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Fields of Bitterness (II): Restitution and Reconciliation in Burundi
Fields of Bitterness (II): Restitution and Reconciliation in Burundi
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Burundi turns to WhatsApp as political turmoil brings media blackout
Burundi turns to WhatsApp as political turmoil brings media blackout
Report 214 / Africa

Fields of Bitterness (II): Restitution and Reconciliation in Burundi

To avoid a revival of past ethnic tensions between Hutu and Tutsi, Burundi needs to find the right balance between land restitution and national reconciliation.

Executive Summary

Since the end of Burundi’s decade-old civil war in 2000, the country has faced a problematic land legacy, with the need to resettle hundreds of thousands of unfairly deprived refugees and displaced persons. Restitution is essential to consolidate peace, but amid acute land tensions due to demographic growth and the scarcity of available arable lands, the current policy is weakening peacebuilding efforts and reviving ethnic resentment. It gives advantage to repatriated citizens to the detriment of current land owners, who were not all complicit in land thefts during the civil war. In order to avoid restitution being perceived as revanchist, a new land reconciliation policy is required, more aligned with the spirit of the 2000 Arusha peace agreement.

More than 700,000 Burundians have lived in refugee camps in neighbouring Tanzania, the main host country for Burundi’s refugees. In 2010, the Tanzanian government granted citizenship to 162,000 of them, but also reaffirmed its willingness to repatriate all those not naturalised. In late 2012, Burundians lost their refugee status and 35,000 residents from the last camp were repatriated, sometimes forcibly. A land restitution policy, provided for in the Arusha agreement, has been implemented for several years. Addressing repatriation disputes requires a subtle combination of equity, flexibility and diplomacy. Instead, however, the current policy is characterised by a lack of impartiality, hasty restitutions, and confusion between those who bought the land in good faith and those who knowingly dispossessed others. Such a policy could rekindle ethnic divisions without securing land rights for refugees and displaced persons.

The Burundian government has passed a law, without any consultation, to revise the mandate of the National Land Commission (CNTB) and is also trying to establish a special court to address disputes arising from the commission’s decisions. This is creating fears, especially within the minority Tutsi community, and risks undermining both restitution and reconciliation at the same time.

Before the beginning of the 2015 electoral campaign, during which land issues will feature prominently, the government should, with the support of international partners, implement the following measures:

  • revise the new law on the CNTB and the draft law on the special court based on public parliamentary hearings to ensure broader debate and greater buy-in from the population;
  • renew the CNTB leadership to make it more consensual and strengthen its integrity;
  • return to the practice of sharing out lands and properties between land owners and complainants;
  • harmonise the principles that will inform the decisions of the CNTB and the courts; and
  • elaborate a land compensation policy, designed by an interdepartmental committee, based on available land resources as well as land needs for economic development.

This report, the second in a two-part series on failures and deficiencies of land reform in Burundi, analyses the dilemma between reconciliation and restitution. If these two national objectives are not properly balanced, restitutions can lead to a revival of past ethnic tensions and, by repairing one injustice through another, create frustration and resentment.

Nairobi/Brussels, 17 February 2014

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.