Presidential third term crisis in Burundi and student political activism: What I learned!

By Dr Gérard Birantamije, Senior Lecturer at Université du Lac Tanganyika

Burundian presidential third term crisis

The ongoing Burundian political crisis can be understood when scrutinizing the recent political past. In fact after 2010 elections, from the way the elections were conducted arose progressively an opinion that emphasized the need of a presidential term limit. Opposition parties announced many irregularities in the electoral process. But the main problem was that the international community said the elections were illegitimate. Since that period may things have been said and even academics and different analysts involved were somewhat doubting whether the current President was legally authorised to bid for a third term or not. Conclusions were contrasting, if not contradictory.  But one can say that Nkurunziza himself was not convinced whether he would run for the third term. He tried to change the Constitution in December 2013 but missed just one vote. Unfortunately, the current constitution is clear. In article 96, it says that “the president is elected on universal suffrage” and no “one can run for more than two terms”. His failing to change it would have given him a warning but against all odds he was presented by his party CNDD-FDD as candidate for 2015 presidential election on April 25, 2015. At the same time, the political and citizens’ mobilization became intense. Defenders of the third term argued that the 2005-2010 mandate “does not count” since Nkurunziza was not elected by universal suffrage in 2005. Therefore, the 2015-2020 mandate would be his second and not third term. Two weeks after the Constitutional Court gave its verdict, President Nkurunziza would compete in the 2015 electoral process even though analysts were saying the decision was with no added value. But it was a big challenge for both the Burundian and international community. Even some analysts have pointed to a scenario in Burundi of a probable electoral crisis. So, from 26 April 2015, two kinds of protestors emerged: some actively supporting the president’s candidacy and others firmly against it. Among these protestors, youth, especially students from Burundian universities, played a great role in this mobilization.

Political student activism in the presidential third term demonstrations

The two political movements around the third term were organized in the “Arusha movement” composed of political parties engaged against the third term of the President Nkurunziza and other political movements by independent actors like Audifax Ndabitoreye from Imbono Charisma, and the “Halt to the third term movement” that comprised almost 300 civil society organisations among them the Forum de Renforcement de la société civile (FORSC), Association pour la Promotion des Droits de l’Homme et des Prisonniers (APRODH) and Observatoire de l’Action Gouvernementale (OAG). On the other hand, there was the CNDD FDD and its youth Ligue Imbonerakure. At that point, the student movement was not coordinated. Students participated as normal citizens involved in that movement, but not officially as student organizations. Their respective universities did not call them to protest or to support the ruling party.

But progressively, at the University of Burundi, verbal confrontation was observed from the beginning of the protests. And two groups were opposed. On the one side were students opposed to the third term, and on the other those moving with the ruling party and engaged to help the president to campaign. However, according to many observers, the third group was the most important. At the UB, and in most of private universities, no one called students for protests, but from 26 April, any academic activity (courses, examinations, conferences) was organized. Some students were arrested, others shot and killed either at home or in the street where they were protesting. At the UB, the Ministry of Higher Education sent all the students off campus in May, but students from Mutanga, the central and main UB campus, went out and camped at the American Embassy in Bujumbura, asking for US protection and/or refuge. At that time, the US was firmly opposed to the third term of NKurunziza, and this was also a message of support of the US decision for having taken a position against the violation of the Arusha agreement and the Burundian constitution.

The students’ camp outside the American Embassy can be considered another way of protesting against the President’s decision to bid for a third term. Furthermore, all politicians opposed to the government went to pay a visit to these students. Their camp increasingly became another area of protest. Political entrepreneurs and even actors seen as neutral to the political conflict were paying visit and bringing meals, water and fruit to the students, many diplomats were interested in that movement. The student camp became another symbol of resistance beside different quarters of Bujumbura that were mobilised many weeks in protest.

Finally, while camping near the US Embassy, they continued to protest. They were divided into two groups. One group was to stay at that area so that no one realized they went somewhere. Another was supporting other protestors in different areas of Bujumbura. It was a strategy that was observed until the camp was removed just after the coup attempt in May 2015.

Social Medias and Student Political activism  

While we cannot say that social media were introduced to the protests by the student movement, we can confirm that they played a great role in promoting it both between youth and politicians. In fact before the 26 April movement, social media such as Instagram, Twitter and mostly WhatsApp were not popular in Burundi. Only Facebook was known. When the government tried to limit the access to both classic public media (Radio and TV) and to social medias by inviting the telecommunications regulatory body to cut off access to social media, a Burundian student in Computer Sciences  & ICT in an Indian university showed to all of Burundi internet users how they could dodge the measure taken by the government on their mobile phone. By giving a new Virtual Private Network (VPN) code, this student became a social network hero, as everyone was able to get information about the ongoing electoral crisis. Unfortunately, when he came back home to Burundi in July for his holidays, the student was arrested at the airport and imprisoned without trial by the government. Political activism was observed within the youth and at a certain time Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook were considered to be the main source of information on the Burundi crisis. Many people even feared that the social media were announcing the apocalypse as so much hatred information were exchanged between youth, especially students. Finally two hashtags on Twitter by students came to represent the two opposed positions about the electoral crisis: #sindumuja (I am not a slave of Pierre Nkurunziza) and #silent majority (these supposed to support the president Nkurunziza). These two hashtags were serving in the virtual space for confrontation between students involved in this 2015 electoral crisis. And it was the first time that the internet was invested as tool of resistance for the two challengers. It is as thought young scholars were divided into two opposite camp. This can be observed when one is reading the youth blog “Waza” and Yaga Burundi. There are entrenched positions on the third term and the electoral crisis.

To conclude on the aspect of the role of social media in the Burundian crisis, after private media were destroyed in May 14, social media became the main source of information in Burundi. It is the main tool to inform and alert national and international opinion on what is happening in Burundi even though they lack ethics and journalism deontology. For example, on a blog called “Enfants du pays”, a youth blogger wrote a ‘killed youth biography’ and this could help in case justice would make investigations on those assassinations. In another application called ‘Burundi direct’ which is more visited, the texts posted are somewhat terrifying people, but unfortunately we are not able to stop that.

In conclusion, I can say I learned so much with electoral crisis. Young scholars are able to change so many things in Burundi both in politics and mentality behavior. The Burundian people have long been portrayed as docile population who fear authority and especially that they hide what they think of the authority. Youth and students in general showed they can go beyond what is considered to be true. I was not expecting to see Burundian people protesting for almost two months. I was not thinking Burundians could be accustomed so quickly to the absence of public media, but I was ignoring that we have to learn more from youth and young scholars especially.