Burundi: Rebuilding a nation, restoring hope

Published April 1, 2009

Edmond Bayisabe enjoys a visit to the slums of Citiboke, where he mentors many young Burundians and encourages them to believe in themselves.

Bujumbura, BurundiA huge smile breaks out on Edmond Bayisabe’s face when he is told of his uncanny resemblance to a young Martin Luther King.

It is not the first time that Bayisabe has received this compliment and he is delighted. Like King, Bayisabe has big dreams for his country. But he hopes that, unlike King, he will get a chance to see them come true in his lifetime.

At 31, Bayisabe spent most of his life painfully watching his country go through periodic waves of ethnic bloodletting and self-destruction.

“I remember how horrible it was to see people under threat of death every day and everywhere,” says Bayisabe, who was in secondary school at Lycee de Matana when war broke out in Burundi in the 1990s. “It was painful to hear or see people – men, women, children – being killed, forced to be internally displaced people or refugees.”

Bayisabe is determined that his three-year-old daughter, Graca Mukunzi, will know and remember another Burundi.

“Before we became a republic we were a kingdom, with a king who stood on the forefront. Burundians were proud of him. There were some problems, but we were united in confronting them,” he says of Burundi’s history.

Before Belgium occupied the kingdoms of Ruanda-Burundi in 1916, they had been ruled by a mwami (king). Hutus made up 85 per cent of the population, Tutsis 14 per cent, and Twa, the original inhabitants, one per cent. The setup was not perfect: Tutsis were feudal rulers but the diverse groups peacefully co-existed, spoke the same language,, and intermarried. That changed when Belgians, borrowing from the pages of colonial conquests worldwide, singled out the Tutsi minority as their proxy.

By the time Burundi separated in 1962, Tutsis were entrenched as political and military overlords, fuelling resentment and bloody power struggles. In 1963, thousands fled to Rwanda to escape violence that killed up to 200,000 Hutus; in 1972, another 150,000 Hutus were massacred. The 1980s and the 1990s saw a series of coups, counter-coups and revenge killings on both sides.

It was the assassination in 1993 of the country’s first Hutu president by Tutsi paratroopers that plunged Burundi into a deep crisis that escalated into 12 years of vicious war. It also contributed to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide where Hutu extremists massacred nearly a million Tutsis and Hutu moderates.

Today, Bayisabe worries that the young don’t care much about their nation’s history, “either good or bad,” and that they “are not able to deal with the effects of that history in a positive way.”

Bright, educated, articulate, and passionately patriotic, Bayisabe represents Burundi’s unfettered hope and promise of licking its painful legacy. He could have been a prestigious avocat like his fellow graduates at the University of Burundi’s faculty of law, he says, but instead he decided to serve his people.

As youth co-ordinator of the Anglican diocese of Bujumbura, Bayisabe’s job takes him from the inner bellies of the city’s slums to public schools and private universities where he encourages the youth not only to have faith in God but also to study and work hard, to believe in themselves and in their country.

It is a critical task – 46.3 per cent of Burundi’s population is under the age of 15 and the burden of moving their country forward is theirs.

Bayisabe says Burundians must learn “how to look beyond our ethnic backgrounds and regional groupings,” and be educated in human values such as respect, tolerance, humility and hard work. He adds: “The question should no longer be, ‘Who are you? Where are you from?’ but ‘What do you have to offer to your country? What skills do you have?'”

The biggest challenge, he says, is “to help young people have good dreams about the future and not be pessimistic.”

It’s not easy. Nearly 15 years after the last civil war of 1993, Burundi continues to be hobbled by violence, hunger and poverty. Problems related to good governance, reconciliation, the reintegration of nearly 1.2 million refugees, and the release and demobilization of child soldiers remain unresolved.

Burundi is still trying to overcome the devastating effects of the economic sanctions, including the suspension of foreign aid in the 1990s. About 70 per cent of Burundians live on less than US$1 per day.

Compounding this situation is the plight of refugees, who have returned after decades of exile to a homeland ill-prepared to absorb them. Nearly 70 per cent of refugees can’t get their old homes back and have been living on the margins, according to the UN. Most lack access to land and livelihood, clean water and sanitation, health care, and education, resulting in a sub-culture of citizens poorer than poor and constantly living in limbo.

“People want to see a basic difference in their lives. They think that the end of war equals peace and development,” said Youssef Mahmoud, head of the UN Integrated Office in Burundi (BINUB). His office recently conducted a survey asking Burundians the question, “What does peace mean to you?” and the most common response was, “Peace is if I have one meal a day and a roof with no leak.”

For others, peace meant being able “to relate to the other without fear, to be able to go to the fields or the school or to go home without being robbed, raped, or killed.”

Mr. Mahmoud acknowledges that “it’s not easy to find a balance between quick results and the long-term nature of peace,” but he is confident that Burundians are working hard to achieve it. “People are tired of violence,” he says.

The desire for peace is evident – 90 per cent endorsed the new constitution in the 2005 national referendum; the turnout for the 2005 election was 88 per cent.

Meeting a Canadian-Anglican delegation in February, Mr. Mahmoud says that Canada and other nations need to “stay the course with patience and more humility” when looking at Burundi and other similarly-situated countries that are “building their own yardsticks” for what constitutes peace and stability.

“If you see where they’ve come from, there’s a lot that’s been done…. There’s a governance crisis, yes. But the fact that they manage to peacefully resolve the crisis is something. People can get discouraged but there is a new regime and there is no war,” says Mr. Mahmoud. “People laugh when they hear that the president here is still alive, and that’s a good thing. But if you know the history of this country, the fact that the president is still alive – that’s progress.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Let’s empower Burundians and the sub-regions of Africa.’ But many Africans want us to judge them on their efforts. Of course, there’s corruption, and human rights abuses can’t be ignored. But we should also hold other countries who are geopolitically important to our nations to the same standards that we do Burundi.”

Mr. Mahmoud’s remarks gain more traction when viewed from the prism that powerful nations have largely ignored the plight of Burundians. When Burundi was on the verge of political collapse following a military-led coup in 1996, the UN tried to assemble an intervention force to prevent another Rwanda but they stalled in committing troops.

This same apathy continues today. In 2007, Burundi received $466 million in Official Development Assistance (ODA) from rich nations, a small amount considering the enormity of its challenges.

Coming up in May: Churches and NGOs fill in the aid void.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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