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Burundi turns to WhatsApp as political turmoil brings media blackout
Burundi turns to WhatsApp as political turmoil brings media blackout
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
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.

Commentary / Africa

De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes

President Tshisekedi’s plans for joint operations with DR Congo’s belligerent eastern neighbours against its rebels risks regional proxy warfare. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to encourage diplomatic efforts in the region and Tshisekedi to shelve his plan for the joint operations.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020.

Since assuming office in early 2019, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) president, Félix Tshisekedi, has stressed his determination to dismantle the dozens of Congolese and foreign armed groups blighting the troubled east of the country. He has also prioritised repairing ties with neighbouring states, which have historically both backed and fought against rebels in the eastern DRC over various cycles of war in the last two decades. Today, tensions are again mounting among the DRC’s neighbours – between Burundi and Uganda, on one hand, and Rwanda, on the other – potentially compounding the country’s security challenges. Alongside Tshisekedi’s diplomatic efforts to calm tensions, he has floated plans to invite these three neighbours to deploy their armed forces into the DRC to conduct joint operations with Congolese forces against rebels. Yet insofar as tensions among those countries remain high, such operations could pave the way for them to step up support to allied groups even while fighting rivals, and thus fuel proxy warfare. Civilians in the eastern DRC are likely to suffer most.

In line with its December Foreign Affairs Council conclusions that lay out the EU’s plans for re-engagement with the DRC, and to help President Tshisekedi de-escalate regional tensions, the EU and its member states should:

  • Reinforce the International Contact Group for the Great Lakes region, an informal gathering comprising the UN (including both the UN’s special envoy to the Great Lakes and the head of its mission in the DRC, MONUSCO), the U.S., the African Union and South Africa, as well as the EU and several European states that are important donors in the region, such as Belgium, the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. The EU and European governments could designate senior EU and other European ministerial appointees to fill the group, over and above the working-level desk officers who normally tend to participate.
  • Use the increased clout this would bring to push for a mechanism whereby each of the three neighbours airs allegations against states they believe are backing armed groups in the DRC and supports the charges with evidence. Allegations can then be investigated by the UN Group of Experts and the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (the ICGLR comprises regional states and is a guarantor of a 2013 regional peace agreement; its joint verification mechanism and the UN expert group already have mandates to investigate claims of support to armed groups). Their findings could inform diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions among neighbours and end their backing of insurgents in the DRC.
  • At the same time, encourage President Tshisekedi to shelve, at least for now, his plan for joint operations with neighbours’ security forces.
  • Offer financial and technical support for the national disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process, to ensure that Congolese militias linked to foreign rebels operating in the eastern DRC have a safe pathway to giving up their fight.

Security Challenges

In recent months, eastern DRC-based foreign insurgencies have escalated attacks on both the Congolese army as well as soldiers and civilians in neighbouring countries. The Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan presidents are all rattling their sabres in response, accusing one another of proxy warfare.

On 4 October, DRC-based fighters killed fourteen people in Kinigi village in Rwanda’s Musanze district. Rwandan authorities blame the Forces démocratiques de liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) rebels. They say the FDLR is working with another DRC-based rebel group, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), which they allege is run by one of President Paul Kagame’s former generals. They also say both the FDLR and the RNC enjoy Burundian and Ugandan support. In a speech, Kagame vowed to retaliate against anyone seeking to attack Rwanda.

After the Kinigi killings, fighters crossed into Burundi from the DRC to launch two separate deadly attacks. Burundian RED-Tabara rebels, whom Burundian officials say are backed by Rwanda, claimed the first attack. No one claimed the second, but Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, recalling Kigali’s support for mutineers in a 2015 coup attempt, blamed Rwanda for both attacks, alleging that Kigali supports RED-Tabara. Ugandan officials, for their part, assert that Rwanda is collaborating with the Allied Democratic Forces, a rebel movement with roots in Uganda that is implicated in dozens of massacres in the Beni area of North Kivu since 2014.

Rwandan and Ugandan officials continue to trade accusations that each is plotting to destabilise the other.

Rwandan and Ugandan officials continue to trade accusations that each is plotting to destabilise the other. Both governments have purged their security services of suspected traitors. Rwanda has now also closed a main border crossing into Uganda, suffocating trade between the two countries. Meanwhile, Burundi and Rwanda have dispatched troops to their mutual border while Uganda has deployed troops to its western frontier facing North Kivu. Should these tensions heighten, they could fuel more proxy fighting in the eastern DRC, further threatening regional stability.

Recognising the dangers, Tshisekedi invited Rwanda and Uganda for talks in July and August hosted by Angolan President João Lourenço in the Angolan capital Luanda. They culminated in a memorandum of understanding, signed on 21 August, in which both countries promised to halt “actions conducive to destabilisation or subversion in the territory of the other party and neighbouring countries”. In addition to these diplomatic efforts, the DRC president floated plans that would involve the armed forces of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda conducting joint military operations with Congolese forces against insurgents in the eastern DRC. Absent political de-escalation among the neighbour governments, such operations could pave the way for all three to ratchet up support to proxies opposing their respective rivals. The eastern DRC could again become the arena for a multi-sided melee.

Calming Regional Tensions

In its latest Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions on the DRC in December 2019, the EU asserted its readiness to redefine its relationship with the country. This comes after relations between Brussels and Kinshasa cooled at the tail end of Kabila’s presidency, when the EU sanctioned some of his top henchmen in late 2018. President Tshisekedi has expressed an increasing willingness to work with Brussels even as the EU renewed sanctions in December 2019 against twelve of the fourteen Kabila-era officials. In particular, the EU could help de-escalate regional tensions and lessen neighbours’ support to foreign armed groups while contributing to pathways to surrender for Congolese fighters allied to such groups.

The immediate priority is to encourage President Tshisekedi to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to calm tensions among DRC’s neighbours.

The immediate priority is to encourage President Tshisekedi to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to calm tensions among DRC’s neighbours while putting aside, at least for now, plans for those neighbours to conduct military operations in the eastern DRC. The EU’s best bet for pressing for an approach along these lines would be to increase its influence in the International Contact Group for the Great Lakes, the informal group to which it and a number of European states belong. Brussels and other European capitals should commit more senior officials both to the contact group itself and to liaising with the group and with regional governments. Together with the UN special envoy to the Great Lakes, Xia Huang, who has recently been instrumental in bringing together the Burundian, Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan intelligence chiefs to discuss their deteriorating relations, the EU should use its weight in the group to prioritise the need for a political solution to tackling foreign armed groups in the eastern DRC.

Such a solution could entail Xia encouraging the three states to lay out their allegations and evidence of support by their rivals to armed groups in the DRC. He could share all information received with the UN Group of Experts and the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region. The evidence provided by regional states, and investigations conducted by the expert group and joint verification mechanism, could collectively inform diplomatic efforts to halt or diminish support to DRC-based insurgents.

By financially and technically supporting the national DDR process, the EU can also back Tshisekedi’s priority of tackling the plague of Congolese armed groups. Congolese insurgents, many of whom are sucked into alliances with more powerful foreign armed groups, often lack an alternative in the absence of a fully funded DDR program. Under Kabila, the Congolese authorities gave only limited resources to DDR. Several donors pulled out, frustrated by Kinshasa’s lack of commitment to funding a national program. Despite the uptick in attacks in the east, there are signs that some fighters are placing greater hope in Tshisekedi’s presidency and expressing greater desire to surrender. MONUSCO’s new mandate, adopted at the end of December 2019, encourages the DRC’s government to appoint a senior coordinator to lead the DDR effort. The EU could consider supplying this person with the necessary funding and expertise to carry out the mandate.