Tag Archives: burundi

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?

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.”

First you salsa; then you coup.

It is 8:15am in Burundi right now, which means the government has had a good 12 hours or so to doctor its story regarding last night’s alleged foiled coup. I would like to say I’ve been diligently burning the midnight oil, working the phones and probing trusted sources for all the juicy details. Sadly, this has not been the case. Instead I’ve spent the better part of the past 12 hours at Le Kasuku’s salsa night, lending further credence to the time-tested wisdom that a good salsa, like a good coup, is all in the hips.

Little breaking news to report so far. Early reports, according to the BBC, uncovered a dubious plot of ambiguous provenance.

Thirteen soldiers in Burundi have been arrested for plotting a coup to overthrow President Pierre Nkurunziza, the army chief of staff has said.

Major Gen Godefroid Niyombare said the 12 soldiers and one officer had been caught in a meeting near Lake Tanganyika earlier on Friday.

Investigations were ongoing and more arrests should be expected, he added.

Opposition candidate Alexis Sinduhije, as I noted last night, was wary of where those investigations might lead.

“They are going to arrest me again,” he said. “They are going to arrest me and say Alexis has plotted to overthrow the government. They have been working on something to destroy the whole parties.

“Everyone is calling me. They think we are targeted.”

The popular wisdom around the bar last night held that the coup plot was cooked up by anxious ruling party cadres desperate for an opposition leader to pin it on. At least one cheeky ex-pat – who may or may not have been this reporter – suggested we start a betting pool on which presidential hopeful would be behind bars before the weekend was through. He also recommended, given this country’s troubled history, that a new term – beaucoup d’etat – be introduced into the political lexicon to describe a country in which the military coup has supplanted the democratic election as the preferred means of transition.

On-the-ground reports here in Bujumbura, meanwhile, have provided the sort of levity that only a failed coup can provide. There was the much recycled rumor that the alleged plotters were arrested in pirogues – i.e., dug-out canoes – in Lake Tanganyika. (“We don’t do coups by water,” said one Burundian.) Then there was the claim made by at least two ex-pats that the Minister of Defense was seen boozing at a Chinese restaurant with the Chinese ambassador, a full two hours after details of the alleged coup surfaced. This is, you have to admit, a funny way to react to a coup.

I will be following the latest news – no, seriously – throughout the day, and should have a better sense of where things stand some time this afternoon. Also, for what it’s worth, I would like to note that I broke the coup story on Twitter a good 20 minutes or so before the BBC. I suppose that makes me the no. 1 trusted news source for stories you care nothing about.

I went all the way to Burundi and all I got was this lousy failed coup.

Word is still trickling in about the arrests of 12 soldiers and one officer involved in an alleged coup plot tonight in Burundi. I have heard nothing but skepticism so far around town. One analyst texted me: “Weird and staged thing.” Another: “Staged – almost certainly.”

More arrests, according to the BBC report, are still forthcoming. President Nkurunziza, it seems, continues to tighten his grip.

I just got off the phone with Alexis Sinduhije, the opposition candidate.

“They are going to arrest me again,” he said. “They are going to arrest me and say Alexis has plotted to overthrow the government.”

The Amazing & Incredible Adventures of A Not Altogether Guiltless Letter to Malawi!

I have been taken to task by at least two friends this week for general shittiness related to my correspondences, or lack thereof, and I would like to commend those friends for: a) holding me to my word regarding Mr. Richard Soko, fisherman, Malawi (see below); and b) not even suggesting that said shittiness could perhaps, in any way, be applied to the time that has elapsed between our own correspondences.

The long-delayed and -dreaded postal ordeal turned out to be, in the end, less harrowing and soul-searing than I’d feared. In fact, from the time I set foot in the post office to the time the sealed and stamped envelope left my hands, I’d aged – both physically and spiritually – by no more than three minutes. That this only compounds the guilt and general self-loathing I feel at this point, of course, can be left unsaid.

SEE! the hand that writes the letter!

FEEL! the card going into the envelope!

NOTE! the Malawian address, hand-written with care!

FOLLOW! the letter on its perilous voyage to the central post office in Bujumbura!

SAY! goodbye as the letter prepares to vanish into the bowels of the African postal network!


An interesting postcript: the very helpful and not at all unfriendly postal worker told me that the letter should be arriving in Malawi within the week. This makes me wonder exactly which sea turtle or tree sloth is being used by the Malawian postal service, since Richard’s last letter – dated mid-November – only arrived in New York last week. For once, it seems, Burundi can be held up as a model for us all.