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In Burundi, youth find their voice as president clings to power (+video)

Youth-led protests have turned violent over President Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term. Critics say the move is unconstitutional and could reverse the democratic progress made since a civil war ended in 2005. 

The gates of the University of Burundi are shuttered. The bumpy, tree-lined drive that leads to the once bustling campus is deserted.

It is within these walls of Burundi’s only public university that voices of protest were raised last month against President Pierre Nkurunziza after he said he would run for a third term in June. Since then street protests, many led by the university students, have rocked this small East African country – the worst since a civil war ended 10 years ago and Mr. Nkurunziza took power.

A mile away, 600 students are camping outside the US Embassy compound after the government closed their university, citing student safety during the protests. Most are here because they cannot return to their rural homes. 

Students say the government closed the university because the campus had become ground zero for dissent: a place where Burundi’s best and brightest could meet, organize, and speak out against the president and his ruling party.

“The people are determined to continue until the constitution is respected," says Aime Kwizera, a newly minted law graduate and protest organizer. “If [Nkurunziza] continues not respecting people, things will be bad.”

The protests are a reckoning for a country where 46 percent of the population is under the age of 15, and only an annual average of 18 percent enroll into secondary school. Joblessness remains high – youth unemployment has stood at just under 11 percent since 2010 – and many graduates struggle to find work.  

“The problem in Burundi is the lack of jobs,” says Ernest Niyungeko, a fourth-year applied science student. He is the de facto leader of the students at the American embassy because he was the first one brave enough to knock on the gates.

“We finish university studies, [but] we can’t be hired. In order to be hired you must be corrupt, the jobs are given according to who you know.”

For these youth, Nkurunziza’s attempt to violate the democratic process set by the constitution and the peace accord that ended a 12-year-long civil war only adds to their frustration over their prospects and that of their country.

On Monday, Burundi's constitutional court ruled that the president could run for a third term. The court's vice president, who has left the country, said Tuesday that the court had been strong-armed into making the ruling. He's among 40,000 Burundians who have fled to neighboring countries because of fears of a wider conflict. 

“I’m a lawyer so if I accept that kind of injustice what will I have?" says Mr. Kwizera. "What kind of future will I be preparing for myself and my future family?” 

Protecting the Arusha Accords

On the outskirts of the city, hundreds of youth chant “Temba! Temba!” [“Fall down! Fall down!”] in Kirundi as they march through the streets waving protest signs and tree branches. Their makeshift roadblocks –  boulders, tin roofs, felled trees, and smoldering piles of timber – dot the area. Protesters pack together tires and clothing and set them alight, and as flames lick the sky they whoop and shout.

Many here grew up learning about the 2005 Arusha Accords and its central role in the decade of peace that Burundi has enjoyed since the war. They know it well, and strongly believe in its critical role in maintaining peace.

“They are the foundation of the current peace and security,” says Spageon Ngabo a medical student and a representative of FOCODE, one of the student groups organizing the protests. “If we kick these texts out we could be going back in time, that is what we are scared of.”

As in neighboring Rwanda, the war was fueled by longstanding tensions between Burundi’s two main ethnic groups, Hutus and Tutsis. An estimated 300,000 people were killed. The Arusha Accords established ethnic quotas in Burundi’s institutions and mandated that no president could serve more than two terms. And with Nkurunziza’s push for a third term, many fear that it could have destabilizing implications.

Not all university students are in support of the protests. Some are members of Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party. But the fact that the two sides are ethnically mixed, for now, shows progress since the civil war ended, says Nestor Nkurunziza, a law professor who has no relation to the president.

“I’d like to highlight that what we are seeing is students are united,” he says. “They are very involved in the protests but Hutu and Tutsi together.”

Violence continues

With no end in sight for the protest, and an escalating situation on the streets, the stakes are high for protesting youth here who want a different future for their country and are going toe-to-toe with a government that is increasingly intolerant of dissent.

“[The government doesn’t] tolerate any criticism and these university students, the intellectuals, will naturally be critical of government policies,” says Professor Nkurunziza.

“It’s a party that is increasingly narrowing any space for public debate, if you criticize the government you are the enemy of the country.”

On Thursday, one protestor was killed in clashes with police, bringing the death toll to at least 10. Hundreds have been arrested and beaten behind bars. Professor Nkurunziza estimates at least 60 university students remain in jail.

Mr. Kwizera, the recent law graduate, was arrested on Tuesday during protests after the constitutional court ruling. He describes being loaded into a police truck before police beat him with a belt across his back and kicked him in the ribs.

“It doesn’t stop me, if we have to continue until we get what we want, we have to continue.”

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