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.
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.