Rumor Has It

Most people in Western liberal democracies can not begin to imagine the turmoil that a coup generates within a society. Let’s be frank: the tendency to hysteria when Congress stops funding to the rest of the government prompts citizens’ calls for impeachment of elected officials that were put in office through an extremely stable election process (that most citizens willingly don’t participate in). The quickness to rush to such conclusions — to essentially call for more instability in a slightly precarious situation — should give us all a bit of insight into what may be happening now within Burundian society. With a lack of verified information, the power of rumor reigns as Burundi and its watchers push for peace and wait to see what comes next.

The short of the situation at present: President Nkurunziza, after attempting to negotiate with protesters and saying that he would really not run for a fourth term (with the assumption that the third was in the bag) if they would leave the streets last week, was in Tanzania on May 13. He had gathered with other East African leaders to discuss the crisis in his country. Under the leadership of Major General Godefroid Niyombare, it was announced that Nkurunziza was deposed. (Niyombare was formerly Army chief-of-staff; more recently, he served as Nkurunziza’s director of the national intelligence service before he was removed from the post for critiquing the President’s unspoken desire for a third term.) In order to prevent Nkurunziza’s return from the summit in TZ, Niyombare ordered all land borders and the Bujumbura airport to be closed. Instability has ramped up, with gunfire near the CNDD-FDD party headquarters, the push-and-pull to keep public and private radio stations from broadcasting (particularly significant in a country where much information is communicated over the airwaves), and other top army officials stating that they were not in support of the Niyombare-led coup. The President’s absence and rumors of where he is and how he is trying to enter the country contribute to the air of uncertainty in the capital city.

Coups have occurred multiple times since Burundi’s independence in 1962. Previous coups have had led to vastly different outcomes, from bloodless to extensive and targeted violence. The big question here is what the disruption in leadership means for Burundi. Since mid-April, over 50,000 Burundians have interpreted the impending election announcement as a call to leave, seeking solace in refugee camps in the DRC, Rwanda, and Tanzania (a previous haven for those who fled the violence in 1972 and the 1990s), not wanting to get caught in the midst of an uncertain trajectory that could include deadly violence.

The identity of the protestors may come into greater focus here in shaping the possible onset of ethnic violence. The President’s spokesperson claims protestors are attempting to spark an insurgency, especially in Tutsi areas. Agathon Rwasa, the leader of FNL, the primary opposition party, counters that Nkurunziza’s government is trying to highlight ethnic divides. These ethnic divisions, or at least the narrative of Hutu v. Tutsi ethnic conflict, might be manipulated by the military and the police in a bid to try and wipe away the nuances of this power conflict. (Considering the historical import of this ethnic divide for control of the state and determining who would be engage in deadly conflict whom, it is certainly a well known marker of ‘friend or foe,’ particularly those who survived previous bouts of fighting.) Doing so would certainly provide clarity in an environment of divided loyalties within the government and an information landscape rife with unconfirmed reports. How this all plays out outside of Bujumbura, where 89% of Burundi’s population lives, primarily as subsistence farmers, will be key in how rumors of who is control and what is happening in Bujumbura play out. The information (or disinformation) that moves people to guard their personal security and who provides that information will color what comes next.

This moment of political rumor ruling the day in Burundi is a a reminder of why it is essential to invest resources into projects that solidify political institutions, build trust, and create economic opportunities that are not linked to being in charge. These efforts tend to fall off the map during less riotous times. Upheaval gets attention from the international community and its media. The ability to bear the weight of rumors is bolstered by building up the societal structures that govern everyday life and support peaceful, trusting relations in times of grave uncertainty.

Originally published at on May 14, 2015.

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