Mobilization for Burundi’s elections has high stakes for region

A multiplicity of political parties and civil society are preparing for upcoming elections in the central African country of Burundi amidst heavy tensions and fear. While grassroots church groups, student federations, sports clubs and human rights organizations begin to work for a calm transfer of governmental leadership, the centrality of Burundi’s 2015 presidential and national elections becomes clear. A coordinated campaign linking Burundian civil society and international solidarity could tip the balance away from authoritarian power grabs throughout the region, in favor of burgeoning democracy.

With a history of constitutional monarchy, colonial control by both Germany and Belgium, military dictatorship and genocide, Burundi emerged as an electoral democracy in 1993 when Worker’s Party founder Melchior Ndadaye won a landmark election. His assassination after only three months in office sparked a more than decade-long civil war and further mass killings, after which Pierre Nkurunziza, chairman of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy, or CNDD-FDD, was elected president in 2005.

The fractious and devastating years of war resulted in a social climate highly distrusting of electoral parties and politicians, with admiration and popular support for a very select few. Most commentators brave or strong enough to critique the current government, such as the Catholic Church hierarchy in Burundi, softly suggest that the time has come — after two terms and nine years in office — for the current president to step aside. But efforts by any individual or group to present an alternative to his continuance seem to be met with imprisonment, brutality or worse.

Landry Ninteretse, executive director of Peaceful Elections Initiative, or INAMA. (WNV/Matt Meyer)

Landry Ninteretse, executive director of the Peaceful Elections Initiative, or INAMA. (WNV/Matt Meyer)

In the middle of most of the non-partisan efforts for a smooth transition of power is the Peaceful Elections Initiative, or INAMA, a coalition of over two dozen non-governmental, non-profit and community-based organizations. Their 18-month, three-phase operation is designed to prevent violence and election fraud, but its organizing scope is based on a much deeper commitment to grassroots empowerment and nonviolence. The Early Response Network was set up in May 2014, with the goal of training 700 citizen-reporters to monitor local tensions and potential outbreaks of violence, through a coordinated system of text-messaging. Drawing lessons from reports of these initial monitors, a larger team will be developed, with possible international support, in time for the 2015 elections.

“We are a broad, people’s movement including youth, women’s groups, environmental organizations, churches, former combatants and many others,” noted INAMA director Landry Ninteretse, himself a former African coordinator of the U.S. climate action group 350.org. While they have received support from outside groups, including the Quaker community in the United States, they are a dynamic indigenous group based on the ideals of social justice and an alternative dispute resolution framework of problem-solving.

The major university campuses throughout Burundi are also mobilizing with peace and fairness initiatives. At the capital city-based University of Bujumbura, an extraordinary initiative has developed since late 2013. Under the auspices of a broad, inter-university peace and dialogue group, Cine-Club for Peace has been holding weekly dialogue sessions on the culture of nonviolence and how it can be spread throughout Burundi. This club, which has grown beyond the initial university partners to include 15 regional secondary schools, has attracted over 200 participants every Friday night for the past year, to engage in discussions and community-building activities.

Plans for similar peace education programs, including mentoring programs where college students will work with younger folks in their towns and villages, are spreading to other regions of Burundi. University of Ngozi rector Apollinaire Bangayimbaga noted his institution’s recent development of a peace studies curriculum and related clubs; he was one of a few dozen participants in a Pan-African, Great Lakes region-wide conference in July 2014, which established the Sustainable Development Solutions Network including strong support for peace and nonviolence programs at participating colleges.

The hope, as with much of the work around free, fair and peaceful Burundian elections in 2015, is that the African Great Lakes region will greatly benefit from intensified and successful civil society mobilization. As Cine-Club for Peace coordinator Epipode Nsabiyakare noted, “We must continue to strengthen our networking to become a light in all of our countries.”

In the city of Gitega, the Amahunja Music Club plays original tunes dedicated to peace and nonviolence; the Club les Artisans de la Paix has been started to coordinate efforts in a related community; a football club has dedicated its efforts towards cooperation and dialogue among adolescents, who are often those most susceptible to the manipulation of fractional electoral parties.

Popular national singer-songwriters Peace and Love have been advocates of peaceful resistance against corruption, emancipation and reconciliation for 15 years. Along with their long-time manager Willy Niyonkura, they are now encouraging fans and followers to join Club Girijambo to “have a voice.”

And the Burundian Organization for Human Rights, or ITEKA, a powerful legal association, has come forward to enable a fully participatory and peaceful process throughout the year. “While we recognize that the roots of current violence lie in issues of economic justice, we also know that the current political parties do divide people,” stated ITEKA executive director Anschaire Nikoyagize. ITEKA has been meeting with the current government, especially the Ministry of the Interior, to press for open and non-coercive elections.

Armed men in Burundi. (WNV/Matt Meyer)

Men march down the street with guns in Bujumbura, Burundi in August 2014. (WNV/Matt Meyer)

Armed men — some uniformed, some not — obviously in training for potential military action are evident around the country. A September news report documented growing accusations from all sides, as government lawyers demanded both monetary damages and jail time from Leonce Ngendakumana — the leader of the main opposition grouping which unites nine opposition parties — for writing an incendiary letter. The Democratic Alliance for Change, which Ngendakumana represents, accused the CNDD-FDD of preparing for genocide; the ruling party in turn has said that these statements, made in a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, are “false and leading to racist incitement.” Meanwhile, former populist CNDD-FDD leader Hussein Radjabu remains in prison, after splits in the ruling party led to his jailing in 2007.

While it is difficult to see how the divisive nature of Burundian power politics will be easily resolved in the months to come, it is easy to note the growing numbers of civil society groups working and training for disciplined peace and violence prevention programs. This unique dynamic will be vital to watch, with ample lessons and opportunities for the greater African and international community. Peace in this electoral process will undoubtedly strengthen civil society efforts throughout the region for nonviolent political and economic resolutions to long-held regional problems. Given the deep ethnic and social links between the peoples, a violent Burundian process would just as surely spill over to exacerbate disputes in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere. Though it is common to get lost in familiar cries about the tragedy of war on the African continent, modern-day Burundi is worth serious attention as grassroots movements prepare for peace.

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