Posted by Rowan Popplewell.

I have recently returned from Burundi, where I saw first-hand how civil society has been finding increasingly creative ways to express discontent with a Government it believes is determined to hold on to power at any cost. Since then, protests have gripped the capital following the announcement in April that the President, Pierre Nkurunziza, will seek a third term; a move civil society, opposition parties and even the Catholic Church regard as unconstitutional. Yesterday, the army intervened, announcing that it had dismissed the President and a coup was underway. The outcome of the coup remains far from certain as army factions fight for control of the capital.

Civil society was at the forefront of protests that led to the coup attempt. The demonstrations and the coup that followed present civil society with a conundrum: can civil society protest against the Government on the streets of Bujumbura alongside members of opposition parties without being perceived as part of the political opposition? Experience from elsewhere in Africa and Eastern Europe shows that it is not easy to challenge the abuse of political power while being seen to remain above the fight for it, especially in divided contexts like Burundi.

Nkurunziza and his supporters responded to civil society in the protests harshly, temporarily detaining one civil society leader and issuing arrest warrants for other prominent activists. The largest independent radio station was shut and access to social media has been restricted in an attempt to stop the protests spreading. Yet the demonstrations continued and showed few signs of abating until yesterday’s coup attempt.

Tensions between civil society and the authorities rose steadily in Burundi as the Government sought to restrict spaces for protest and dissent in advance of the 2015 elections. Over the past two years the Government introduced new legislation designed to increase control over independent media and public gatherings, such as the Law on Demonstrations and Public Meetings, which allows the authorities to prevent public assemblies and to ban spontaneous demonstrations.

Prominent individuals who openly criticise the Government were harassed. Some civil society activists reported receiving intimidating phone calls in the middle of the night; others received more serious threats to themselves and their families[1]. The Government also detained civil society leaders. Last May they arrested a high profile human rights campaigner, and in January they arrested the head of Burundi’s largest independent radio station. Both were subsequently released following high profile campaigns.

It is against this backdrop of escalating tensions that civil society leaders decided to openly challenge the third term. Afraid that Nkurunziza would seek to run again, a group of civil society organisations came together in January under the bannerHalte au troisième mandat! to coordinate civil society opposition to his candidacy.

The groups at the head of this campaign and their leaders were involved in coordinating the protests. They helped to bring people onto the streets, successfully tapping into widespread public anger over recent events, as well as long-term frustrations generated by sustained political and economic marginalisation and ongoing human rights violations. On Saturday two hundred women descended on the almost deserted city centre, declaring:

We are mothers. It is our children who are being killed. It is our children who are in prison. We are here for the respect of human rights. We are here to protest against the third term.

Not all of civil society was involved in the protests. Several groups chose not to join the civil society coalition against the third term and did not participate in the protests. Broadly speaking, there are two civil societies in Burundi, one based in the capital and the other in the provinces. The civil society campaign against the third term is almost entirely made up of the first – organisations that are largely based in Bujumbura, who focus on governance and human rights violations, and see themselves as a watchdog that is responsible for holding the Government to account.

In a country where political opposition is weak and fragmented, these civil society groups are often regarded as the de-facto political opposition. A vacuum was created after opposition parties boycotted the 2010 elections, a gross miscalculation that left them without representation in the National Assembly and Senate. Since then several of the parties have split into wings and factions, leaving them unable to mount a coherent and effective opposition to the Government. The involvement of civil society groups in recent protests, alongside members of opposition parties and their youth militias, will do little to challenge this perception. Reports that they have been involved in negotiations to establish a transitional government with the General who led the coup attempt will confirm it in the eyes of Government supporters. Despite calls for protests to remain peaceful, civil society leaders have been unable to prevent them from turning violent. At least 22 people were killed and several more have been injured in the protests. The coup attempt has also turned violent as army factions fight for control of key government buildings. Violence could escalate quickly if youth militias, such as the Imbonerakureretaliate.

I have spent several months over the past year working with civil society activists in Burundi and have a great deal of respect for them and the difficult work that they do. Yet I fear for the future. While it is important to challenge the abuse of power by holding  the Government to account for its actions, civil society groups that seek to do this must remain – and be perceived to remain – above the increasingly violent fight for political power and position. Failure to do so could have damaging consequences for groups that participated in the protests, and for civil society in Burundi as a whole.

Civil society groups can ensure they remain above the fight by  using different language and rhetoric to distance themselves from the political opposition; observing human rights violations and denouncing use of violence on all sides; and using active non-violence techniques to support mediation and dialogue between opponents. Perhaps most importantly, civil society groups must continually remind themselves and others who they are, what their mission is, and crucially, how their mission differs from that of political and military actors.


[1] EurAc (01 December 2014) “Burundi: The European network for Central Africa (EurAc) is concerned by threats to the Forum pour la Conscience et le Développement (FOCODE) and to its President, Pacifique Nininahazwe.”