What the global media missed with Burundi: Superficial coverage celebrates crisis and overlooks the bigger picture

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza. His lapel pin is the Burundian flag. Photo courtesy World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons
Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza. His lapel pin is the Burundian flag.
Photo courtesy World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons

By James Hall

The media noticed Burundi when street riots and an attempted coup d’état made for interesting visuals for TV news. The superficial coverage ignored what Burundi’s fleeing refugees knew, that a possible genocidal bloodbath was the real story.

If ever the world media acted as if it were a mayfly living only for the day, it was with coverage of Burundi in May 2015. Like the insect that lives approximately the length of a media news cycle, the Western press focused on the crisis de jour  violent street protests, an attempted coup d’état, the politics of an election – as if neither deeper meaning nor long term consequences existed.

Burundi’s evolving crises centred on various power grabs – President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for an unconstitutional third term in office, street protesters determined to use rioting as a means to change government, and some military leaders who used the army to usurp governance power. The larger meaning was perhaps too awful to contemplate. Simply, if Burundi’s ethnic rivalry is not managed properly, a Rwanda-type genocide might again stain humanity. Over 100,000 refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries to avoid a possible ethnic bloodbath knew this, even if the media could not see this forest for all those raucous political trees.

This article is extracted from the June 2015 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM). The essential +/- 85 page monthly report that dissects conflict developments and trends across the African continent to guide businesses, governments, academics and other stakeholders in Africa’s growth and stability.

Current ACM subscribers include AFGRI, AngloAmerican, BP, CNN International, eNCA, Halliburton, IBM, KPMG, MSF, various international government departments and major universities around the globe, ranging from UCT here in South Africa to MIT in Boston, USA.

In Burundi, possible genocide redux

What did the Burundians fleeing their country know that the world press did not? More was at stake than an election controversy or yet anothercoup d’état. Such violence is common in African countries, but rarely prompts a mass exodus into neighbouring countries. At the end of May, about 120,000 Burundians out of a national population of 10 million had fled across their nation’s borders. Half found Tanzania the closest haven, even though that poor country was ill-equipped to handle the influx, and a diarrhoea and cholera outbreak in hastily assembled camps confirmed the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) prediction of a looming health crisis amongst the displaced persons.

What the evacuees feared was mass killings similar to the genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994. Burundi and Rwanda have nearly identical ethnic statistics; some 85% of Burundians are ethnic Hutu, including President Nkurunziza; 84% of Rwandans are Hutu and 14% of Burundians are Tutsi, as are 15% of Rwandans. The variable is the 1% of Rwandans and Burundians who are the Twa or pygmy people or in Burundi, Asians and Europeans. Twenty-one years ago, state-orchestrated violence killed three-quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population, in excess of 800,000 people. Like Rwanda, Burundi is largely rural, where small landholding subsistence farmers lack modern amenities, good education and the worldly knowledge to repulse propaganda based on their ethnicity. In Rwanda, such propaganda swayed the majority population into an hysteria of mass-killings.

About a tenth of Burundi’s Tutsi had left the country by the end of May, feeling sufficiently apprehensive that a Hutu president would play the ethnicity card to ensure his re-election, at their expense. Nkurunziza had already shown a manipulator’s approach to constitutionalism when he chose to run for a third term. Street riots have become a normal response throughout Africa toward leaders who have overstayed their welcome but who nonetheless seek ways to extend their power by rewriting or finessing national constitutions. The people of Burkina Faso rose up in 2014 against their long-entrenched autocrat, Blaise Compaoré, and did so with such a fury that Compaoré’s leadership and political life ended – although his mortal life was spared. So entrenched in Africa has been the acceptance of leaders who once in office contrived to maintain and expand power through all means possible that it was not until 2012 that serious objections were raised to such constitutional coups d’état. In office since 2000, Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade sought to rig the Senegalese constitution to ensure another term in office. No street battles enflamed Dakar, and it was voters in a runoff election who ushered in the new administration of President Macky Sall.

