Burundi: Reasons behind escalating political violence

Posted on December 14, 2015 12:01 am

Burundi, a tiny country in East Africa, is in a crisis after a spate of violence ignited by a clash between opposing political groups left more than 90 people brutally murdered two days ago, an act that has stunned many Burundians, who still believe their country should be a paradise inhabited by civilised, peace loving people. Humanitarian organisations estimates that more than 100,000 people have fled Burundi since President Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a third term while local and international observers for the war torn country fear the ongoing unrest will trigger another civil war. However, political violence has always been an integral part of the Burundi’s power game. It is definitely not a new thing. The majority of Burundians are either not aware of this problem or pretend it does not exist. The two main ethnic groups in the country are known to regularly undermine each other through rumour and by spying. When politics intensifies the ruling elites simply send poorly educated and unemployed youths off to wage war. Many continues to die at the hands of violent gangs and security forces.Burundi’s recurring pattern is that the elites create the conflict and the grassroots supporters have to do the dirty jobs.It is well documented how the political elites in the country fight each other with words, slogans and ideologies, while their supporters use sticks and stones. In the 1990s and early 2000s saw the most brutal political violence to date when supporters of ethnic-based political parties and military forces killed thousands.When a peace deal was brokered and Burundi admitted to the East African Community economic bloc as a member state, there was hope that finally the country has seen the last of violence but somehow, feud between ruling elites and those who feel marginalised by the establishment, has taken the country back to the dark days and its right to say persuasion gradually became intimidation and has now eventually turned into oppression.

Undisclosed numbers of houses have either been burned or demolished, and people are being physically assaulted according to international human rights organisations operating in the country. Friday’s violence that has been widely reported in the international media, is a significant event if the World want to understand reasons behind recent violent clashes in Bujumbura and its outskirts.The current turmoil is as a result of the disputed third term efforts by President Nkurunziza although security forces were yet to identify the gunmen by the time I was writing this blog, the ruling government believes rebels aimed at toppling President Nkurunziza are behind the attack. Since the end of a 12-year civil war between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority where more than 300,000 lives were lost, tensions have been bubbling after President Nkurunziza announced he was planning to run for a third term. A former rebel leader,President Nkurunziza has governed Burundi for nearly 10 years since peace was brokered in 2005.Parliament elected him for the first term and he feels a right to be elected by popular vote twice is justified. President Nkurunziza believes constitutional law is on his side, though many Burundians have disagreed with his right to run again.Dozens have lost their lives since April.Without going into details, those in opposition at the moment have suffered the most brutal political violence compared to other ethnic groups in the past ten years. Amongst those opposed to the regime, the memory of that period is still vividly alive, the scars are still raw.In Burundi, it is clear that vengeance plays a pivotal role in the political violence. Sometimes, it is simply settling old scores rather than misguided expression from what I have observed and read across various credible reports on the country.

The roots of political violence in Burundi are not solely tied to political differences as many would want to believe.Given the fact that in first election after the end of civil war Burundians overwhelmingly voted for Pierre Nkurunziza and handed him a landslide victory, is a clear indication that there were other elements that had sustained the cycle of violence.In my own thinking, the first element is stupidity. What we have in Burundi are a group of stupid people, who compensated for their lack of intelligence with sheer, brute force, thanks to greedy politicians hanging onto power by mafias who are said to be behind the idea of the current president extending his term limit.Those in power in Bujumbura must remember that democracy is the choice of modern society to lead a collective life. It has resulted from more than a century of progress experienced by various civilisations in managing their public interests and welfare under their social contracts and the practice is unstoppable whether elites and mafias in power engage in violence or other underhand tactics to retain power as is being witnessed in Burundi.Democracy has become a system because it is through democracy that common political, social, economic interests are managed. From books I have read on the subject, democracy as a system has three key ingredients namely elements namely process input and output.President Nkurunziza advisors must remember input of democracy is certainly aspirations, public participation and, formally, votes. This input is sorted out in a process of political democracy through the aggregation and condensation of information, options and individual preferences. The process generate its output in the form of the administration of collective existence that benefits everybody.Such processes of democracy should be prevented from being distorted and be guaranteed to produce the output as desired.

