Burundi faces growing unrest
Stores boarded shut in Bujumbura's market on March, 27th. Many in the capital city responded to a call to strike, protesting the rising cost of living. (Courtesy: Roopa Gogineni)
April 16th, 2012
11:37 PM ET

Burundi faces growing unrest

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.

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Topics: Africa

soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. dog

    long live africa

    April 17, 2012 at 4:58 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    During the civil war Burundi saw the same problem as today's Syria – tensions between the Hutu majority, that rose up against the Tutsi minority, which dominated the army. The ethnic violence sparked off in 1994 made Burundi the scene of one of Africa's most intractable conflicts. Like Rwanda Burundi relies heavily on foreign aid as revenues from their exports of tea and coffee aren't sufficient enough to keep the two countries going.

    April 17, 2012 at 5:49 am | Reply
  3. Diallo Abou Moussa

    Incredible !
    I don't believe that ! It's wrong image about Burundi...
    Look this : http://www.burundi-agnews.org/index.php/societe/sport/2113-burundi-pierre-nkurunziza-ou-lame-dun-tambour-amoureux-de-sorgho

    So the little tension existing is between tribes : (1) Bahima (from Dictator Buyoya) and (2) Bahutu (Batutsi and Baganwa).


    April 17, 2012 at 7:12 am | Reply
    • Kaka

      Nice "one line" description of the Burundian bloody history! you are in complete denial or share an agenda with those who wants the country in its constant abyss. Realities of corruption and dictatorship are issues that needs to be addressed to some point, may be not in the street. But wherever inequalities is created, you can't expect peace.

      April 21, 2012 at 2:13 am | Reply
  4. Benedict

    Please play that film Genocide II FOR ME SO THAT I CAN REVIEW WHAT PARTS NEED EDITING!!

    April 17, 2012 at 10:16 am | Reply
  5. anna

    The whole of Africa needs to be annialated and built up again, this time with civilised people.

    April 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply
    • Mabubta Esingobe

      Too right girlfriend . ehh.. ahh ahh ahh ha.

      That is how we speak down here , so come on bring it on "female dog"

      April 17, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
    • Alicia

      when you learn how to spell civilized then you can talk,but untill then keep quiet.

      January 23, 2013 at 11:11 pm | Reply
  6. Jean Luc Baruani

    Freelance journalists "write to sell". The situation in burundi, where i have lived for over 30 years, is not as alarming as those years back! I am certain burundi is on the right path to steer its citizens to better living standards in the near future!
    The so called "rising cost of living" should be traced back to years of instability where citizens were given little time and room to work to promote the country economy: over a million went into exile after the 1993 coup, and hundreds of thousands more were turned into IDPs, and this cannot be the ruling Cndd-Fdd responsibility! They are rather the victims!!!

    April 18, 2012 at 2:45 am | Reply
  7. Omo

    Burundi is the only country where someone will wake up in the morning and says "Hey! I'm kind of in the mood to go to a strike! Let's start a strike!"... and will get support from local and international media and opposition parties. I don't know any country at any time, where you ask people if life is expensive and will answer "no". People should get to know the way Burundians think, or should at least seek for other opinion before posting articles like this one!

    April 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  8. Asati

    As a former journalist of a Burundi national medium I find the article professional and more realistic. Indeed, the country is falling in an abyss. The former labels of "Heart of Africa, African Switzland" are no longer applicable. Burundi has become the "House of Hunger". When you move throughout the country, in the heart of the hills, far from the towns and centers, people are extremely poor. children move around naked, women and men are so slim while their "brothers and sisters" in the town are getting fatter day after day. Actually, the poor is getting more poorer and the rich is growing wealthier. This increases the gap between the poor and the rich. It results into an awareness that this poverty has an origin. People begin to wonder who/what is the cause of their hardship. Once they get to know they will explode like dynamite.

    May 2, 2012 at 5:03 am | Reply

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