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20 May 2015

In today’s Burundi, neutrality is the best way to survive

The government’s divide-and-rule strategy seems to be working and there are rumours the police have drawn up a “kill list”.

By Jessica Hatcher

On Saturday 9 May, Jean-Claude Ciza, a former journalist, received a phone call. The 38-year-old Burundian was told that protesters were beating a young bus conductor, known as Pickup, on a nearby street. They alleged that Pickup had threatened to “soap up” (in French, savonner, used to mean “beat” or “kill”) anyone who opposed Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement on 25 April that he would run for a third term as president – this despite a fragile agreement signed in 2000 stipulating that no leader of the former Belgian colony (population: 10.4 million) could serve more than two terms.

The protesters thrashed Pickup with batons and branches as the military looked on in silence. Ciza recalls how he fought his way into the heart of the mob. “Let the law deal with him,” he said. After failing to rescue Pickup, Ciza approached the military for help. Eventually, soldiers fired their Kalashnikovs into the air. The crowd dispersed and Pickup was saved.

“Politics is an incredibly powerful weapon for manipulating people,” Ciza says, fearing that, after a decade of peace, Burundi is once again splintering – though this time along political, rather than ethnic lines.

Conflict has divided Burundi’s majority Hutu (85 per cent) population and the minority Tutsis (14 per cent) for half a century and Ciza’s family has been through it all. His mother was a Tutsi and her first husband a Hutu. In 1972, her husband was killed along with more than 100,000 other Hutus by the Tutsi government in response to a Hutu rebellion. Two decades later, Ciza’s half-brother, the couple’s only child, was driven into hiding after another round of attacks and counterattacks in which Hutus massacred 25,000 Tutsis. This event, the country’s second genocide, took place in 1993 but is often overlooked because of the death toll in Rwanda the following year. Ciza’s half-brother, who sympathised with the Hutus, was hunted down and murdered by Tutsis in 1999.

“We got over the ethnicity thing but the politicians are trying to drag us back into it. For what?” Ciza asks. “A small group of them trying to protect their own interests as opposed to the welfare of the state.”

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After 25 April, in the capital, Bujumbura, cars and houses were burned. The incumbent, Nkurunziza, is widely loathed, primarily as a result of a string of corruption scandals, including the disappearance into the government coffers of $25m of UN money intended for Burundian soldiers.

On 13 May, when the president flew to Tanzania to discuss the crisis with leaders from the East African Community, the former army commander Godefroid Niyombare staged a coup. He dismissed the president and sealed the country’s entry points. Victorious protesters streamed into town but their celebrations were premature. The general had misjudged the situation. President Nkurunziza, a former rebel fighter, outmanoeuvred him. After a day of heavy fighting, the putschists surrendered and loyalist troops began to rain retribution on those who had betrayed them. Soldiers were abducted from hospital beds. Police stormed through protesters’ neighbourhoods, shouting that the time for tear gas and shooting in the air was over. After the coup, protesters had become “rebels”.

Independent radio and television stations in Burundi have been silent since then, ransacked and burned by uniformed men on behalf of the state. Earlier in the year, the president warned that Tutsis wanted to run the country again. The pro-government radio station Rema FM backed him up. Over 100,000 people are reported to have fled the country, most of them Tutsis.

The government’s divide-and-rule strategy seems to be working. Ciza lives in Musaga, a suburb of Bujumbura in which confrontations between police and protesters frequently boil over into deadly clashes. He spends much of his time stopping suspected loyalists from being lynched.

“I’m the only person that’s neutral,” he shrugs. “There will be more and more of these cases, because people are so scared. There are rumours that a kill list has been drawn up and that the police will soon start working through it. People are getting more and more angry at the government.”

Ciza quit his job with a national broadcaster after receiving death threats for refusing to toe the line of the ruling party. “It’s a huge challenge to stay neutral in a place where politics determines who you are,” he says. His only weapon against accusations from both sides is neutrality. “Even my wife doesn’t know which party I’ll vote for,” he says with a smile.