Tag Archives: FNL

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.

A land of milk and honey.

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

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

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

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

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

The crowd lip-synchs its support

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

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

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

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

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

Incredibly, these men would prove unfit to govern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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