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Alexis Sinduhije jailed for “insulting the President”

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PresidentNkurunziza.jpg

Criticizing Burundi’s “forgiving”
President (r) can land you in jail

I met Pierre Nkurunziza in London in the autumn of 2004, a few months after I’d started writing Titanic Express. At the time, CNDD-FDD was still a rebel movement, and Nkurunziza had just been appointed Burundi’s “Minister for Good Governance”. This particular choice of post seemed cruelly ironic, even then, to many of those who had lost loved ones in CNDD-FDD attacks. Given Nkurunziza’s subsequent track record as President it seems even more so now.

Nkurunziza was elected by a landslide in the summer of 2005, amid high hopes that the predominantly Hutu CNDD-FDD rebel group had succeeded in transforming itself into a genuinely multi-ethnic political party, committed to a peaceful and democratic future for Burundi. As I wrote in December of the following year, these hopes were quickly dashed. Nkurunziza’s time in office has been characterised by corruption, political intransigence, and increasingly brutal attacks on the political opposition.

Matters have been complicated by Nkurunziza’s success in portraying himself as the model of the “forgiving” Christian post-conflict African President, with all the positive associations that this carries internationally. Conflict Resolution NGOs and some international donors have repeatedly hailed Burundi as a success story, even though corruption has been rife and violence ongoing, with still no conclusion to the seemingly endless “peace process”.

When the popular independent journalist Alexis Sinduhije last year launched a new political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy – with a multi-ethnic leadership and, unusually for a Burundian political movement, no armed wing – the government refused to allow it to register, and has been increasingly hostile as the months passed.

In September, the journalist Jean-Claude Kavumbagu was arrested and accused of “defaming” Pierre Nkurunziza after reporting on his personal expenditure at the Beijing Olympics. Today, the BBC reports that Alexis Sinduhije has been jailed on similar charges over his activities as an opposition leader, following his arrest last week. The Movement for Security and Democracy report that their activists across the country are being rounded up and detained. Clearly Nkurunziza’s “forgiving” approach doesn’t apply to those who question his conduct in office. Many Burundians I know are pessimistic that the upcoming 2010 elections will be anything remotely approaching “free and fair”.

A lot of this was quite predictable. I have Burundian friends who did, in fact, predict broadly this state of affairs as soon as it became clear that CNDD-FDD was on course to take power. Nkurunziza’s supposed commitment to democracy and a genuinely multi-ethnic approach was nothing more than window dressing, I was told. The international community was kidding itself if it thought that an armed group with such a track record of brutality and extortion would even be capable of changing its ways once it had its hands on the levers of power, especially when its many crimes had gone unpunished (a 2003 deal granted CNDD-FDD fighters “provisional immunity” from prosecution. Five years on, this supposedly temporary measure still stands).

I knew all this, and yet I wanted to believe. When I met Nkurunziza in London he seemed cordial enough. My friend Desiré took him and his entourage shopping after the meeting. How could a man who goes to buy toys for his kids on Oxford Street be such a bad dude? Next to the psychotic excesses of the Hutu-extremist group Palipehutu-FNL, the CNDD-FDD Hutu rebels looked positively moderate.

But they weren’t, and they never had been. The qualities that it takes to become a successful warlord are very different from those needed to be an effective and successful statesman. Recent history is littered with examples of those who failed to make the transition. Brutal civil wars tend to breed a certain kind of mentality, and armed groups like CNDD-FDD attract a certain sort of person – the kind of person who’s comfortable taking and giving orders, and is prepared to engage in acts of extreme violence in order to get their job done.

