In Burundi, jogging has just become a high-risk activity. If you’re not careful – if you don’t jog in the right places, at the right time – President Pierre Nkurunziza might just mistake your gentle exercise for a dangerously subversive protest against his government. And the president doesn’t take protest lightly. By SIMON ALLISON.
On weekends, hundreds of joggers take to the streets of Bujumbura, Burundi’s hilly capital. It is something of a national pastime: there are dozens of running clubs, and the country has even sent a few representatives to run the longer distances at the Olympic Games.
Jogging in Burundi, however, has just become a lot less carefree – and a lot more dangerous.
Last week, Bujumbura’s mayor issued new city ordinances restricting all group sports, in particular jogging. From now, any “group sport” can only be done at one of Bujumbura’s nine city parks, or at designated football pitches. A group sport, in this context, is any sport or exercise involving more than one person. “Marches or jogging in the streets is prohibited if it is done en masse, but if someone wants to do sports individually, they can do that for sure,” said Candide Kazatsa, mayoral spokeswoman, to AFP. The penalties for violating this new law are serious, and include substantial prison time.
What, exactly, have the nation’s joggers and sportsmen and women done to earn themselves such draconian restrictions?
As usual, politics is at the root of this particular problem, and in particular the insecurities of sitting President Pierre Nkurunziza, who has spent much of this year figuring out ways to keep himself in power when his second term expires in 2015.
First Nkurunziza attempted to steamroll Uprona, the only other party represented in Parliament, by forcing them to replace their chairman Charles Nditije with a sympathiser. Nditije had grown increasingly critical of the president. This failed when three Uprona government ministers resigned in disgust. “We refuse to cohabit with the ruling party of President Pierre Nkurunziza, which is going out of its way to destroy us,” said an Uprona party spokesman.
Then Nkurunziza tried to push a series of constitutional reforms through Parliament. These would have replaced the current two vice-president system with a single, powerful prime minister; and removed a clause preventing Nkurunziza from running again. The proposed amendments were defeated last week, but only just: the ruling CNDD-FDD party received 84 of 106 votes, just one vote short of the 80% majority required for changes to the constitution.
Nkurunziza’s bully-boy tactics have not gone unnoticed. In particular, other political groups are outraged at his blatant power grab, and concerned that it could upset the very delicate balance of interests which has kept the peace in Burundi since 2005.
To register their disapproval, one particular party – the Movement for Solidarity and Development (MSD) – decided to protest. This is easier said than done in Burundi, however, where protests require approval in advance. This approval is hard to come by at the best times; right now, in the middle of Nkurunziza’s power play, nearly impossible.
So the MSD, which like most opposition parties boycotted the last elections over rigging fears, hatched a cunning plan: instead of organising a protest, they organised a group jog through the streets of Bujumbura – which, if you think about it, is much the same thing as a formal demonstration, just a little bit faster and without all those cumbersome signs.
Alas, the MSD’s cunning plan was not so cunning after all. Riot police were waiting for the “joggers”, and a running battle between party members and police ensued (sorry, we couldn’t resist). Once the tear gas had settled, several people had been injured and 70 party members arrested.
The longer-term consequences of the MSD’s “group jog” are severe. A total of 21 party activists have already been tried on charges of armed revolt, and sentenced to life in prison. MSD leader Alexis Sinduhije is on the run, and likely to face a lengthy jail term himself if caught. And as for Bujumbura’s joggers – well, the streets of the capital have been closed to them for the foreseeable future, unless they’re running by themselves.
The long-term consequences of President Nkurunziza’s clampdown on opposition are likely to be even more severe, however. Nkurunziza himself is only in office thanks to a power-sharing deal that was supposed to end decades of ethnic tension between the minority Tutsis and the majority Hutus. Nkurunziza is a Hutu, and he was supposed to share up to 40% of government positions with prominent Tutsis, including one of those vice-presidential spots he is trying to abolish. By riding roughshod over the terms of this agreement, Nkurunziza risks plunging his country back into ethnic violence and, in the worst case scenario, civil war.
It shouldn’t come to that, however. The “jogging group” protest, as well as the Uprona revolt, has shown Nkurunziza that he won’t get it all his own way. The African diplomatic community has a duty to reinforce this view. South Africa, in particular, must play a role. The end to the civil war was mediated first by Nelson Mandela and then by Jacob Zuma, which gives South Africa some clout in Bujumbura.
Zuma should use this influence to try and persuade Nkurunziza that there is life after the Presidential Palace, and that, for the good of the country, he should let opposition groups have their say and refrain from fiddling with term limits.
Zuma should also persuade his counterpart that this could actually work in his favour. By staying on, Nkurunziza would become just another in a long line of power-hungry dictators. By stepping aside gracefully, he would become instead a revered elder statesman, his past sins forgiven and forgotten. He’d have all the glory, without any of the responsibility of governance.
Besides, he might even have time to pick up a few hobbies – jogging, perhaps. DM
Photo: Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza attends the opening of a coffee conference in the capital Bujumbura February 13, 2014. REUTERS/Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana.