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Burundi turns to WhatsApp as political turmoil brings media blackout
Burundi turns to WhatsApp as political turmoil brings media blackout
Report 185 / Africa

Burundi: A Deepening Corruption Crisis

Despite the establishment of anti-corruption agencies, Burundi is facing a deepening corruption crisis that jeopardises prospects for lasting peace and stability.

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Executive Summary

Despite the establishment of anti-corruption agencies, Burundi is facing a deepening corruption crisis that threatens to jeopardise a peace that is based on development and economic growth bolstered by the state and driven by foreign investment. The “neopatrimonialist” practices of the party in office since 2005 has relegated Burundi to the lowest governance rankings, reduced its appeal to foreign investors, damaged relations with donors; and contributed to social discontent. More worrying still, neopatrimonialism is undermining the credibility of post-conflict institutions, relations between former Tutsi and new Hutu elites and cohesion within the ruling party, whose leaders are regularly involved in corruption scandals. In order to improve public governance, the Burundian authorities should “walk the talk” and take bold steps to curtail corruption. Civil society should actively pursue its watchdog role and organise mass mobilisation against corruption and donors should prioritise good governance.

Since Burundi became a republic in 1966, state capture, mostly by the Tutsi elite, was at the centre of politics, and the unfair wealth distribution fuelled conflict. While the 1993-2003 civil war has not threatened the Tutsi political and economic domination, it has increased corruption and favoured the rise of an ethnically diverse oligarchy.

When the CNDD-FDD (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie) rebellion came to power in 2005, it intended not only to transfer political power from the Tutsi to the Hutu but also to improve governance. The new authorities pledged to fight corruption and created state structures to this effect. However, the first corruption scandals involving the CNDD-FDD dignitaries and state officials watered down the hope of a more equitable wealth distribution.

In addition to the politicisation of the civil service, the ruling party captured the public sector and its resources. It is coveting the private sector by trying to extend its control over the banking sector. It is also interfering in privatisation processes, thwarting efforts to improve the business climate. In such a small economy, where the state maintains a prominent role, the monopolisation of public and private resources risks derailing the peacebuilding process.

The president took the lead in the fight against corruption to improve Burundi’s declining image and address the impact of this pervasive corruption on foreign aid – which amounts to half of the state budget. He launched a “zero tolerance” campaign and designed a national strategy for good governance. However, as the core problem has not been correctly identified, this approach is doomed to fail. The solution is not to “get the talk right”, to “get the institutions right” and to “get the legal framework right”; it is to change the power relations that undermine good governance.

The national strategy for good governance includes all the necessary technical ingredients to fight corruption: improved legal framework, citizens’ access to information, independent monitoring and regulatory organisations, depoliticised civil service managers, transparent tendering processes and public servants recruitments, and reform of the natural resources sector.

What is missing is a clear political agenda. Civil society organisations should create a mass movement against corruption through the establishment of an anti-corruption forum gathering the private sector, rural organisations and universities. They should also conduct independent citizens’ surveys and assessments and scrutinise the government’s anti-corruption performance. Donors should prioritise the fight against corruption and reconsider their engagement if governance does not improve. Now that the anti-corruption agenda has become a public policy through the national strategy for good governance, it is up to civil society and donors to create the conditions for its implementation.

Bujumbura/Nairobi/Brussels, 21 March 2012

Op-Ed / Africa

Burundi turns to WhatsApp as political turmoil brings media blackout

Threats and harassment have driven journalists into exile, leaving social media to fill the void for those wanting to reach the world and connect disparate groups

Burundi’s year-long crisis has not gone away. It started with President Pierre Nkurunziza’s determination to claim a third term, trampling over the constitutional arrangements that ended a decade-long civil war.

Press freedom is a major casualty of the new strife; but the turmoil has also transformed the way in which Burundians get information. For better or worse, social media has filled the vacuum left by the shutting down of the most popular radio stations and forcing out of many of the country’s professional journalists.

With 90% of the population relying on radio as their main source of information, traditional media has been in the eye of Burundi’s gathering storm since at least 2010. During the abortive coup of 13-14 May last year, insurgents and opponents of the president’s bid for a third term tried and failed to take over the national radio television (RTNB), but they managed to destroy the government-linked Rema FM.

The next day, loyalist forces regained control of the city and destroyed radio stations including Bonesha, RPA, Isanganiro and Radio Renaissance. In August, a committee of inquiry established “complicity” between some private media bosses and the putschists, leading a prosecutor to issue arrest warrants against journalists.

Since then, the climate of violence, harassment and threats has driven about a hundred journalists into exile – that’s a third of all Burundi’s reporters. Foreign media are no longer welcome and dangers await those who do find their way in.

At home, the media landscape has been reduced to a minimum: religious and commercial radio are the last independent antennas standing. Reporters Without Borders ranks Burundi 156th out of 180 countries in its press freedom index.

Meanwhile, mobile phones have replaced radios as the main source of information. WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and texts have filled the gap. Mobile networks continue to function even during moments of severe crisis. The government can’t function without them, and amid severe budget constraints, it needs communication taxes.

Social networks have become an essential tool for daily life and self-protection for Burundians. People seek real-time information on any danger or risk in volatile neighbourhoods, from finding out about police raids to learning the target of the latest grenade explosions. They also search for news about those who have been arrested or abducted.

Social media also enables the population to attract the attention of the international community. During the government crackdown on public protests against Nkurunziza’s candidacy for a third term, Burundians circulated pictures on social media of police beating protesters and firing at unarmed civilians. 

Mobile phones and social media maintain a link between many of Burundi’s constituent parts that appear steadily more remote and disconnected: the diaspora and the refugee camps; the capital city and rural areas; Burundi and the rest of the world.

But the rapid spread of news through social media brings its own problems. Such networks are efficient vehicles for propaganda and countering wild rumours such as “Burundi is about to launch attacks against Rwanda”, “Rwanda is about to launch attacks against Burundi”, “The Nkurunziza family has fled the country”, or “Last night, Tutsis were massacred in such-and-such a town.”

Social media users relay everything they hear, making it difficult to distinguish between valuable information, rumours and propaganda of the worst kind. Reports are not verified before being published, and are mostly emotional reactions to events published in real-time without the benefit of critical distance.

Although Burundi’s violent history makes these new forms of communication particularly sensitive, the rise of social media through mobile phones is far from unique. Across Africa, Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp are used increasingly by political activists to bypass government censorship.

In some countries, this has led to a game of cat and mouse between authorities and the public. Shutting down mobile data around elections or periods of political tension is becoming common. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the government shut down mobile data during protests in January 2015 – but at significant cost to businesses that rely heavily on mobile payments. In Uganda, the government closed down mobile data for several days during the elections in February.

In Burundi, as more responsible radio stations are replaced by unfiltered voices spread by new technologies, journalists are trying to re-establish professional reporting in their country.

In March, a meeting was held in Brussels between Karenga Ramadhani, the new president of the Burundian National Council for Communication, and the banned media. This was a first step towards an improved political climate.

Since then, some arrest warrants against journalists have been lifted and both sides have made commitments to improve relations. Nevertheless, opening a space for public debate will only be possible if those promises are kept, and the situation returns to normal.

This article first appeared in The Guardian.