A distorted or failing process of democracy may end in two scenarios including where there is no output, as is happening in the period of President Nkuruzinza in Burundi, whereby the dynamics of politics and ideology failed to create public welfare. There is some output, but it is unfavourable to the majority of Burundian, as well because the welfare is only being enjoyed by a small group and political freedom deteriorated.The current establishment has failed in productive democracy which is the most ideal way of problem solving and political parties are important pillars of the realisation of productive democracy and that’s why suppression of opposition in Burundi has become a channel of public aspirations to reach the political system and a conduit of information from the political system to society.Burundi’s political parties are in the frontline of the political system facing the Burundians. The time has come for those in power to create balance between the solution of Burundi’s problems. The ruling party should channel public aspirations and give information, instead of serving as boardrooms where public policies are made behind closed doors and vulnerable to intervention by vested interests in posh facilities in Bujumbura.Political change in Burundi should not just be limited to the dimension of political structure, let alone mere elitist change. Structural change should be promptly introduced, which is even more the case in formal terms. Without any change in culture, Burundi’s political learning curve will come to a juddering halt. Borrowing from similar political violence in other parts of Africa, I can confidently another element is the Burundian’s somewhat excessive longing for a sense of communality, but unfortunately in this case, all members of the opposition are then expected to abide by a single, unified value, which included political values.

There has been cases where if most of Burundian villagers are Pierre Nkurunziza supporters, then even non-supporters are expected to do the same including but not limited to wearing ruling party’s uniforms and erecting the party’s flags among other solidarity driven initiatives. Those who oppose such initiatives are viewed as an outsider or worse, an enemy of the state.It is not about political expression, it is about being loyal to the ruling mafias in Burundi.On the other hand,from various reports, I have noted that many acts of political violence were perpetrated by Burundian youths. This younger generation, I can argue, has experienced a social dislocation and alienation from their traditional unifying institutions, such as village traditions, and finding out that political party provided them with such unifying institutions, lack of jobs, declining economic activities to mention but a few.I also think President Nkurunziza security forces efforts of prohibiting political parties from conducting mass rallies was the best short-term solution to end the political violence after the failed coup but a longer-term strategy, however, would require many difficult endeavours, including political education and establishing new, non-political unifying institutions and introducing a new set of values on peaceful political power play. Those of us who have read political science from its birth to date, know that “political culture” refers to political orientation, the approach to the political system and its components, as well as to the role of individuals in the system. Political culture also refers to two levels of political orientation, which are the system and individuals.Sadly, in Burundi both of them have failed miserably.The political culture of Burundi is considerably affected by the structure of politics, whereas the operational capacity of a political structure is highly determined by the cultural context where the structure is based.

Burundi’s issues of ethnic balance in power, for instance, cannot be settled by coercion and force which has led to inequity and suppressed aspirations.Closure of private media has done more harm that good to the governments and I believe that mass media have the moral responsibility to play an important role in the long-term strategy. Only through a non-partisan mass media, can we expect to educate and inform as many Burundians as possible on this issue of extending term limit however ugly it is.In my opinion, freedom of political affiliations is needed for political tolerance. Without tolerance, the people of Burundi would be easily divided. Radicalism and terrorism are one example of the result of intolerance in daily religious life. And the threat of terror acts still scare many people not only in Burundi but all over the world. Unfortunately, the Burundian government has often been less responsive to political freedom and issues.Burundians feel the need for change, for new faces but seems the those in power are already addicted to power and want to extend their stay at any cost.There is no doubt the situation in Burundi is is so fluid at the moment, and the old guard is so entrenched and the protesters are not a single group who know what they want the future to look like other than that they want the current President Pierre Nkurunziza system gone. At the moment, most Burundians wants rid of the old system, but no one knows what to replace it with, or how to replace it. In addition to the corruption, the protesters in Bujumbura who have taken to the streets of the capital and its outskirts for the last nine months have also condemned the Burundi’s politicians for being arrogant and isolated from the problems of ordinary people.Politics seems to be only a political commodity for momentary political gain by President Nkurunziza regime. Therefore, Burundi government should soon overcome all inter political problems comprehensively so that the values of Burundians truly emerge and people can live in harmony.

Contador Harrison