"Please pray for us," a friend pleaded in a WhatsApp message last week, before sending a picture reference with the captions: "It is getting out of control." It is a picture of law enforcement officers battling a crowd that had poured to the streets to denounce the third term push for President Pierre Nkurunziza.
I, like many Rwandans, follow closely the political developments in Burundi for a number of reasons. In the case of conflict, many understand very well its potential to spill into Rwanda by virtue of the shared border. More importantly, however, is the brotherly camaraderie that Rwandans share with Burundians, which makes people from both countries concerned about the welfare of the other. It is a fondness that is informed by deeply shared cultural ties, including language, which bring into question the logic and wisdom of the states that were created, and bequeathed, by colonialism. However, that’s a story for another day.
Today’s subject is one person’s cry for prayer. It is a cry that, without a doubt, many Burundians are presently making to loved ones, and to anyone else willing to listen. The message is: We are very afraid.
Moreover, the alarms went off a long time ago. But we hit snooze. Stories about the potential for Burundi to descend into social unrest as a result of the upcoming elections have been around for quite some time.
However, most of these were dismissed as the rituals of the media. Many thought they were the usual drum bells of those who never tire to predict doom in Africa, particularly during electoral cycles.
It is for this reason that predictions of an “impending” clash between the supporters of Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the North and those of Jonathan Goodluck, a Christian from the South, were roundly ignored.
But Burundi is not Nigeria. One need not be a fortunate-teller to speak about chaos and Burundi’s elections. In any event, such a person cannot be said to be predicting chaos; instead, what he or she would be doing is, in fact, an exercise in “post-dicting.”
That’s because refugees, a sure indicator of chaos, are already pouring into Rwanda, and a few towards Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Reports are estimating that by last week at least 8,000 had settled in four camps across Rwanda’s side of the border, in the districts of Nyanza, Bugesera, Kirehe, Gisagara.
All this got me thinking. I thought about the friend’s predicament, the plight of the refugees, the possibility that their lives will never be the same again, as a result of this dislocation, and considered the official response from their government, that they should ignore the “rumours” and return home to vote.
Such thoughts ultimately bring one back to the question of democratic practice in Africa. For one thing, there’s the argument that Burundi’s democratic approach, of confrontational contestation, is more sustainable than Rwanda’s model that seeks consensus from would be political adversaries.
As a result, Rwanda’s approach has been dismissed in academia and in the international media as cosmetic in nature, despite its ability to coalesce competing interests for the single purpose of delivering improved outcomes for the country’s citizens.
Whatever the judgement, it is becoming clearer that confrontational politics breeds social unrest. This, of course, is not to say that all political systems based on this approach must necessarily produce violence, as Nigeria has shown.
Nigeria may have dodged the bullet. However, Burundi has not; and the situation portents for far worse.
The point is that they create conditions that increase the potential for the political disagreements to spill into the lives of ordinary citizens who may have very little to do with whatever the disagreement is about.
Therefore, we need to think long and hard about democracy, democratic practice, and what its purpose ought to be in the lives of all citizens, who in the end are its main casualty due to conditions of limited mobility.
If we can’t build a mature democracy of practitioners who are focused on improving the lives of the people they lead; if the outcome is to uproot people from their homes into the destituteness of refugee life, indeed, if the outcome is unmitigated violence, then perhaps this whole thing of elections is not worth it.
If I’m not being a democrat by defending the welfare of the ordinary person, then so be it. Indeed, one is likely to rebut that the fact that Burundians are able to ‘freely’ demonstrate against their government is democratic practice, as is the fact that a big number of its elite has denounced efforts to push for a third presidential term. However, such a response would be no different from that of the government that the fears of the thousands of refugees are unfounded, and that their decision to flee was grounded in nothing but rumours.
On a final note, the predicament under which my friend finds herself cannot be separated from the larger lessons that we ought to take from what is happening in her country. First, we ought to roundly denounce all politics that does not place the welfare of citizens at the heart of government business. Second, to support all politics whose raison d’être is its citizens, and to let anyone call it by whatever term they wish.