Burundi – How Pierre Nkurunziza Used Community Projects And Sports To Prevent The Return Of Violence

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Why does the President of Burundi insist on community activities and sport? Are there any connections between building schools and fighting against the return of violence in Burundi? What is the historical appraisal of these thousands of hours spent with the population, digging, putting sheets, under the indignant exclamations of the opposition? For the first time in the history of private media, the number one in Burundi confer a long interview to Ikiriho Press Group on the subject, and shares with a great finesse the deep social analysis of Burundi.
What is the reason behind the preponderance of community activities in your political agenda over the past eleven years?

There are three main objectives about this program. But first and foremost, it is worth recalling that community activities were organized even before our mandate. During the monarchical regime, they existed, especially under the name of ikibiri, before becoming ikiboko under the colonization rule. Later, under the dictatorship period beginning with Micombero to Buyoya, inhabitants were sent every Saturday for public activities. The latter were carried out in the absence of the chiefs. Today, it is very different: our organization of community activities primarily aims at changing attitudes. If you call the population to work, you must be the first to sweat. A good leader sets an example. Political leaders, area chiefs, village leaders, communal administrators and elected officials, ministers, police and military, university students or businessmen have to be the first to work. Everyone has to bring their contribution: that is the unity of Burundi in action.

The second objective …

It is strongly connected to the former. The presence of political, financial and intellectual elites as an example in community activities encourages the population. If we, as President of the Republic, spend an hour mixing gravel for a school or health center in a given district, the inhabitants of this locality will spend nine more hours … The Burundians are demanding: When they realize that there is no exploitation, that you do respect your words, then they join you. It is this social atmosphere that cements the appropriation by the population for development. And the outcome of community activities proves the force of the inhabitants: the building of primary schools, secondary schools and universities, modern villages, roads, churches and mosques, administrative offices, homes for teachers, nurses and disaster victims, water supply, tracing the contours, nursery production, and even enlargement of military camps or some police stations.

The President Nkurunziza during communauty activities at Kugasaka ka Inarunyonga Stadium
President Nkurunziza during community activities at Kugasaka ka Inarunyonga Stadium

All the development projects are precisely aimed at this objective …

Yes, and we have achieved our objectives over the past seven years. For Burundians, schools that were built during community activities or health centers are no longer state infrastructure or belonging to “abategetsi“, but common properties. Take time to verify: all these public infrastructures built are registered under the name of the local population. In the past, when the population was angry, the schools were destroyed, the roads cut off. But today, it is difficult to destroy a classroom for which you, your wife, your children and relatives have spent hours of work or your money, which institution is frequented by your descendants.

Third objective for communauty activities?

Community work has enabled us to transform the density of the Burundian population into an engine for development. As it has been true for China, we must take advantage of our high demography as an asset, instead of being a handicap. Moreover, community activities are an extraordinary opportunity for dissemination and apprenticeship of trades: women who are afraid of masonry get on the job site, young Burundians learn how to install nurseries, sexagenarians practice mixing gravel, etc. And at the end of community activities, these jobs become sources of income. It is also a channel to facilitate socialization and reduce complexity of gender or age: the old mother who was afraid of getting out of her house brings a brick and feels useful to her district; boys and girls also participate to the putting of slabs or roads tracing.

Do these community activities also allow you to know the concerns of the population?

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Before we get informed about them, neighbors first exchange on the problems of their communities. The one who has a sick relationship, who wants to rebuild his latrines or grow fruits shares his idea and their neighborhood give him a hand. For politicians, community activities serve as an opportunity to regularly assess the population’s needs and the responses that the government can provide.
You were talking about community activities organized during the monarchical regime in Burundi. Do they have a connection with the cooperative movement of the Independence period promoted by Rwagasore and his relatives, among them your father?

Indirectly, yes. When we launched this program eight years ago, we noticed that the efficiency in carrying out tasks was depending on a good management of human resources. If you call the population of a district to build a school, and 3,000 people show up at the same time, you will not do much work in a short term. It is necessary to design schedules for the people, and divide them into teams of work according to their home villages, for example. A given day, a given village, a given task….At the end of a few month working period emerges simultaneously association movements per a village, which continue to work even outside of communal projects. It is this associative movement that we want to transform into development co-operatives.

