Africa Specific: Burundi Specific

Why talking about politics on social media can get you arrested in Burundi, why presidential term limits are up for discussion, and why 286,000 people have left the country

It’s a big, wide, complicated world out there. And for most of us, it’s impossible to keep track of everything that’s going on. We get ground down. We get distracted. We get on Snapchat and spend half an hour making our friends look like lions. It happens.

Meanwhile, out in the world, there’s a lot happening. But for a range of reasons — including racism, the lingering effects of colonialism, and a mass-media culture that ignores a continent of 1.2 billion people — you probably haven’t seen much about Africa in your news feeds lately.

This is a series about the African continent, because what happens in Niger or Nigeria has implications for all of us, and vice versa. This is just a slice of what’s out there, so keep reading and keep learning. This is Africa Specific.

Imagine if your Facebook posts got you arrested for “defaming the government and insulting public institutions.” In Burundi, that can happen.

In Burundi, a country of 10 million people surrounded by Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, you can have your phone searched in the street at police checkpoints, or be arrested for your posts on social media, or even prevented from leaving Burundi altogether. All because the country is wedged in a political crisis.

In April 2015, President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to go after a third term in office — a move that, like in America, is banned by term limits under the country's constitution. Nkurunziza argued that since he spent his first term leading a transitional government following a civil war, those years didn't count against the limit. Unsurprisingly, this presidential power-grab has been met with fierce opposition. In May of last year, that civic disapproval went as far as a failed coup attempt.

To suppress dissent, the Burundian government has harassed, threatened, and arrested journalists. The country is now one of the worst places to work in media. And without reliable access to newspapers or cable, social media platforms like WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook have been critical resources for people in search of information. Mido (a pseudonym), a Burundian journalist who covers politics, security, and culture, told MTV News that Burundians are using social media to stay informed after many radio and print outlets were attacked in revenge for the coup. But this has brought a whole new set of challenges.


Dr. Yolande Bouka, a Fulbright Scholar and a Research Associate for the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), says the Burundian government publicly asserts that it has no interest in covertly surveilling the conversations of its citizens. But who needs to eavesdrop on a conversation when you can just read it directly? “People have grown concerned,” says Bouka, “about agents of the state routinely seizing phones.”

Young people especially are getting used to having their messages searched in the street for evidence of opposition to the government — and getting used to being arrested, too. Last week, 54 people were detained at a bar in the capital city of Bujumbura for being members of a political discussion group on WhatsApp that “defamed” the government. Eight of them are still in prison.

Mido says that using your phone to chat with friends about politics now feels dangerous. “There are some points where police or the Imbonerakure [a youth group aligned with the leading political party] ask for your telephone and check if you have any chats about politics or that show you are in opposition. If they discover those chats, you are arrested. So people always delete every single chat before leaving home.” Adding that social media chat groups have started using rules to protect members, he said, “If you are new, they tell you not to bring up political discussions or opinions. Maybe a football player's chat group, or student chat groups. So if someone talks about politics, people will leave.”

Mido also says Burundians are getting very good at censoring themselves online to stay safe. “For ordinary people who discuss issues even opposing the government, they delete any sensitive messages that could push them to be arrested. Others change their names on Facebook because of fear.”

Will Burundi lift presidential term limits and open the door to leaders-for-life? We could find out this fall.

In Burundi's constitution, presidents are limited to two five-year terms. But Nkurunziza's party, the CNDD-FDD, wants to keep its president in power. In 2015, Nkurunziza created and staffed the Inter-Burundi Dialogue Commission. He then tasked it with finding a (totally objective, of course) solution to the country’s year-long political crisis (which, to be clear, had been catalyzed by his bid for a third term in office). The Commission's findings? Surprise: the solution is to just give presidents the opportunity to run for office as many times as they want. Commission chairman Justin Nzoyisaba chalked the results up to the will of the governed.

But that's not what Burundians told the research network Afrobarometer, when it asked similar questions about presidential terms in 2014 and 2015. “I find it highly suspect that the Burundian people have made an about-face,” Dr. Cara Jones, a scholar of African politics who has written extensively on Burundi’s political sphere, told MTV News. Speaking to the Commission's recent findings, she added, “My colloquial take is that it's complete BS.”

Bouka explains that the fight to end term limits comes at a time “where most of the political opposition leadership is in exile, civil society organizations that have challenged the state in recent years have been muzzled, and free press has been destroyed or put under the government's thumb. Additionally, you have documented cases of government-sponsored extrajudicial killings and torture. That taints the legitimacy of the consultations the government engaged in in recent months.”

If the government does do away with term limits (the issue is before Parliament), it will have to change Burundi’s constitution. And according to Bouka, “Any revision will likely include not only changes to term limits, but also alterations to the power-sharing provisions that many deem to be the glue that kept the country together after over a decade of civil war.” That glue, the Arusha Accords, set a two-term limit for presidents in the first place, as it was understood that leaders having access to an open-ended stay in power had contributed to previous conflicts, Bouka says.

But don’t expect Burundi to just give in to a future without any limitations on how long Nkurunziza, or future presidents, can seek to stay in power. “I do think the state-sponsored violence is acting as a check on [opposition],” says Jones, “but I think the idea that Burundians will accept this quietly is a mistake. Burundi has a lot of bright spots. The population is extremely young — 60 percent of Burundians are under the age of 18 — and youth don’t tend to take shit the way that adults do. That’s a good sign.”

More than 280,000 people have fled Burundi — but to their government, fleeing violence is evidence of refugees' desire to commit violence.

Over the last 16 months, since the third-term turmoil began, 286,000 people have left the country, mostly for Tanzania and Rwanda. “We have talked to many refugees who report that, because of their political opinions, or their perceived political opinions, they were targeted for violence and for threats, and this led them to leave their jobs and decide ultimately that they had to leave,” Michael Boyce, an Advocate with Refugees International, told MTV News.

For many who have been a part of this mass exit from Burundi, this is a frustratingly familiar journey. “There were many people who had to flee Burundi during previous wars, who lost access to their land and other property, and when they were able to return, say in 2012, after the previous war ended, they didn’t have access to anything that could help them rebuild their lives,” Boyce said, adding that this “put them in greater danger when violence began to come back during the recent crisis” last year.

But even wanting to get away from violence can make refugees targets for government reprisal. “On the Burundian side of the border,” Boyce said, “there are a lot of people, especially young people who want to flee the country because of persecution, who are being prevented from leaving — whether or not they intend to oppose the government once they’re safely away. They’re being told by the police, by immigration officials, or by militia groups aligned with the government, that you can’t leave, because leaving signals that you want to join a rebel movement abroad.” Boyce said that the first time he went to Burundi, “We saw a number of young men who had been trying to leave who were being taken off to a police station by a police officer with their arms tied around their backs, and some of them we know were later taken to prison because they had tried to flee.”

Within official circles, those who have been displaced are often viewed as an inconvenience. “The Burundian government doesn’t want to acknowledge the scale of the problem,” Boyce said, “They don't want to acknowledge the kinds of threats and abuses that people across the country are facing because of their political opinions.” And yet, the presence of more than a quarter of a million Burundians who have been able to cross into Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and farther afield is a very loud reminder that jailing people for political differences of opinion and advocating for “forever presidents” is definitely not a reflection of how most Burundians actually want to live.