Beware Mr President: why entry of Burundi’s women into third term fray could be a game-changer

There is one obvious winner in this stalemate--and it is not the president, or the forces aligned against him.

AS Burundi’s stalemate over a controversial third term bid for president Pierre Nkurunziza remains intractable, the entry of its women into the charged atmosphere could change the dynamic of the violent dispute. 

East African Community (EAC) leaders will Wednesday meet in Tanzania in a scramble to head off a regional crisis, but after Nkurunziza Monday launched his election campaign, there are concerns that the meeting has been rendered meaningless, and will instead be forced to focus on damage limitation.

Donors are also applying the squeeze—Belgium on Monday suspended key aid for the elections. The former colonial ruler is the biggest bilateral backer of Burundi’s voting process and on Monday said that the EU’s electoral mission found that “conditions for free elections have not been met at the moment”.

An African Union mission is the latest into the country, with AU chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma recently saying that the atmosphere was not currently conducive for an election. 

Neighbouring countries have been sucked in—Tanzania’s president Jakaya Kikwete in March urged the country to observe term limits, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame’s last week  queried why the Burundi leader was ignoring local sentiment.

In an indicator of souring relations, reports at the weekend filtered out that the Rwandan chief executive of the country’s second largest telecoms firm Econet Burundi had been expelled on claims of “spying” for Rwanda.

At least 19 people have died since Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a third term, triggering daily angry demonstrations.

At the weekend, the country’s national security council demanded an “immediate and unconditional” end to what it termed an “insurgency”, an order angrily rebutted by protesters.

There remains little hope for a negotiated solution barring an extraordinary change of heart by Nkurunziza, who last week described the crisis as “nothing compared to what we experienced in 1993-1994”, referring to the start of a 13-year civil war that left some 300,000 people dead. 

Nkurunziza: I am staying put

But nearly lost in the weekend recriminations was a demonstration by women—the first in downtown Bujumbura, the capital, on Sunday.

Protesters have largely been kept out of the city’s heart, with gatherings there quickly snuffed out by heavy-handed police.

The women’s voice

The women said the country needed all the help it could get. 

“You know the women and the children are the first to suffer,” Beatrice Nuramoya, one of the protest leaders said.

“We’re asking the government and the international community to help us,” Nuromoya, a jurist for the government, said. “(We’re asking them) to help us keep these two instruments intact: the constitution and the Arusha Agreement,” she said.

The Arusha agreement, a peace accord signed 15 years ago in the Tanzanian city of the same name provided for a fragile peace stipulating a two- term presidential limit, but Nkurunziza’s supporters say his first term was not elected but by appointment by parliament.  

The country’s constitutional court agreed with them, but its second-most senior judge refused to sign the judgement and fled, telling of the immense pressure the court had come under, including death threats.

Until now the protests have been dominated by the so-called “Collective Against a Third Mandate”, which aggregates more than 1,000 civil society organisations and the country’s two biggest trade unions.

Therefore, on its own, the entry of a group mobilised along gender lines might not represent much on the surface—the Sunday count was of about 200 women.

But Africa’s recent terrain is marked with instances of major change midwifed by women who started out in small protests and built out gradually, before attaining a critical mass.

Burkina Faso and Kenyan women 

Last year, the iconic wooden spoon disappeared in Burkina Faso’s kitchens and  reappeared on Burkina Faso’s streets, brandished in defiance by women protesting Blaise Compaore’s bid to extend his term in office.

The eventual outcome was a revolution that unexpectedly brought down a 27-year old regime, leading to wide talk of a “Black Spring” in sub-Saharan Africa.

In 1992, ahead of Kenya’s first multiparty elections, women led by Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai stripped naked, shocked the conservative country and instilled a new political awareness into an electorate that was still taking stock of the unfurling era of political pluralism. The park setting of the Kenya protest from came to be popularly known as Freedom Corner.   

Burundi’s women ended their protest without violence after police stopped them from marching to the city’s Independence Square.

“The police do not dare shoot women,” said an 18-year-old protester, identified as only Kelly.

The Black Sash

In South Africa, at the height of apartheid, white women put the repressive machinery in a similar awkward situation as Burundi’s.

The Black Sash, a non-violent white women’s  resistance organisation founded in the mid-1950s in South Africa used the safety of their privileged racial position, to become a prominent proof of white opposition to the apartheid system.

They wore black sashes, and  were often attacked, and even criticised by the anti-apartheid, but the regime was not set up to beat down white women, and they became an inconvenient reality of the fact that there was no white unanimity behind apartheid.

Thus protestor Kelly’s view in Burundi is a tacit recognition of the role that women play during protests, especially at times when there is a realignment of the existing political order.

Because at such moments groups seek to establish a new political agenda, the appeal of women’s status as political outsiders, make them very different from male-dominated partisan interests and gives them an appeal that’s hard to ignore. And from the Northern Ireland “troubles” to date, states have always fumbled to crack down on such groups. 

Couching a push for change, or retaining status quo, in a political crucible of advancing the needs of women and thus hearkening to the will of the people is very often a vote winner.  

While the women in Bujumbura said they were marching for “peace, unity and democracy for all Burundians,” they could well end up leaving an imprint on  power in the tiny country of 10 million.

“Curse of nakedness”

In 2002, hundreds of unarmed Nigerian women overran an oil producing facility in the Niger Delta, and held over 700 workers hostage for a week, completely halting production as they sought a better deal for their families from oil companies.

Immortalised in the documentary The Naked Option: A Last Resort, the protesting women also employed what is in Africa known as the “Curse of Nakedness”, exploiting their unique differences with men to take advantage of cultural mores around female nudity.

It almost always introduces a new conversation in politics, that is very understandable at the street level.

It also adds to the core interest of diverse women groups—to seek greater access to political decision making. 

Burundi’s women have already carved out a strong niche for themselves. More than a third of its Cabinet are women, placing it among the top 15 countries globally—at par with Switzerland.

Some 32 of the 105 legislators in its lower house are women, as are 19 of 41 women in the upper house, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

It was also among the top three African countries that most reduced their gender gap last year, ahead of South Africa, according to the World Economic Forum.

Essentially, Burundi’s women are anything but non-partisan, but will cleverly exploit the vacuum in the struggle for change in a typically patriarchal society to cut a better deal for themselves. It is just how the game is played. 

A “tipping” force

Therefore the regime would be well aware that their hand could rapidly evolved into what analysts term a “tipping” force, unlocking a deadlock in unexpected ways. 

The question is who can most take advantage of this. In the current stalemate there seems one winner—it would be ironical if the women Burundi women were to come off better in an uncertain political environment, because many positive changes in their status  has come during the peacetime consolidation of the last 15 years.


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