Recently, I have been trying to keep up with the situation in Bujumbura, the capital city of Burundi in light of the protests and the violence. And while mainstream Western media only mention the situation sporadically, Burundians are busy on social media like Facebook and Twitter. I am struck by the amount of detail that is uploaded every day. It is as if every single arrest is documented, place, name and time recorded and spread through social media together with photos and video clips, recorded on smart phones. Not only do the updates seem to cover a lot of ground and document as many incidents as possible; they are also uploaded so fast that we almost can follow the events in real time – in front of our screens in our offices, on the train to work or at home. The various groups posting these pictures and updates such as ‘Journalistes Et Societé Civile En Danger De Mort Au Burundi’ appear thus to be pretty media savvy and up beat in the social media. The question then whether social media and mobile phones make a big difference. Is the present online, real-time coverage having an impact on the nature of the conflict? In order to answer this, let us go back in time and see how power, violence and media have played themselves out in Burundi’s tumultuous past.
I have engaged with Burundi and Burundians living in exile for almost two decades now. At first talking to Hutu refugees living under harsh conditions in camps in Tanzania. Later among young men and women, hiding in Nairobi, living off nothing and trying to avoid the authorities while they hoped for a better future back home in Burundi or perhaps in North America or Europe. I also have engaged with the elite who made it to Europe and settled in Brussels or Copenhagen, and finally with those who remained at home throughout the civil war. Wherever I met them, they would explain to me why Burundi was at war, who was to blame and what to do about it, and they would always be concerned that the other half was lying. That ‘the truth’ was not getting out. ‘Go back to your country and tell the big people about our problems,’ they would say to me in the camp, as if I were their only hope that the truth would emerge and reach those who had the power to change things.
Information and ‘truth’ about the conflict have in other words always been an integral part of the conflict. It is, in other words, not just a question of who wins on the ground but equally of who gets to define what the conflict is about. In the 1970s and most of the 1980s a small Tutsi elite controlled the army and the one party state with a tight fist. Political decent was not tolerated. Opposition was therefore forced into exile. In Brussels, Rwanda and Tanzania, Hutu organized politically and began formulating alternative visions of society – visions based on ideas of ethnicity and autochtony.
I first met Matthias in his home in Brussels in 2003. He had lived in Belgium for three decades and was a founding member of the oldest ‘Hutu’ party, Palipehutu. He showed me into his ‘office’; a small, stuffy room full of photocopies in stacks, piles of old newspaper clippings and various ‘bulletins’ about Burundi and the Great Lakes. On the walls were posters of the assassinated president Ndadaye and the first leader of Palipehutu, Remy Gahutu. There were also blown up copies of black and white photos of what looked like mass graves and trucks loaded with bodies – the pixels blurring the image. This was his treasure trove. Here, he had all the evidence of the violence that the regime had committed against the Hutu. He and others had carefully collected the evidence. Every time someone escaped the country, he explained, they would invite him or her to a meeting to inform them about the situation. The task of Matthias and his compatriots in Belgium was then to collect and disseminate this information that allegedly was being withheld by the regime. They photocopied and sent newletters. Later they used fax machines to send the information back into Burundi. Now the internet had taken over – but Matthias found this too modern and complicated, so he had his son-in-law print material from the internet for him.
From the late 1990s, websites on the conflict in Burundi mushroomed. They were often run by a handful of exiles in Belgium, Germany and Scandinavia. Their raison d’être was that information coming out of Burundi was being controlled by the regime and that they needed to put things right by providing ‘the truth’. The audience was meant to be fellow Burundians inside and outside Burundi as well as some vague idea of the ‘international community’. By the time I was doing fieldwork in Belgium and Denmark in the early 2000s, Burundi was changing. A peace agreement had been reached and vibrant media were emerging – often supported financially by international donors. As critical journalism grew steadily in Burundi, the diaspora websites were left without a cause. My experience was that they were left in a kind of time pocket where they cultivated conspiratorial narratives about the peace process and the Tutsi who allegedly were still pulling the strings backstage.
So what does this detour into the past tell us about the present conflict and the use of social media? First, using media and controlling information has always been part and parcel of the conflicts in Burundi. All sides of the conflict have attempted to monopolize their version of ‘the truth’. At times the diaspora has played an important role, being able to voice opinions that were banned inside the country. Second, while control of information has always been part of the conflict, technological changes have also affected the way the conflict about the truth is fought out. Until the 1990s, the regime controlled all radio and print media, banning anything that might threaten ‘national unity’. The opposition in exile did its best in obtaining evidence from individuals fleeing the country and circulated the information in closed circuits among like-minded exiles. In the 1990s with the fax and later the Internet, information flowed more freely but was dominated by exiles who had the possibility of hosting websites without being persecuted. Now, with social media giving instant access to vast audiences, it seems that anyone and everyone can disseminate information. The playing field is, however, not level, as some actors are more media savvy than others. And in this case, it appears that the regime is on the loosing end. President Nkurunziza has tried to curb critical journalism, and has at different points in time since April this year tried to close several media – including Iwacu. This may not have been a wise step, as he is now up against journalists who may have been trained in Belgium, who have benefitted from more than a decade of a blossoming critical journalism in Burundi and who now are putting all their effort into documenting the atrocities of the regime and the heroic deeds of the movement – of which they are a part.
While President Nkurunziza is trying to delegitimise the demonstrators as violent thugs with an ethnic –Tutsi – agenda, the journalists and civil society movements on Facebook and Twitter insist on the peaceful nature of the demonstrations and that the struggle is not ethnic but rather about democracy. If the conflict is indeed about defining what the conflict is about, it seems that the opposition may have the upper hand.
Simon Turner is Associate Professor at the Centre for Advanced Migration Studies, University of Copenhagen. He has done research on Burundi and Rwanda since 1997 and has written about refugees, rumours, gender, humanitarianism, diaspora and conflict.