Editor's Note: Roopa Gogineni is a freelance journalist and photographer.
By Roopa Gogineni – Special to CNN
Four years ago while studying in Tunis, I was told not to talk politics in the streets. But one afternoon, sitting on steps in an empty suburb, a prophetic Tunisian friend opened up about her government and president. She had a lot to say.
Recently in Bujumbura, the lakeside capital of Burundi, I had a similar conversation with a security guard who would not share his name. He led me into a deserted alley and declared, “The government will have problems in the future, if things continue like this, there will be many in the streets.”
A small Great Lakes country of eight million people, Burundi is almost always overshadowed by its neighbor to the north, Rwanda. Both countries emerged from catastrophic civil wars, but Rwanda has taken off under the charismatic leadership of Paul Kagame while Burundi remains one of the poorest countries in Africa.
In 2005, a peace treaty ended the war that claimed nearly 300,000 lives. Elections followed and the National Council for the Defense of Democracy and the Force for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD FDD) came to power.
New troubles began during the next elections in 2010. The main opposition parties formed the ADC Ikibiri Coalition and boycotted the race citing fraud. The ruling CNDD FDD party remained in power while most opposition politicians, including the rebel-group-turned-political-party Forces Nationales de Liberation, or FNL, fled to the bush or nearby Congo. Today, the political opposition is still largely missing. Rumors suggest a rehabilitated FNL and two rebellions based in Tanzania and Congo have been declared, but the capacity of these factions to threaten the government is unclear.
Dissidents have good reason to hide. As I sat in the office of Pierre Claver Mbonimba, a leading human rights activist, photos of the mutilated bodies of political opposition and former FNL cycled behind him on a computer screen. Since the 2010 elections, human rights groups estimate over 300 people have been killed with impunity throughout the countryside. The bloodiest incident occurred at Gatumba last September where thirty-seven died in a bar. The government blames rebels, while others claim the government orchestrated the massacre to frame their enemies.
Following Gatumba, the government ordered a thirty-day media blackout, censoring what was once the freest press in the region. In the absence of a political opposition, the government has become increasingly antagonistic to civil society. One NGO worker described civil society as “very active in naming, blaming, and shaming here,” occupying a watchdog role that frequently lands its leaders in the public prosecutor’s office.
Until now, civil society has been most vocal about corruption, extrajudicial killings and restrictions on the media. These issues are generally perceived as political matters, removed from the lives of the average Burundian. The government, to some degree of success, has cast civil society as out of touch. However, rising inflation has produced a new rallying point. Residents of Bujumbura reported that price of water and electricity nearly quadrupled in the past three months.
On March 27, civil society leaders and labor unions called for a strike to protest the rising cost of living and to demand that public officials also pay taxes. The strike was the first of its kind in Burundi’s history, a litmus test resulting in empty streets and buses abandoned at the depot in town. The government sent people to photograph closed businesses.
Though the ethnic tensions that were at the root of Burundi’s civil wars have subsided, there is a prise de conscience evidenced by wide participation in last month’s strikes. How nascent rebellions or the opposition in hiding will capitalize on this display of collective action remains to be seen.
At present, more than half of Burundi’s budget is supported by foreign aid, but the international community is also losing its patience. Many donor countries are cutting their funding this year, expressing concern over the political violence and deepening corruption crisis, as reported by the International Crisis Group last month.
Driving through Burundi’s verdant hills, one feels that this country should be rich. As a prominent Burundi journalist remarked, “People are tired of war, but they are so poor. This kind of poverty can push people to provoke change.”
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Roopa Gogineni.