Do you think that this associative movement that you initiate helps to avoid the return of mass violence especially in rural areas, as it is a threat for some?

Apparently. In some districts, community activities are actually done on a daily basis. The more you spend hours together on construction sites or on the fields, the more you share the problems for each and everyone, regardless of “ethnicity” or wealth. If someone is sick, or has been absent over for a long period, his neighbors notice it and come to get information about the situation. The associations then cement social cohesion, and make any threat to a member become that of the entire community. This can be seen in certain regions of Burundi currently affected by drought: the neighboring districts or provinces spontaneously send aid. At the historical level, the real causes of the violence in 2015 are those of the crises of 1961, 1965, 1972, 1988 or 1993. But as community activities have changed the way Burundians understand politics, especially in rural areas, violence did not take place.

How can you explain this refusal of violence?

Violence is used to express despair. But as far as community activities are concerned, especially in the rural areas, no Burundian can fall into despair as long as he/she is together with others. In Kirundi, they say Umutwe umwe ntiwigira inama. The more we have strengthened the community activities, the more we are pushing back the temptations of falling into despair, especially into these rural areas that have deeply been traumatized by different crises and under the pressure of difficult conditions of life. The community activities are therefore a kind of positive incarnation of the popular hope for a better future, a spontaneous manifestation for building Burundi. It goes in the opposite way of the other acts of destroying roads or some other public infrastructures as we saw it in 2015. It is then not surprising that the 2015 acts of violence occurred in some localities of Bujumbura, a city that has since a long time kept insensitive towards community activities.

Apart from community activities, you also put an emphasis on physical activities and sport. What are the reasons?
During a football match at Buganda stadium, in Cibitoke province

It is not just because we have been trained in such a domain at the university, but simply because being physically healthy for the population is the cause of productivity and that in several aspects. At the community level, few countries are as athletic as Burundians, either in Bujumbura or in villages. Sport helps build team and sharing spirit, and is there to complete brotherhood relationships that are born trough these community activities. The sport we are talking about goes far more beyond football. It also about athletics, cycling, walkers clubs, swimming, games on sand, tonic gym, basketball and volleyball… together with some cultural activities as drums and traditional dances. Sport changes the Burundians mentalities and contributes to the good health of the population.

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You even keep on inviting Burundian women to invest themselves into sport, such as the national honours granted to Francine Niyonsaba?

During the sportive competitions opposing districts, girls have noticed that it is practically impossible for them to run wearing loin clothes or dresses, and have therefore learnt to put on running shorts which contributes to reducing complexes: Burundians who were at first afraid of wearing trousers or shorts to avoid gossips have now become free. Similarly, footballers learn to wear shoes, jerseys, etc. Furthermore, sport contributes in bringing joy in our villages. A fifty year old person who plays foot with a teenager feels valorized and is filled with joy when the public is applauding him for he is playing with his feet. These individual joys maintain life within rural communities that have since a long time lived into torpor of colonization, then the one of political dictatorship and military.

Let us talk about the appraisal of the community activities…

Before that, we would like to insist on the interconnection between the community activities and the sportive activities, in terms of emulation and strengthening of the social cohesion. This especially facilitates the work of security mixed committees: those who marginalize themselves according to their ethnic group, their s*x or the status of their life do understand that they are as valuable as the other members of the community. That greatly reduces the insecurity or risks of returning to violence. As far as the appraisal is now concerned, from 1961 up to 2007, there were only 1,900 educational establishments in Burundi, from primary to university. But from 2007 to 2016, more than 5,200 new establishments have been built. On the period of nine years, there have been more than three times of schools built within 45 years. The question that we can then ask ourselves: what would Burundi have become if we had got the same momentum since the independence?

The appraisal, that is also about the sports’ infrastructures….

In 2003, we had only one stadium built by the state that could host 10,000 spectators. In the last nine years, we have more than 13 new stadiums with the same capacity or beyond, and other 7 stadiums are under construction, during the community activities as well. From now to 2020, Burundians will have more than 20 stadiums. We were discussing about the relationships between community activities and associative movement: a dozen years ago, Burundi had less than ten universities. But since then, the associations of natives of different Burundian provinces and districts have built more than thirty university establishments, in addition to a hundred of health centers, hospitals, markets, modern villages and administrative offices, hundreds of water adductions, without talking about churches or mosques. Each province, each district thinks about its own development, its image, its own prestige, and the population is no longer afraid of planning to build governors’ offices of 4 or 5 levels. How cannot this be a great change of mentalities?


