EAC should pay attention to Burundi as elections loom

Being East Africans, it will not be too much of a stretch to say that we are our "brother’s keeper"- that we must look out for each other. Even if it may not touch one personally, many of us in the region know somebody who is “doing something” in any of the five EAC member states.

Being East Africans, it will not be too much of a stretch to say that we are our "brother’s keeper"- that we must look out for each other.

Even if it may not touch one personally, many of us in the region know somebody who is “doing something” in any of the five EAC member states. That’s how interconnected we are with the free flow of citizens across borders. And, if for nothing else, we should mind what is going on in Burundi as elections there loom.

I spent my Easter holidays in Buja (Bujumbura), and word on the street is that no one is certain “how” it will turn out after May this year, when the first round of elections are expected to be held.

The situation is such that there are bitter disagreements within the ruling party about who should be the ultimate flag bearer as the opposition (its own squabbles notwithstanding) rallies to make a mark with the electorate and carry the day.

And it does not promise to be pretty, if the man on the street is to be believed; Indeed, Rwanda is already hosting over 6,000 Burundians who have in the last fortnight fled their country over the same uncertainties. The number could increase.

Still, as has been knowledgeably observed by one interested researcher specializing on Burundi and Rwanda, the “worries (in Burundi) are mixed with hope for change.”

The view of “worries mixed with hope” is the one I would like to cling to. I take it that it is akin to the throes of youth – that some anxiety cannot necessarily be a bad thing in a country still growing up and trying to find its footing.

This is especially with the knowledge that it is within a community of states that, I fervently believe, would not stand by and watch unwarranted happenings – such as violence – take place when there is so much at stake for all of them individually and collectively.

Notably, there is the geopolitical history, especially as it relates to Rwanda and Burundi and their entrenchment in the region.

As I observed in this very column some three-or-so-years ago, there are those who would like to think that the two countries are like fraternal twins, just short of being identical.

The countries not only share the same hilly topography, but gained independence from Belgium at the same time (1962) and share a similar language and culture.

The metaphor of twins seems especially apt in that the two countries also joined the family of the East African Community at the same time in July 2009.

Joining the EAC seemed natural given the proximity and the tremendous progress gained by both countries after having emerged from violent conflict; Rwanda in 1994 after the Genocide against the Tutsi, and Burundi in 2005 following a truce and the general elections that saw the swearing in of President Pierre Nkurunziza for his first term.

Interestingly, as I observed then and still applies even now, it may be this difference in the dates that the two emerged out of conflict that appears to set them apart.

Twenty-one years after the Genocide Rwanda appears the older sibling of the two with the progress that has been gained in all sectors of development, which is not surprising given the head start in post-conflict recovery.

Having started national reconstruction in earnest only a decade ago (compared to its sibling country’s two decades ago), it means that Burundi has some way to go. But it determinedly follows close behind as, given the Rwandan example, the country has all the potential to catch up with its immediate northern neighbour and other EAC partner states.

That said, it remains a matter of personal curiosity for me discover why the two countries do not observe Easter Monday as a public holiday, unlike my native Kenya, as well as Uganda and Tanzania.

Though I didn’t lose out, it was on a somber note. On Monday, April 6, while I was still in Buja, the Government of Burundi declared it a public holiday in solidarity with Rwanda as the country prepared to begin the 21st Commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi.

The writer is a commentator on local and regional issues

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