Burundi at 50: towards a governance of peace

As Burundi celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its declaration of independence, the landscape is bleak: impunity, insecurity and extra judicial killings of members of the opposition. One of the biggest obstacles to reconciliation is the lack of truth over the country’s history, says Lyduine Ruronona

Lyduine Ruronona
3 July 2012

Read this article in French

Wherever there are men there is always conflict. For several years now Burundi has suffered an onslaught of tragedy and violence. What is most tragic is not this conflict in itself, but the way in which conflict has been managed. Fifty years on from the declaration of independence there is still no governance for peace. People get annoyed when we seek to know the truth, when we want to know who did what and why. In Burundi, political actors change their tune with impunity and to give one’s word is not the same as to respect it. Certain members of civil society remain subject to the will of certain political actors.

The principal source of conflict in Burundi is over the control of political, economic and social power, and from this all the other causes follow. Political parties refuse to work together in running the country and there is unequal representation among the various forces that make up Burundian society, including opposition parties which have no institutional representation. The needs and the concerns of citizens, such as poverty and security, are often sidelined for the sake of personal and political interests. Those who gain power lack the quality of being able to concentrate on what is at stake for society, instead of for themselves. 

Among the biggest obstacles to reconciliation is the lack of truth over the country’s history and the true causes and catalysts of the conflicts that have shrouded the country in tragedy from independence to the present day. The rewriting of Burundi’s history is foreseen in the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, signed on August 28th 2000. For Emilie Mworoha, Professor at the University of Burundi and President of the commission put in place by the Burundian government to carry out this task, this must be an authentic national history that will contribute to the country’s reconstruction. The body of writing on Burundi’s history to date is insufficient and incomplete. The period of colonial rule, for example, is treated in line with a Hamitic ideology which now been scientifically disproven. “In spite of this it continues to be regarded as true because it has been internalised”  Mworoha explains, “it is propagated through various works grounded in ideas of inequality between social classes and the domination of superior races above those that are supposedly ‘inferior’”. According to Mworoha, many countries have successfully eliminated this ideology from recent historical works.

Poor governance is also hindering the reconciliation process. There is a widespread fear of denouncing perpetrators of violence and people lack confidence in the authorities, the judiciary and the political climate. Poor governance includes the Executive’s tendency to meddle in the handling of legal files.

The landscape is bleak: impunity, protection of a self-preserving and a mutual kind, insecurity linked to salacious gossip and the threat of new rebellions, and extra judicial killings of leading members of opposition parties such as Mr Léandre Bukuru de Gitega, decapitated because he belonged to the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD).

Other causes of tension and conflict are directly linked to the lack of dialogue and education in democracy. Political parties lack a social project and fail to understand or engage with political ideologies. They also lack democratic values -  and the buying of votes during election time is commonplace: a poor farmer will vote for whoever has given him something, maybe cash.

The Commission tasked with disarming the civilian population, created by the government in 2009, was supposed to plan and put into place a national programme to combat civilian disarmament and prevent the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. Burundi organised a huge campaign to promote civilian disarmament in 2009, during which the authorities offered to exchange a gun for a hoe or sacks of cement. Those in power claim that the operation allowed them to recuperate more than 70% of illegally held arms. The scale of this operation is contested by members of civil society who still come face to face with the deaths caused by members of the population who continue to carry arms.

Resolution 1325 addresses not only the inordinate impact of war on women, but also the pivotal role that women should and do play in conflict management, conflict resolution, and sustainable peace. It demands that protagonists in the conflict and all parties involved adopt measures guaranteeing the protection of the fundamental rights of women and girls with particular weight given to the constitution, the electoral system, the police and the judicial system. Article 13 of the Resolution clearly outlines the treatment that should be accorded to women and girl ex-combatants and their families whilst texts governing the Commission on civilian disarmament demand the effective involvement of women in the collection of arms.

In reality women were not very involved because they lacked the necessary skills due to a lack of training. Projects to disarm the population, reinforce the security service and reform the national police and national intelligence all operated without those responsible being trained in specific gender related aspects of peace keeping, disarmament and post-conflict reconstruction. These lacunas mean that women and girls find themselves poorly integrated into the mainstream peace-making process. They may benefit from some training, but the specific needs of pregnant police officers or women who have had children during the rebellion, are not taken into account by those making decisions about their position at work or the education of their children.

The Commission in charge of the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) of ex-combatants and the Commission in charge of disarming the civilian population also fail to work alongside each other, despite the fact that their target audience is the same. 

It is in this context that certain organisations working in the field of peace and security, like the Women’s Centre for Peace, have long organised reconciliation initiatives between women from Hutu and Tutsi ethnicities in Burundi. These women, once reconciled, lead their husbands towards reconciliation too. A man from the South of the country commented, “When I saw that my wife was starting to go to these groups and she started telling me that they teach them to forgive one another and help each other out, I found that crazy because I could never imagine that people who do not share the same ethnicity could shake hands and work together for the country’s development.  One day I decided to test the water and I went along. I found other men there, I found that they were happy and I ended up joining too. Now we work together and we feel at ease without any distinction between us. I want to launch an appeal to all the others who remain blinded by their ethnic group. Let go of that outdated idea and join us in rebuilding our beloved country, Burundi.”

image of women working a field

Peace activists working a field together

Our work involves taking each ethnic group in turn and showing them the loss and tragic consequences of such divisions. We put particular stress on the vulnerability of women. Then we introduce participants to each other and provide testimonies: each side admits that they have harmed the other, and has forgiven. One thing that the programme has succeeded in showing is that for many people the fact of not belonging to a single ethnicity or political party is no longer an issue. The essential thing for them is to be able to see tangible development around them and to be able to enjoy a lasting peace.

image of women working a field

If social and political actors had a good knowledge of democratic values, and the young and educated among us had knowledge of non-violent strategies of action, then both would be more open to dialogue and political tolerance. They would be less receptive to the use of violence as a means of resolving conflict and more open to the governance of peace. As the fiftieth anniversary of our independence approaches I remain optimistic. The anniversary offers a chance to look back at the problems that Burundi has undergone and also re-examine ourselves and our own consciences so that we can establish respect, political tolerance and achieve economic recovery for the Burundian people.

This article has been translated from the French original by Jennifer Allsopp.

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