In Burundi, Nkurunziza and his ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), argued that a two-term limit did not apply to him because his first term came by the grace of a parliamentary appointment rather than a popular vote, although he has served two entire terms. Having been voted into office once, Nkurunziza felt entitled to run again, even if, in effect, he would be in office for three full terms, which the constitution forbids. The Burundi riots that greeted Nkurunziza’s nomination as presidential candidate for his party typified Africans’ continuing rejection of leaders who will not accept term limits. The riots also reflected a popular recognition that the longer a leader serves, the more inflated become his and his cronies’ bank accounts at the expense of the general welfare of the nation. This anti-President-for-Life trend was also overlooked by the world media for whom people dashing by and burning tyres at street intersections was sufficient visual and contextual explanation for any African election. A coup d’état is also an expected event to emerge from Africa from time to time. Such traumas are covered by the world press with the type of breathless excitement of a boxing match shorn of context and personality, with anonymous combatants temporarily given names for the duration of an event that as report is shorn of history and is entirely existential. When thecoup d’état is over and one or the other side emerges victorious, there is no future beyond that point because media attention ceases.

As compelling as a coup d’état is as a news story, in Burundi’s case it is a minor and momentary matter because the prospect of genocide far outweighs consideration of which political aspirant or ambitious military man occupies the presidential palace. Again, what inspired the mass exodus from Burundi in a reaction not seen in other countries faced with controversial elections?

The refugees feared an escalation of ethnic-based demagoguery as 2015 elections (2) neared, and no end to possible ethnic victimisation afterward. The African Union (AU) and countries like South Africa and Tanzania urged the Nkurunziza administration to postpone elections. Nkurunziza was advised to withdraw his candidacy. The refugees found these election matters minor and not fundament to their ultimate protection. In an ethnic clash between Hutu and Tutsi, tribal tensions must be addressed, but in Burundi they have not been. Tutsis were very worried about Nkurunziza’s personal history, which reads like a rationale for ethnic resentment. Memories are long in Africa, but the suffering of Nkurunziza and his family are of relatively recent vintage and must sear all the more in the imaginations of refugees fleeing what they are convinced is his wrath.

Burundian refugees at the Mahama refugee camp in Rwanda, 30 April 2015. Photo courtesy European Commission DG ECHO/Thomas Conan/Flickr
Burundian refugees at the Mahama refugee camp in Rwanda, 30 April 2015.
Photo courtesy European Commission DG ECHO/Thomas Conan/Flickr

Nkurunziza lost his father, Eustache Ngabisha, to ethnic violence, as well as at least two of his six siblings. Ngabisha was a member of parliament (MP), elected in 1965, and he served as governor to two provinces. During ethnic clashes that estimates say killed between 120,000-300,000 Burundians in 1972 and created an even larger number of refugees, Nkurunziza’s father was murdered. The fatalities that year were staggering for a nation of only 3.5 million people at the time.

Two decades later, in 1993, another wave of ethnic violence flared during a civil war that killed 200,000 to 300,000 people. The number was again traumatic for the small country, whose population was then roughly six million. Amongst the victims were two of Nkurunziza’s brothers, although some reports state that five brothers lost their lives. Ethnicity triggered the conflict after the first Hutu to be democratically elected as president, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated.

The international community’s response to Burundi’s ethnic situation has been blinkered if not completely blind, dangerously repeating the inaction that permitted the Rwandan genocide to unfold. The Rwandan similarities have not been sufficient to compel any urgency for pre-emptive action from the AU, UN, the US African Command (AFRICOM) or anyone else to stave off a possible genocide or ethnic clashes. To the world media, concern about what might be does not compete with the political sizzle of an election or the telegenic pyrotechnics of a coup d’état.

Typical military coup d’état betrays lack of faith in the common people

At heart, democracy is rule by the national majority, meaning the common people because a population is largely composed of this economic and social demographic rather than military and power elites. In democracies, elites hold great influence beyond their numbers, but militaries are largely subordinate to civilian rule.

When General Godefroid Niyombare and his military cohorts rose up against Nkurunziza’s government on Wednesday, 13 May 2015, they claimed to be acting to preserve democracy. Nkurunziza was a power usurper, the coup leaders said, and they pointed out that that unpopularity of his third term presidential bid was borne out by violent street protests. To save democracy, Nkurunziza would have to go.

And yet, if the military was truly dedicated to democracy and had faith in the will of the people to make their own decisions, which is the democratic way, they would have waited a few short weeks until elections were held to affirm that Nkurunziza was voted out of office. Nkurunziza’s defeat would assumingly happen by the logic of the coup plotters,by nature of the president’s unpopularity. Why, if Nkurunziza was so unloved, was acoup d’état necessary? Even more illogical for coup plotters who professed to be the spearheads of democratic will, rather than put forth a civilian administration to rule as an interim government they would have placed themselves in charge, and done so without any vote or popular mandate. The coup d’état thus appeared to be little more than a naked power grab.

