A street scene in Bujumbura, Burundi. Yo-yoing of expats in and out of Burundi has affected morale, and work by staff still on the ground continues to be hampered by sporadic violence. Photo by: AFSC Photos / CC BY-NC-ND

ADISCO’s advocacy program in Burundi is at a standstill.

“Advocate with who? The government is there, but it has other problems for the moment,” said Déogratias Niyonkuru, secretary general of civil society organization ADISCO.

Tensions first escalated in the landlocked African country in April, when citizens erupted in mass protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for an unconstitutional third term in power. The unrest continues more than six months later, with reports of illegal government-ordered detentions and torture rampant, and more than 200,000 Burundians fleeing their homes to neighboring Tanzania and Rwanda.

Niyonkuru, who spent 33 years outside the country, returned to Burundi in 2005, which marked the conclusion of a 12-year civil war, though the country has been plagued with ethnic tension and sporadic armed violence since gaining independence from Belgium in 1962.

“The first step was self-help … because Burundi had been leaning on humanitarian aid,” Niyonkuru said of the original idea behind ADISCO, which has since helped mobilize more than 2,000 community groups and 26 cooperatives.

He returned to Burundi to participate in development and in the restoration of peace, he told Devex. ADISCO, founded in 2006, employs approximately 70 agronomists, economists and community animators to encourage entrepreneurship and strengthens individual financial autonomy through farming cooperatives and health insurance societies.

Now the country, which remains one of the least developed and most fragile in the world, will once again be “taken by humanitarian agencies to help,” Niyonkuru said. “It will be necessary … but it is not the best future.”

Niyonkuru’s team currently tries to keep their programs on track by discussing with local government representatives, rather than trying for high-level meetings. In the meantime, he watches expat staff yo-yoing from Bujumbura to Kigali, back to Bujumbura, listens to ADISCO beneficiaries who aren’t convinced they’ll be alive the next day and worries about the ramifications poor understanding of the situation outside the country will have — a concern shared by others on the ground Devex spoke with.

“It’s a complex situation that we try to manage,” he said diplomatically, noting that extreme violence in Burundi is hardly novel for those who’ve grown up there, with mass killings, uprisings and coup d’etats marring the last 50 years.

 “‘62, ‘65, ‘72, ‘93, 2005, 2010,” Niyonkuru rattled off ... “2015.”


Lack of national and inaccurate international dialogue is doing little to relieve mounting tensions. Solid information is difficult to come by with all private media — especially radio stations — closed down and many journalists fleeing the country out of fear of reprisals, a consultant for Germany’s leading provider of international cooperation services GIZ told Devex.

In the past two months, international media has increasingly tossed around the word genocide, drawing comparisons between the current situation in Burundi with the pre-genocide period in Rwanda during the 1990s.

“Temptation in this context is to use inflammatory language to get attention because Burundi has a hard time garnering it,” said Richard Crothers, Burundi country director for the International Rescue Committee, who has lived in the country for five years. “I think it’s naive to ignore the ethnic element, but the likelihood of things spiraling out of control outside of Bujumbura is limited.”

Claims of the preparation of a genocide find little basis in observations on the ground, both the GIZ consultant and Niyonkuru told Devex. Those aid workers in Burundi, though — whether local or international — are currently bound by one top concern: security.

When ADISCO staff recently asked community members for their health insurance contributions, the response was: “What am I going to insure? I’m not sure that tomorrow I will be living,” Niyonkuru said.

Farmers aren’t seeing their future either — and their commitment to development programs is waning as a result.

“When you tell them they must store their production, they say ‘Well, if I store my production, am I sure that the army or the rebels are not going to destroy it?,” Niyonkuru explained.

The situation is compounded by distrust of international actors — and more rumors, like the idea that IRC was pulling out of the country.

The decisions IRC leaders make regarding staff safety impacts all staff morale, Crothers said. Relocating expats to Kigali, which IRC did briefly in May, was a safety measure to get families and children out of potential harm’s way, “but there’s a sense in Burundi that the international community is bailing,” he said. “Or that no one in the international community is watching.”

The highly unequal situations of national and international staff is accentuated when international staff has left, while the national — and potentially more threatened — staff remains in Bujumbura, trying to keep the work running, according to the source with GIZ.

Indeed, since May, representatives from major donors in the country — namely Belgium, the United States and Germany — have announced on and off alerts, pulling non-essential staff from the country, with one donor lifting the ban and sending staff back while another tells employees to pack their bags again.

In mid-May, the U.S. Department of State ordered the departure of family members and non-emergency personnel from Burundi, but lifted the ordered departure in early November; USAID staffing in Burundi has since returned to normal, a spokesperson told Devex. The EU, meanwhile, temporarily evacuated families and some non-essential staff, though the delegation now “is functioning normally,” an EU representative told Devex.

For now all IRC expats are in Bujumbura, including three families with children. Conditions vary from week to week, Crothers said, recalling an incident two weeks ago when the sound of grenade explosions just a few blocks away punctuated lunch at a restaurant with his daughters.

“There is nightly gunfire and explosions, but seeing attacks during the day when you’re out to a restaurant with children ... it’s disconcerting,” he said.

Work goes on

IRC is focused on the most critical humanitarian needs of food security and addressing acute malnutrition as well as the safety of children being sent unaccompanied out of Burundi in search of safety or back into the country to continue education unavailable in camps.

The organization has maintained activities in the interior of the country with little disruption aside from some suspension of movement between offices, Crothers said. The challenge lies more in accessing projects and beneficiaries in Bujumbura when a certain area is either experiencing violence or blocked by police — or both.

Crothers has reduced or altered work hours for staff, going from closing the office at 5 p.m. to 3 p.m. so staff, especially those who live in troubled neighborhoods, can travel home more safely.

Meanwhile, for Niyonkuru and other local civil society organizations, work continues, even if at a minimum.

“I’m not afraid of the work we are doing because perhaps I’m the only person who has difficulties to adapt myself in a situation … all my colleagues have been living in the country between ‘93 and 2005, when the situation was highly worse,” Niyonkuru told Devex.

Critical, not a crisis

Apart from security concerns, one of the main challenges at the moment for several implementing agencies are political decisions to suspend the funding of development cooperation in collaboration with government agencies.

Already, Burundi was sitting in the precarious position between humanitarian aid and development funding.

“Humanitarian donors are not here because it was not a crisis, development donors have been hesitant to invest because of uncertainty surrounding elections,” Crothers said.  

Among others, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands have decided to suspend cooperation with the government of Burundi, causing implementing agencies to scramble to redesign programs to comply. USAID, for example, has requested approximately $45 million in fiscal year 2016 for development programs in Burundi, with all funding and activities provided directly to implementing partners rather than the government.

The shift toward collaborating with CSOs that might not have the ability to implement large programs presents huge challenges — not to mention the fact that such organizations might become the target for various forms of government harassment.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday said he was prepared to send peacekeepers to Burundi to quell the violence — but only if other options failed, recommending that the Security Council authorize a stepped-up U.N. presence in Burundi first.

The question of insecurity in Burundi is highly linked to poverty, but especially to youth manipulated by politicians and opposition groups, Niyonkuru said. Through ADISCO, he’ll continue to help rural young people to develop profitable crops, and stressed that solutions cannot solely be linked to civil society or media, though both are crucial.  

“If we do not support the local populations to be able to understand the challenges of elections, to impose a program to do the monitoring of elected officials, I’m afraid there will never be democracy in Burundi.”

In the meantime, Crothers cautioned, again, against using language that doesn’t reflect the situation, which he doesn’t consider to be a crisis.

“Critical, yes, or urgent … crisis conveys something that is beyond where we are,” he said.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.