Over the past week, Burundi has made a rare appearance in the international press after protests erupted in Bujumbura, the capital of this small country wedged between Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa’s Great Lakes Region.
The unrest, which has so far taken at least nine lives and left dozens wounded as security forces have clashed with protestors, was sparked by the announcement of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s candidacy for a controversial third term in office.
Below the surface, however, the protests are fuelled by an intense frustration shared by many of Bujumbura’s youth stemming from high unemployment and a pervasive sense of hopelessness in what is one of the world’s poorest countries.
Protests began April 26, a day after Burundi’s ruling party CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy) announced the widely expected nomination of Pierre Nkurunziza to vie for a third term, which his supporters argue is allowed on a technicality by the country’s somewhat ambiguous 2005 Constitution.
Opponents of Nkurunziza’s candidacy cite a clear two-term limit provided for in the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, which helped to end Burundi’s 12-year civil war and pave the way for Nkurunziza’s presidency.
After a brief respite on the weekend, demonstrations resumed Monday morning with renewed intensity.
Police have deployed tear gas, water cannon, and live ammunition to prevent the advance of protesters seeking to march to downtown Bujumbura. The opposition claims that the police are joined in attacking protesters by National Intelligence Service (SNR) agents as well as members of CNDD-FDD’s youth league, known as the Imbonerakure.
Police and Imbonerakure have also apparently been targeted, including in grenade attacks on Friday that reportedly killed three and wounded 17.
Tuesday, Burundi’s Constitutional Court ruled in favour of the president’s eligibility for a third term, but not before the Court’s vice-president fled the country citing pressure, including death threats, to approve the incumbent’s candidacy.
Judging by the chants of the demonstrators, which focus on the president’s third term, it may seem that Bujumbura’s youth just have a singular dedication to upholding presidential term limits.
But when asked by Equal Times about their motivations during the relative calm of the weekend, young protesters identified one central theme: for Burundi’s youth, poverty, joblessness and uncertainty about the future transcend the divisions that threaten the country’s fragile political order.
Burundi’s traditional economy is reaching a breaking point.
One of the smallest countries in Africa, it is also amongst the most densely populated on the continent, with a high annual population growth rate of 3.1 per cent and additional pressure on limited land caused by the repatriation of refugees.
It remains the world’s most rural country (excluding island nations) with roughly 90 per cent of the population relying on agriculture, yet is urbanising at a rate faster than nearly any other country as the decreasing viability of farming to support a family forces many young people to move to Bujumbura in search of work.
With few low-skill jobs available, many young Burundians turn to higher education to improve their employment prospects. But in a market flooded with graduates, a university degree alone is often not enough.
As Alain*, a non-partisan protester, unemployed despite a degree in economics, explained: “Those who studied economics are in the street, while those who studied law are economic advisors,” expressing a common sentiment that personal connections matter more than merit.
Students also lament the lack of technical training at universities, where courses tend to be heavily theoretical and out of touch with the job market.
Youth aligned with both the ruling party and the opposition tend to sympathise with one another on the issue of unemployment, and often blame manipulation by the political elite to explain the perceived bad behaviour of their peers.
“A challenge that the youth of parties have in common is that some are manipulated by politicians,” Joséphine, a civil servant and Imbonerakure member, told Equal Times.
“[A politician] gives money to youth, says ‘do this or that,’ and they accept” believes Richard, a member of the opposition FNL (National Liberation Front) party involved in protests in the Musaga district of Bujumbura.
He calls the Imbonerakure “Our brothers. We have to show them the right path.”
Despite Burundi’s modest economic progress since the civil war, the country lags behind the other members of the East African Community, and people here are asking: “Why not us?”
They need only look to neighbouring Rwanda to see an economy developing despite a devastating history of violence.
There appear to be no easy answers, but whoever leads Burundi out of the current crisis will need to contend with an urban youth population that is increasingly impatient with the status quo.
*The names of those interviewed have been changed at their request to protect their anonymity and security in the current climate of fear.