When CNDD-FDD signed a peace deal, many such people gained lucrative positions in the government and the security forces, safe in the knowledge that they were effectively immune from prosecution for the abuses they’d previously committed – and would be for as long as they could hold onto power. It shouldn’t really have been a great surprise that Burundi’s new elite continued to behave as ruthlessly as they had whilst fighting in the bush – or that they are proving reluctant to cede power peacefully now that their popular support has begun to dwindle. It shouldn’t really have been such a surprise, in short, that Nkurunziza’s Burundi would start to look more like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe than Mandela’s South Africa. When we set aside the hopeful rhetoric, the cold reality is that ex-warlords generally tend to lean more towards despotism than democracy.

So why did we fall for it? I suspect that a certain kind of insidious relativism can set in when we’re looking at a situation as extreme as Burundi. Politicians such as Pierre Buyoya, whose style is more to orchestrate targeted assassinations of his opponents and rivals than to actively incite genocide, come to seem like “moderates”. Rebel groups like CNDD-FDD, who at least talk about the need to turn their back on ethnic divisionism and embrace a multi-ethnic membership, seem reasonable and democratic, even as their leaders continue to bully the general population and line their own pockets.

But one further factor that I think deserves much more scrutiny than it has hitherto been given is the extent to which – both in Burundi and elsewhere – international mediators often have a clear agenda of their own, which may not necessarily be in the best interests of the people they are ostensibly trying to help. “Peace” is now something of a lucrative business – from the NGOs raking in millions to Do Conflict Resolution in troubled regions of the world, to the career diplomats and politicians looking to declare “mission accomplished” and buff their resumé with plaudits for “bringing peace to [fill in country of choice here]”.

When, in 2003, Nkurunziza came out of the bush and declared his commitment to peace, democracy, and “forgiveness” there were a lot of people with a vested interest in promoting the idea that it was genuine. The fact that the terms of the peace deal sowed the seeds for future abuse and instability was not something that most NGOs (with the notable exceptions of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), “security analysts” or international mediators seemed to want to talk about.

Doubtless a part of it was simple, honest-to-goodness, wishful thinking. But the fact that so much money, and – perhaps even more importantly – so many personal reputations, were at stake in Burundi’s peace process could only have made things more complicated.

Burundi had seen so much horror that it’s perhaps understandable that people would get carried away with the euphoria when things finally seemed to be improving. It should also be said that many things do seem to have improved; the level of violence has gone down and the economy was beginning to recover – but the question is for how long.

Since the violence that exploded after independence in the 1960s, the bloodshed has come in cycles, punctuated by periods of relative stability. Successive generations of politicians have been willing to manipulate tensions, and incite ethnic massacres when faced with pressure to relinquish power. Burundi’s new CNDD-FDD ruling elite have already shown that they are prepared to kill, torture and arbitrarily detain their critics in order to protect their political interests. We can only hope that they pull back from the brink before the situation becomes any more unstable.

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7 Responses

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  1. […] Alexis Sinduhije jailed for “insulting the President” […]

  2. […] in Burundi – and in particular the arbitrary arrest of the journalist-turned-opposition activist Alexis Sinduhije, who helped me enormously when I was researching Titanic Express, and whose case I’ve been […]

  3. […] Alexis Sinduhije mobbed by well-wishers ahead of his court appearance for “insulting the President”Alexis Sinduhije jailed for “insulting the President”Amnesty International adopts Alexis Sinduhije as a “Prisoner of Conscience”Harvard academic urges […]

  4. […] opposition leader and former journalist Alexis Sinduhije was arrested in November during a political crackdown on his party, the Movement for Security and […]

  5. […] in “Titanic Express”, and who has been very supportive over the case. I had been following Alexis’s fate since his arrest on trumped-up charges last […]

  6. […] Alexis Sinduhije is a former Burundian journalist who I’ve been in contact with over my sister’s case for a number of years, and who featured in my first book, Titanic Express. Alexis recently launched a multi-ethnic opposition party, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD), and has already spent several months in prison for his troubles, prior to his release earlier this year, following massive international pressure. […]

  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I truly appreciate your
    efforts and I am waiting for your further post
    thank you once again.

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    July 28, 2012 at 12:59 am


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