A Delicate Balance in Burundi

After decades of civil war, Burundi is exporting peace.   In the process, a fragile peace has come to Burundi.   But will it last through the next elections in 2015?

Seven years ago, just one year after its own fighting ended, Burundi joined Uganda to support the African Union’s (AU) new peace keeping mission in Somalia, AMISOM.  The mandate of AMISOM is to create the security conditions for a national government to establish itself throughout the Somalia for the first time since the 1990s, while protecting civilians and building peace and respect for human rights in the process.   Initially, this mandate required troops to enter what was essentially enemy controlled territory and to build capacity for ensuring human security in major cities and rural territories where government infrastructure and process were nonexistent.   A dangerous, high risk, dual-mandated mission that no other countries were willing to take on at the time and few believed could be successful.

Yet in the past three years, Al Shabaab has been forced out of Mogadishu,

Al-Shabaab militants are paraded by Somalia government soldiers after their surrender to African Union and Somalia government soldiers in the north of Mogadishu. Photograph: Omar Faruk/Reuters

Al-Shabaab militants are paraded by Somalia government soldiers after their surrender to African Union and Somalia government soldiers in the north of Mogadishu. Photograph: Omar Faruk/Reuters

a new federal government has been elected, and the Somalia National Army (SNA), trained by the European Union, are fighting alongside AMISOM troops to regain control of their country.   At the end of 2013, the AU Peace and Security Commission assessed that the security situation in Somalia, while still fragile, was continuing to improve. Indeed, in January 2014, a well-attended seminar held in Nairobi was optimistic enough about the security trends to ask, “Is Somalia ready for Foreign Direct Investment?”

Burundi is proud of how its contribution of troops and leaders have helped to make a transformation possible in Somalia.   My purpose in Burundi was to interview some of these peacekeeping officers and soldiers and find out more about the challenges they faced in AMISOM, how they met these challenges, and what they saw as the most critical factors to realize a sustainable transformation of the Somali conflict.

On the road from the Bujumbura International Airport to my hotel on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, the loads carried on bicycles challenged belief.

Tired-looking, bare foot laborers from the fields joined modern, energetic “taxi” drivers as we neared the city, balancing enormous, unwieldy burdens on the back of bikes over bumpy, pot-holed and congested roads.

NM and Colorado Summer 2014

NM and Colorado Summer 2014

What faith and hope they must have to even think of piling up their bikes like that.



 And so it seems that a similar balancing act between faith, hope, and reality is necessary to keep hard-won peace in Burundi, as it will be in Somalia. Each person in society must rise to the challenge to do his and her part to move forward, carrying their own personal loads through the impossibly harsh realities of day-to-day life towards newly created visions of hope and security, fueled by new concepts and principles of civic service and sacrifice for a greater public good, navigating through potholes and roadblocks along the way.  Burundi Bikes At each pothole and every roadblock, they risk upsetting this delicate balance, with potentially disastrous results. Yet all the people I was with during my time in Burundi seemed to carry forward with joy and determination, gracefully managing the load they carried, much as the cyclists on the road.

I start my interviews with the question, why did Burundi take up this risky mission with AMISOM that no one wanted?  Why did they stay as their soldiers were killed in the early years of the mission, enjoying few victories in the face of overwhelming odds and lack of adequate supplies and support from the AU and UN?  With more than 80% of the population living below poverty (48% in severe poverty), Some say that Burundi is  in it for the money and professional training.

Burundi is not only one of the smallest countries in the world, but also one of the poorest.   While its indicators in the Human Development Index have been steadily rising since the cessation of civil war hostilities, it is still consistently in the bottom 10 of 187 countries of the world. Currently, life expectancy at birth is 54 years; mean years of schooling is 2.7 (compared to expectation of 10 years); gross national income per capita per year is USD749; only 5% of women and 9 % of men have “at least some secondary education”; and the maternal mortality rate is the third highest in the world.


NM and Colorado Summer 2014 Burundi Street Life















 Of course the good pay, training, and delivery of western equipment has had its appeal – and there is nothing wrong with that.   But I discovered something deeper in the military personnel that I talked with – a sincere appreciation for the concerted efforts of the International Community and regional African leaders between 1993 and 2000 to bring about conditions for peace in Burundi, after thirty years of civil war between Hutus and Tutsis. These efforts culminated in the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, followed by a UN peacekeeping mission and bilateral projects for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants for security sector reform, and overseeing the installation of a transitional government. “In our culture, when you receive, you give back what you can.   And we felt that it was time for African troops to bring peace to Africa, not troops from other continents.”

Since 2007, when Burundi troops joined AMISOM, the International Community has provided intense training in military leadership, human rights, and rule of law. Since the beginning, this training has provided the newly integrated Burundian troops – who a short time ago where fighting each other –  a vision of working for something greater than oneself or identify group, based on principles of public service for the greater good, where there is room for win-win for everyone.  The troops have embraced this vision, which is radically different from that which dictated the conditions of their earlier service as combatants in civil war. They receive training from US Marines in tactical peace operations and military logistics, for which they have also been provided equipment, salaries, and advisors. But what the international community cannot provide is heart.

The Burundian troops climb aboard the military transport planes to Somalia with their own hearts fully committed to the AMISOM mandate to provide conditions of security and stability for the Somali people. They return home transformed. For many of them, they have internalized the meaning of changing lives through peace.   They speak proudly to me of seeing what it has meant to local people when the power of Al Shabaab has been broken in their communities. They see that it takes a while – but when the people are convinced it is safe, they embrace the Burundi troops and even support them as they can. The troops describe seeing a community reborn as a life-changing experience for them, believing that their presence makes it possible.   In this experience, the lessons taught in training camps on the power of working towards a vision beyond oneself or one’s ethnic group for a greater communal good, and the benefit that provides to all, become real.

