| Carola Frentzen |
Bujumbura, Burundi (dpa) – Burundi is one of the smallest countries in Africa and it isn’t that well known in the outside world.
But the land-locked East African nation has a troubled history, comparable to that of neighbouring Rwanda which has been racked by appalling genocide. The world has taken little notice of Burundi though.
Today, almost 10 years after the end of a civil war, visitors are greeted by a sad picture.
The building boom characteristic of many other African countries is nowhere to be seen in the capital Bujumbura.
The streets are dusty and full of holes and the majority of the approximately 10 million citizens transport heavy loads on bicycles, just as they used to do decades ago.
The tallest building in the country is a hotel of just seven storeys. Life is dominated by Lake Tanganyika, the second largest lake in Africa, where fishermen in wooden boats ply their trade.
The roots of the country’s ethnic conflict lie, as in Rwanda, in the Belgian colonialists’ differentiation between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority.
The hatred erupted in Rwanda between April and June 1994: the Hutus killed over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
In Burundi, there had already been repeated massacres by both sides since the 1970s.
In the civil war between 1993 and 2005, a conflict overshadowed by the bloodletting in Rwanda, it is estimated that at least 300,000 people died. Hundreds of thousands fled to the Congo or Tanzania.
The aftermaths of the conflicts were handled differently by the two neighbours. While Rwanda decided to prevent ethnic differences by eliminating the names Hutu and Tutsi, Burundi took a different path.
Its constitution requires that parliament and all public offices must be filled 60 per cent by the Hutu majority and 40 per cent by the Tutsi minority. In addition, there are two vice-presidents, one a Hutu and the other a Tutsi.
This scheme has proved mutually satisfactory so far, as the Hutus, who account for 85 per cent of the population, traditionally call the shots, while the Tutsis, at 15 per cent of the population, are now over-represented.
“This has worked well so far and today we are reaping the rewards of this decision, but eventually the quota system will need to be changed,” says Chauvineau Mugwengezo, spokesman for the biggest opposition coalition, the ADC-Ikibiri. “Ultimately, the competence of politicians should be more important than their ethnicity.”
Simeon Barumwete, professor of political science at the University of Burundi, agrees: “Nobody should be excluded from political office due to their membership of an ethnic group. We must some day – maybe in 15 or 20 years – identify ourselves as Burundians and not any more as Hutus or Tutsis.”
There’s a still long way to go till then and plenty of other pressing problems for a state that is still 90 per cent dependent on agriculture.
Even though school has been free for all children since 2005, in some places there are up to 200 students in one classroom and there’s a general shortage of desks, books and other school materials.
On the United Nations’ Index of Human Development, Burundi was ranked 180th of 187 countries in 2014.
Corruption is prevalent. It has already shown itself in the preparations for the parliamentary and presidential elections taking place in May and June 2015, critics say.
“The fraud machinery has already been set in motion,” says Mugwengezo. “But this time we are ready to fight.”
Allegations have been made about the recent voter registration process, with not only the opposition but also election observers from the Coalition of Civil Society for Monitoring the Elections (Cosome) speaking of serious irregularities.
“The identity cards that are required for registration were distributed everywhere, under trees and even to minors in schools – and often several times to the same person,” according to Justine Nkurunziza, president of Cosome. “We have written to the electoral commission and asked them to cancel the process and begin it again, but this was refused.”
“No wonder,” says Mugwengezo. “Ultimately, the members of the commission are all government faithful.”
There’s also concern about the plan of President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third term.
The 50-year-old has been head of state since 2005 and the constitution only allows for a maximum of two terms.
That was the constitution established by the Peace Agreement of Arusha, which brought the civil war to an end.
Nkurunziza argues that in his first term he was nominated by parliament and so not officially elected by the people. “But that does not matter because the people chose the parliament,” says Barumwete. “According to the constitution, he can no longer compete – should he do so, it will be an illegal election.”
He warns that Burundi could follow the example of Burkina Faso, which saw serious protests in October when long-time president Blaise Compaore wanted to change the constitution so he could serve another term. The unrest eventually forced the president to flee his West African country.
“If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere, because the people of this continent won’t accept a regime that exceeds its mandate,” says Barumwete.
The ruling CNDD-FDD party doesn’t agree. “Burundi is not Burkina Faso,” chairman Pascal Nyabenda says. “We know what war and violence are and the people of this country don’t want any more conflicts.”
Nyabenda, considered by many a possible presidential candidate himself, believes that Nkurunziza’s plan is constitutional. A party congress, probably in March, will decide on the candidates. If Nkurunziza is chosen, protests are likely.
“We will take to the streets of Bujumbura and demonstrate against it,” says opposition spokesman Mugwengezo. “We are planning peaceful protests but if the government should try to silence us, then we are willing to make sacrifices.”
The wild card in the presidential election is former rebel leader Agathon Rwasa, who plans to run as an independent candidate. He also believes that Nkurunziza shouldn’t run again.
“We must not trample on the constitution, otherwise we can just go straight back into the jungle and live again like in prehistoric times,” he says. “The elections must help Burundi to reconciliation, they must be the starting point of a new era. Otherwise there will be war.”