By Ann Garrison
KPFA Weekend News, 12.25.2015.
Supporters of President Pierre Nkurunziza say that the key social divide in Burundi is not Hutu and Tutsi, but urban and rural.
KPFA News Anchor Cameron Jones: US press and policymakers, and most notably UN Ambassador Samantha Power, argue that the US is morally obliged to go to war to stop or prevent genocide or mass atrocities, as they did in both Libya and Syria. This ideology is codified in the UN’s Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which states that “the international community has a role that cannot be blocked by the invocation of sovereignty.” Since March, when Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s party announced that they would nominate him for a third term, Western press and policymakers have warned of a genocide in Burundi and suggested that Burundi’s minority Tutsi population is in danger. However, the Hutu and Tutsi labels identify social status in a feudal and then colonial order that no longer exists in Burundi. The Burundian government and its supporters argue that the fundamental social difference in Burundi now is between urban and rural. KPFA’s Ann Garrison spoke to William Ndizeye, a Burundian Canadian supporter of the Burundian government.
KPFA/Ann Garrison: William, I want to quote a Burundian American writer, Le Beni Tazira, speaking to CIUT-Toronto’s Phil Taylor, and ask whether you agree. Le Beni Tazira said, “Before him [meaning President Nkurunziza], “all the presidents were ruthless military who only helped develop Bujumbura, the capital. Now Burundi is 93% rural. Burundi is very rural, and the people there live in dire poverty, and they live as second class citizens. Pierre Nkurunziza comes from that. Every weekend he does community work. He’s out building schools, planting vegetables with the population. Every weekend. And his policies actually helped the poor more than they helped Bujumbura.”
William Ndizeye: That is true. Ever since Nkurunziza was elected, he has worked hard to make sure that the rural population sees a change in daily life. Let’s talk about education, where we see 1,800 primary schools that were built since 2007, and then we have 1,500 high schools that were built since 2007 as well. There is at least one primary school [on each] of the 2,910 hills of Burundi. This has never been seen before. And then on top of that there is universal primary education which is free. Right now the ratio of girls to boys reaches 90% in school, and the net enrollment soared from 60% in 2005 to 99% in 2012. This is a solid foundation for a long term human development program.
In terms of health services, by 2005, only 15% of women in Burundi gave birth at the hospital. Under President Nkurunziza, the number rose to 70%. The under-five mortality fell by 20% from 2005 to 2010 due to free health services for pregnant women, as well for the children under five years of age.
Also the life expectancy rose from 40 years old in 2000 to 60 years in 2015, and extreme poverty, which was around 80%, went down to 60%.*
KPFA: OK, most of the Western press report from Bujumbura, the capital, where the government and the fighting are, but one Agence France Presse report said that Nkurunziza is enormously popular with the majority rural population. Do you agree?
WN: I do agree. Pierre Nkurunziza has stayed close to the rural population in the past 10 years. He is the only president in Burundi who has visited all the Burundi districts. There are 129 of them. The former president, Pierre Buyoye, who ruled Burundi for at least 10 years, never reached 40% of those districts. So this should show how committed Pierre Nkurunziza is to the rural population and that he has done tremendous work in changing their daily life.
Nkurunziza gets up to 80% of the votes in the rural areas, but in the capital, he barely gets 40%. So you see the difference between the rural population and the elite in the capital which is behind all this crisis right now.
KPFA: OK, now, one thing with regard to the Hutu-Tutsi distinctions that Western press and policymakers dwell on. President Nkurunziza is the son of a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother. Le Beni Tazira said that his Tutsi mother is commonly on TV and otherwise very visible, in support of her son, in Burundian public life. So this suggestion that Nkurunziza harbors genocidal plans for the Tutsi, doesn’t it include a preposterous suggestion that he’s plotting to kill his own mother?
WN: What’s happening in Burundi, right now, we have a smear campaign against the institutions in Burundi that is using warmongering tactics, scare tactics, bad press. But, in Burundi, ethnic groups are melded more than anywhere else. We have one language, ancestral customs, we have mixed marriages. The people who are using these smear campaigns, warmongering tactics, they just want to promote this fear in the international community so they can have some sort of intervention that will help them to achieve their goal. And how can one plan to kill his own mother that he has publicly shown love for? And then myself, both my parents are mixed. So in Burundi, there is no way a genocide is possible at this point. We have just a small group of people who try to use the ethnic scare so they can reach their intended goal.
*Statistics cited from Jordan Ryan: UNDP address at the Development Partners Conference on Burundi, Geneva, Switzerland.