19 April 2017

East Africa: Living With the Ghosts of Burundi's Protests

Photo: IRIN
A Burundian refugee dozes in the sun at Lake Tanganyika (file photo).
analysis

Arusha — 'Maandamano', a Kiswahili term for protests at least in the context of the recent violence in Burundi, is a word that most Bujumbura residents would like to forget.

Although Kiswahili is widely spoken there, probably more than in any other East African Community (EAC) partner state besides Tanzania and to some extent Kenya, 'maandamano' has not been in the day-to-day vocabulary of many Burundi citizens.

It was during the violent protests, which rocked the country in 2015/2016 when the residents of the capital city Bujumbura tested the bitter side of political violence and embraced the word.

Hundreds of city residents aligned to the opposition took to the streets to campaign against President Pierre Nkurunziza's announcement that he would seek to extend his tenure, which he successfully managed to do after the controversial polls in July 2015.

Turned bloody

The showdown between those opposed to the presidential decree and the police, in particular, turned bloody and several lives were lost. Scores of protesters were shot dead in the skirmishes as were some members of the security forces.

Jean Pierre Nsengimana, a taxi driver who operates in the city centre, is one of those who would pray that there is no repeat of the violence, which he says brought business literally to a halt in many parts of the city.

"Maandamano? That is the darkest side of Bujumbura in recent years. Although skirmishes between the protesters and security people was in selected areas, its impact was felt all over the city," he said.

His remarks would not leave even a stranger to the Burundi capital in doubt. Nsengimana lives in Cibitoke, one of the suburbs which was critically affected by the violence.

The others are Musaga, Mutakura, Ngagara, Nyakabiga and other hotspots around the city, which is sandwiched between the steep mountains on the east and Lake Tanganyika on the west.

According to him, at the height of the violence, he was forced to avoid going home during daytime when it turns a no-go zone due to the crackdown by the security forces on those suspected to be behind the protests.

He could not estimate how many people died but said for days corpses were seen on the road sides and were collected by the police. Some of the bodies were of those known in the neighbourhood while others were not.

The taxi driver and other residents of the city believe that calm has returned to the city because of the way the government forces dealt with the protestors - shooting or arresting those who disobeyed.

"The majority of leaders who were agitating for President Nkurunziza not to proceed with his third term have fled the country but their supporters are here with us," he told Political Platform in Bujumbura recently.

He and other residents of Bujumbura believe that although the city was calm, they are not yet assured that the political crisis, which divided the nation down the middle, are over.

"There are people who ran outside the country either for fear of their lives or in order to plan another way to bring down the current government," lamented another city resident on condition of anonymity.

He said although most of the Barundians, either at home or exile, are happy to see calm returning to their country, they are still not sure of a moment there would be an ever-lasting peace.

An observation in the streets of the capital and the suburbs indicate, however, that many people in Bujumbura would rather go about their daily business than discussing the violent past.

In the heart of the city shops, markets, restaurants, bars, banks, bureau de changes, mobile phone kiosks and Internet cafes are in full swing from early in the morning to late in the night.

Some of those interviewed said this was not the case during 2015/2016 not because the city centre areas were prone to attacks but due to fears that anything could have happened. There was also a sharp decline in business.

"During 'maandamano', we could hear shooting and explosions here and there. People lived in fear and there was no business," said a resident of Rohero, a short distance from the city centre.

The word, although slightly familiar with Kiswahili speakers, gained currency during the height of the protests as it was repeatedly mentioned in Kiswahili news bulletins in regional and international radio stations.

He, like scores of others, is not keen to discuss if the present normalcy was an indication that the much desired peace was finally returning to the city where over 500 lives have been lost in the recent political violence.

Although the guns are silent with market places and streets awash with people going about their business, the people of Burundi believe the political crisis in their country are far from over.

Their worries lay on several factors, including failure by the political leaders to agree on a reconciliation framework within the Inter-Burundi Dialogue whose facilitator is former President Benjamin Mkapa.

The government, for instance, effectively boycotted the recent round of talks in Arusha due to the presence of some opposition politicians and other officials it wanted to be isolated from the process due to what Nkurunziza's supporters deemed to be their questionable role in the crisis.

At the end of the three-day mediation talks in Arusha on February 19th Mr Mkapa admitted that there were still some hurdles in the process, implying that not much progress has been made.

"There are disagreements on the modalities for implementation on key issues on the roadmap to peace," he said in a statement issued to journalists as the third round of session boycotted by government representatives.

The former Head of State said due to the hurdles still impeding the talks, there was an imperative need to hold an Extra-Ordinary summit of the EAC Heads of State "to address the impediment of the process".

Nevertheless, the participants also took note of the proposed constitutional amendments in Burundi but urged the government to consolidate peace and stability in the country first, acknowledging Burundi's sovereign right to do so.

Mr Mkapa has not been spared from criticism from both sides of the conflict - the Burundi government officials and exiled politicians - and was at one time forced to say he was not tasked by the EAC leaders to discuss the legitimacy of the government in power in Burundi, but to bring all the warring parties to a negotiation table.

Since December last year when the mediation talks were held in the capital Bujumbura for the first time since the process began early 2016 he has repeatedly rejected calls by the exiled politicians and some opposition parties in Burundi to isolate President Nkurunziza's regime from the dialogue on claims that it came to power through unconstitutional means.

He observed starting to question on the legitimacy of the government in charge in Bujumbura at this time would throw the reconciliation efforts by the regional leaders in disarray and deny the people of Burundi their right to engage in the dialogue.

The current political turmoil in Burundi, which erupted in April 2015, has not only claimed the lives of about 500 people and led to over 250,000 fleeing to neighbouring countries - mostly Tanzania and Rwanda - as refugees.

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