Perhaps the military coup plotters had some evidence that a fair election would not take place. If so, they kept this key information to themselves, and instead instigated bloodshed and considerable trauma on a people whose democratic rights the generals claimed to be safeguarding, using undemocratic means to do so.

In classic, textbook style, the generals waited until the head of state was out of the country to act. Nkurunziza was attending a regional meeting on his country’s political crisis in Tanzania. That country was directly and adversely affected by the crisis as the recipient of tens of thousands of fleeing Tutsi whose presence, in addition to creating a humanitarian challenge, threatened to upset the ethnic balance in Tanzanian society.

As the coup plotters were rounded up, their ringleader, General Niyombare, revealed something telling about the state of politics and justice in Burundi when he said, “I hope we won’t be killed.” Apparently, revenge murder was to be expected in Bujumbura. Upon his emergence after four days of hiding following the coup attempt against him, Nkurunziza made the correct-sounding pronouncements that mutineers would face justice in the courts and would not be summarily executed. Meanwhile, the world media, alert and alive as only the media can be during the bloody spectacle of a national uprising, reported that mutineers were being summarily executed. Say what you will about General Niyombare’s ambition and opportunism, he knows how power works in his country.

The coup crisis so quickly and clearly resolved itself in Nkurunziza’s favour that a cynic might wonder if the manipulative president was behind it. Nkurunziza immediately banned street demonstrations that directly challenged his power. Opposition leaders were rounded up, effectively neutering their ability to run election campaigns against him. Coup participants in the military were arrested, and reportedly some low-ranking soldiers who were only following orders from superiors whom they dare not disobey were permanently removed via summary executions.

While never explaining his four-day post-coup whereabouts, Nkurunziza assumed the mantle of super-patriot when he thanked loyalists in the military for their “display of patriotism” in saving his government. However, the motives of the loyalists were never investigated; certainly not by the world media. Their loyalty cannot be assumed to belong to Nkurunziza, and their sentiments might very well be toward salvaging normal democratic procedures that should not be disrupted illegally. They might also have disliked the prospect of General Niyombare’s rule.

Nkurunziza, for the benefit of harmony in his country, should have immediately withdrawn his candidacy. All evidence showed that his concerns were for his own status rather than the welfare of Burundians. An individual whose ambition has made him a lightning rod for violent protests and coups d’état, with further such activities against him certain in future, is a liability for national peace. The state of democracy is shaky in Burundi, government is corrupt, the people live in poverty, the education system is poor and infrastructure is bad. A host of national improvements is required to raise Burundi to a position where progressive and stable democratic governance is possible.

This article is extracted from the June 2015 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM). The essential +/- 85 page monthly report that dissects conflict developments and trends across the African continent to guide businesses, governments, academics and other stakeholders in Africa’s growth and stability.

Current ACM subscribers include AFGRI, AngloAmerican, BP, CNN International, eNCA, Halliburton, IBM, KPMG, MSF, various international government departments and major universities around the globe, ranging from UCT here in South Africa to MIT in Boston, USA.

Burundi’s fate is bigger than one president’s power ambition

Nkurunziza ordered a halt to street protests at his first press conference after emerging from wherever he hid himself in the immediate wake of thecoup attempt. The presidential command was ignored, however. The military did not move in to slaughter protestors. This was the first concrete evidence that a feared bloodbath under Nkurunziza might not occur, and that worry about ethnic violence burdening neighbouring states with Burundian refugees may not occur. If a military does not assist, how would genocide happen?

Burundi is a small country with an oversized talent for disturbing regional peace. Some 42% of national income comes from foreign aid. This assistance could be leveraged to achieve political reform. However, there is no international will to do so, and only a global desire to observe as spectators Burundi’s latest upheavals. However, this latest crisis de jour demands an appreciation that more is at hand than a coup d’état or election. Burundi’s refugees know what might happen if political ambitions in Bujumbura lead to the exploitation of ethnic rivalries – a bloodletting to surpass the nearly one million casualties of Burundi’s previous civil wars of the past generation.


(1) James Hall Founding Editor of the Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM) and critically acclaimed author, columnist and filmmaker, pioneered insider coverage and analysis of Africa, in Africa, with six books and thousands of articles and news stories for publications worldwide.
(2) Elections were originally scheduled for 26 June 2015, but on 3 June were postponed by the Elections Commission to 15 July. To avoid a vacant presidency all elections must be completed before 26 August when Nkurunziza’s presidential term is scheduled to end.