Inauguration of a health center built by the population of Buye

Still talking about the appraisal: the opposition accuses you of not having strategies in the community activities. Several schools do not have sufficient didactic materials, whereas the health centers do not have electricity… Wasn’t it necessary to start looking for the contents before building the container?

No. The most important thing is the infrastructure. There is no way you can buy a car if you don’t have roads. Once you already have built walls of a classroom, then you get copybooks and desks. In addition to the free schooling, the ministry of education progressively watches on providing what is missing in our schools, as an act of acknowledging what the population has built during community activities. Everything is done gradually, step after step. We actually have the infrastructures, we still have to provide them with the material and improve the teachers’ quality by creating market conditions to absorb the workforce that our schools and universities are going to produce.

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So, after being done with infrastructures; you are looking for materials…

Compared to our vision, we have already the quality. Peace and stability make the requests of the population progress: the priorities for the population are actually the electricity for improving craftsmanship, an agriculture that is sufficiently productive for permitting exportation, the youth that has ambition of entrepreneurial activities, etc. What was not the case ten years ago. The dividends of peace are the quality of the population life: the quality of roads, of health, of education, of food, of clothing, and of services.

You have so far explained how community activities “change and appease Burundi”, especially in rural areas. What influence do they have on the Burundian elite?

Researches on the hindrances to the development in Africa show that one of the main causes is the break between the financial and intellectual elites on one side, and the rural population on the other side. In Burundi, they said a long time ago that Uwukize akira isuka kandi akira iwabo. We have even changed the saying: Uwukize akira iwabo. Before, the best sign of modernity was going away from your relatives. It was necessary to stop that because all the developed countries have taken the opposite way: actually, the rich and better trained are all on the community services for the less instructed. In a country that is highly rural as Burundi, the native villages of the elites still keep a significant symbolism. That is where we have got the education that enabled us to become who we are actually. Our childhood has been tough to the teachers, to pastors or priests, to the neighbourhood, to the doctors, to the agronomists, to the administration that have contributed to our growth. There is a certain moral debt every one of us has contracted during our childhood. The first sign of love for the country must therefore be shown by going back to the villages of our childhood. The elites become therefore a great investment to the rural populations; and are then going to become role models to the future generations.

A lot of passion in President Pierre Nkurunziza, when he talks about the “historical changes in Burundi induced by community activities” to the Director of Ikiriho, Mrs. Mediatrice Barengayabo
Finally, community activities appear to be a political tool that connects the elites and citizens, which is a dream of every regime …

The best way to evaluate success of our project is to consider the situation of Burundi in comparison with the global context. With 2015, some have believed that our country was going to face lots of difficulties as we were deprived from help. However, thanks to God, we are still standing. The few that Burundians have, they share one another without grumbling, knowing that we complete each other as are habitants of a village that build a school during the community activities. The population actually knows that if it does not pay taxes, soldiers will not be paid, and that the teacher will quit teaching. These taxes come back to the population in different ways: free health care for women giving birth and children who are under 5 years old, the investment in the primary school, subsidies for fuel and chemical fertilizers, support in cement, sheet metal, concrete iron for building and various help in cases of disasters.

The last question, Mr. The President: tomorrow is Valentine’s Day…. An image, a word to our readers?

We take this opportunity to wish them a happy Valentine’s Day of celebrating love in all its various forms. But first and foremost God’s love, as it is clear with the first of the Ten Commandments. May Valentine’s Day be also an opportunity to strengthen love among Burundians, and within our families and couples. Even though it is a symbolic day, I would have liked to see my parents celebrating Valentine’s Day on this February 14, 2017. Unfortunately, my father died. My thoughts go to all those Burundians that have undergone such troublesome situations. To add on, Valentine’s Day should not be an occasion to committing acts against the biblical values, such as drunkenness or debauchery.
Via Ikiriho News!

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