer’s elections, the presence of large weapons caches in the countryside is…troubling. According to a very trusted source, a number of flights of dubious origin and repute – at least one of which had links to notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout – touched down here in Bujumbura last year, under cover of deepest, darkest night. I do not think they were here for the nightlife, however stellar.

The vast and insidious network of mineral smugglers, arms traffickers, and overall douchey profiteers implicated in the report, meanwhile, has, according to The New York Times, “tentacles touching Spanish charities, Ukrainian arms dealers, corrupt African officials and even secretive North Korean weapons shipments.” These tentacles, it goes without saying, are long and up to no good.

A more detailed account of the findings (of which there were so many, it’s taken me about 3 1/2 hours to download the full PDF), comes to us from Georgianne Nienaber at the Huffington Post, who detailed some of the allegations:

• Arms shipments or suspected shipments to the DRC from Spain, North Korea, Ukraine, Iran, Libya, China, Belgium, Tanzania, the British Virgin Islands [Ed.: WTF?] and others;

• Roman Catholic and Spanish networks of support to the FDLR and other rebel groups;

• Recruitment of soldiers from Rwandan refugee camps;

• Violations of international humanitarian law;

• Impediments in the disarmament process;

• Wanted war criminal General Bosco Ntaganda’s parallel military operations;

• Recruitment of child solders;

• Obstruction of humanitarian access in eastern DRC; and

• Linkage between the exploitation of natural resources and the financing of illegal armed groups which reach all the way to Dubai and North Korea and include the purchase of a Boeing 727 aircraft originating at the Opa-Locka Executive Airport in Florida.

By now, this probably isn’t news to the Afrophiles and assorted newshounds who no doubt follow this blog. The funny thing is: it wasn’t really news when the story “broke” in December. As Nienaber pointed out, the much-hyped “leaked” report had, in a very similar form, already gone public in May of last year.

But the really sobering part is that, in terms of the overall methods and conclusions, another, similar report already appeared, incredibly, in April 2001.

!

That’s right, more than eight years before a blockbuster report was leaked, detailing the widespread funneling of Congolese resources through complicit neighboring countries to a vast and nefarious network of overseas ne’er-do-wells, the UN published a damning report, detailing the widespread funneling of Congolese resources through complicit neighboring countries to a vast and nefarious network of overseas ne’er-do-wells.

Really, Congo, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

'Thank you, brother. And be sure to report the details of this legitimate transaction to the appropriate authorities!'

The differences, of course, are not just cosmetic. While the 2009 report largely places the Rwandan Hutu rebels of the FDLR in its crosshairs, before proceeding to untangle its very tangled web of associates, the 2001 report leveled most of its more damning accusations at the governments of Rwanda and Uganda, including their respective leaders-cum-war-profiteers, Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni. These included, e.g., some knee-slapping graphics detailing the dramatic increase in gold and diamond exports by both countries since their invasion of Congo in 1997, despite the fact that the two countries’ combined domestic mining interests could barely scrape together enough gold and diamonds for even a D-list rapper’s Jesus piece. You can almost picture the customs officials in Kampala and Kigali, diligently slapping little “MADE IN UGANDA” and “MADE IN RWANDA” stickers onto each hefty sack of gold and diamonds, before sending them on their way to Abu Dhabi, Antwerp and beyond.

The 2009 report, also, to give it full credit, does a remarkable job in naming names and, um, facing faces. If Colonel David Ruyagi, Ignace Murwanashyaka, Neo Bisimwa, or any of their co-conspirators thought they would be getting off easy in this latest UN exposé, they were sorely mistaken. Likewise, if you were a shady middleman for cutthroat Rwandan rebels looking to export Congo’s exploited mineral resources to reputable and un- businesses abroad, you wouldn’t want to wake up one morning, rub the sleep from your eyes, pick up your favorite news daily, and see this picture staring back from the front page.

A shady middleman, standing, appropriately, in the middle

Similarly, it is sort of implicit in the hopes of an arms trafficker that a picture like this one never makes it into the hands of UN researchers for their soon-to-be-well-circulated memoranda:

Pinstripes might make the man, but a shitload of pinstripes make the arms dealer

I would like to say there are some important and practical conclusions drawn from one or both of these reports, but really, for any cynical observer of this region, they only seem to further illustrate why Africa’s most intractable conflict is so intractable. Cui bono? Why, we all do!

Lessons from Tanzania: electoral edition

Idi Amin and Joseph Mobutu, looking for babies to eat

Rwanda, 1994

Yesterday I met a Tanzanian man who was visiting Burundi as part of an East African Community delegation. It is always interesting to talk politics with Tanzanians, since theirs is the only country in this troubled region that has remained virtually peaceful and stable since independence. Credit the late Julius Nyerere – the country’s first president, and one of the continent’s most venerated statesmen – with leading Tanzania out of the colonial era and forging a single national identity from more than 120 disparate tribes. Sure, his collectivist utopian idea to, er, relocate millions of Tanzanians into cooperative “ujamaa” villages might have wreaked havoc on the national economy, destroyed the agricultural sector, and claimed thousands of lives. But when compared to some of the monstrous ogres of post-independence Africa which surrounded them – think arap Moi’s Kenya, Idi Amin’s Uganda, the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi, and pretty much everything that’s happened in the Congo – Tanzanians can be forgiven for thinking they got off easy.

(This fascinating article from TIME magazine in 1975 examines the failures of ujamaa en media res. It includes this remarkable quote from Nyerere, who was faced with the realization that farm outputs had declined drastically, just as drought loomed.

“We have no money and we have exhausted our foreign reserves,” he declared. “If we do not have adequate rains, we will be faced with serious famine in which people will die.”)

Yet despite the failures of ujamaa, Nyerere is like the Johnny Carson of African politics. “Mwalimu” – “teacher” in Kiswahili – was Mandela before Mandela. He supported the “freedom fighters” struggling for black majority rule across southern Africa, led the route that drove Idi Amin from power, and, after formally retiring from politics, was a prime factor in nudging along Burundi’s peace process before dying in 1999.

When he stepped down in 1985, he became just the third post-independence African leader to give up power without a fight.

Nyerere and Castro, doing some socialist socializing

Odd, then, to compare the venerable Nyerere with the ruling party thugs who managed to seize power here in Burundi – and who almost certainly won’t bow out graciously should the votes not go their way this summer. Mwalimu dedicated his final years to securing peace in Burundi; and yet it was the CNDD-FDD rebels – rebels who stubbornly refused to take part in the Arusha peace process over which Nyerere presided – who ultimately seized the reins of a new, post-war Burundi.

Beyond the thuggery up top, Burundians themselves are still adjusting to the realities – and demands – of multiparty democracy. Votes are still bought and bartered for with a sort of Tammany Hall-era crudeness. The very idea of accountability – of holding elected officials to their campaign promises – is in its infant stages. The ethnic card is still played on a regular basis.

My Tanzanian friend shakes his head as he looks at the challenges.

“In Tanzania, if they believe you are going to support a particular tribe, they will get rid of you,” he says.

Here was Tanzania, ruled by the same party since independence, fretting over corruption, propped up by the crutch of foreign aid, facing food shortages and power shortages, looking, at times, worse off than the country Nyerere inherited in 1961 – here was Tanzania, in whatever stage of democratic evolution, stumbling along the right path. It was a model for Burundi to aspire to.

“People want to know about your policies,” my Tanzanian friend says of his countrymen. “If you tell them, ‘I am going to build tarmac roads all across Tanzania,’ they say, ‘Good. Now where are you going to get the money?’”

In Burundi, the follow-up question is: now that you’ve got the money, who’s going to steal it?