But what they have done is not enough to stabilize these communities and guarantee security in the long-term.   The “peace” they have wrested is more of a cessation of hostilities with one set of combatants only, and cannot be sustained without a new phase of peacekeeping focused on stabilization coming in behind them during transition to governance by local and national Somalis. This requires a different sort of intervention actor – focused on internal systems of security and policing as well as civil-military relations between the fledgling local and national Somali troops. Without functioning civil institutions backed by local security forces, local power dynamics, ethnic rivalries, and militias will exploit the power vacuum and co-opt the peace dividends.

All of the Somalis know this.   The Burundi troops know this. The United Nations and African Union, who oversee the AMISOM mandate, are aware of the delicate balance that must be maintained between progress in the mission to retake territorial control from Al Shabaab and the ability of new Somali federal and local institutions to back fill with effective security and civil services for the population to rebuild and thrive.  Yet they do not seem capable of providing the type of quick impact stabilization projects that can fill the gap. 

And there is the rub.   Both in Somalia and in Burundi, the growing professionalism of the national military forces is disconnected from the ethics and norms in the internal security sectors.   Much work has yet to be done to foster the same vision, heart and passion for peace, justice, and the greater good of humanity at the local police level.   This is not that different, we are finding, from situations even in the United States, where each night for the last several weeks I have watched the sensational pictures on African news of the black rage that erupted in the USA in response to the police killing of unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  Subsequent investigations have exposed systemic civil rights violations among the police targeting the black population of Ferguson, fueled by an undercurrent of political maneuvering by white elites to marginalize the black community through institutional channels – dilute their voting power and rolling back civil rights achievements of the past 50 years.

One of my favorite professors, the late Everett Rogers, formulated the theory of diffusion of innovations in 1962, about the same time that the civil rights movement was gaining momentum in the United States. According to this theory, the spread of a new innovation (or idea) must be widely adopted to be self-sustaining.   The process relies heavily on human capital in the relevant social system, and requires a delicate balance between the communication channels, time, and how radical the innovation (or idea) within the particular social system involved. Communication channels are determined by five categories of people: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.


The key idea is that innovations only diffuse completely through a social system if the adjacent categories of people communicate to each other about the idea; if one tries to skip a category, the innovation (or idea) is rejected.  The “chasm” between the early adopters and the early majority presents a challenge: there is a critical balance between pushing forward with the adoption rate by innovators and early adopters, and the time required for the early majority to absorb and process the new idea. Too much too fast, and the enterprise collapses; too little too late, and the momentum dissipates.

In Burundi, the troops who have served in AMISOM are early adopters of democratic principles of human rights, civil service, and communal responsibility for a greater good. Their challenge is to pass on this knowledge and experience to the security sector responsible for internal stability in Burundi and civil institutions to create a population of majority adopters.   The international community must work wisely with the Burundi government and civil society to achieve this – smoothing the way where possible, fixing potholes that could threaten the balance.   Bilateral and multilateral partners abound – such as those responsible for the joint Dutch-Burundi Security Sector reform program.

A key actor for peacebuilding within Burundi civil society is the vibrant Roman Catholic Church, to which about 2/3 of the population belong.   In this poor country where so many can expect little more than a life of subsistence, the Church inspires trust, faith and hope across all sectors of Burundi society, and supports an active Peace and Justice Commission. The joy and pride I experienced at a Sunday mass came from deep inside the souls of the celebrants and participants in the service at the Dominican center in Bujumbura as they heard a message of the power of peace – just as did the pride of the AMISOM soldiers I interviewed.

These two communities – the military troops who have served in AMISOM and the Church – may be unlikely twin pillars holding the key to important balancing act that is going on in Burundi as they move forward to next year’s elections.   Within both, one finds early adopters of a vision for peace and governance in Burundi based on principles of democracy, transparency, inclusivity, human rights, justice, and security that puts people at the center.   These ideas are still new and unfamiliar in practice to most people in Burundi. As in so many parts of East Africa (and apparently even in Ferguson Missouri, USA), they challenge the old governance and security paradigms held by the late adopters and laggards. The challenge will be to support early adopters with timely communication channels for reaching the late majority and laggards, finding and working systematically through an “early majority” to do so.

I believe that the people of Burundi are the early majority, awaiting empowerment. They just need leadership and means to know that.   Empower them with information and support for the right ideas, and they will flood the streets with the same determination shown in getting their goods to market.

NM and Colorado Summer 2014







 Empower the wrong ideas, and things could go very badly, with the whole country getting upset by the gaping potholes ahead.   There is no easy ride ahead and complacency is not an option.  My hope for Burundi, as well as the peace keeping community in Somalia of which they are a part, is to navigate the chasms and potholes ahead joining forces across multiple communities of early adopters to find the balance together to bring along the rest of their country into a shared vision of hope and stability. At that point, they can become importers of peace themselves and walk with confidence in stability and security as an example from the center of Africa to the rest of their continent. 

I find the tears welling up yet again (darn it!) as the last soldier I interview — who was one of those who risked his life getting off the plane in Mogadishu when the city was still controlled by Al Shabaab — thanks God for bringing me to Burundi to hear his story.  My prayer is that I may find the voice to share it where it needs to be told. 

NM and Colorado Summer 2014


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