This summer I traveled to Western Kenya to work with the facilitators who are already training volunteers in many parts of Kenya, in particular in the Rift Valley where there was significant violence following the 2007 election.
While the elections are still many months away, tensions are already rising due to a number of election- or politics-related incidents, including most recently the murder of a politician in Kisumu that led to protests that killed 3 additional citizens. The aim of the project is to have 1,000 citizens reporting on, responding to, and preventing incidents in their area. Already citizens involved in the project have been active in helping to resolve a dispute in the Mt Elgon area that threatened to lead to greater violence. As in past elections in the region, AGLI will also be supporting a team of national, regional African, and international observers to oversee the formal election process. Towards this end, we are hoping to raise $15,000 to cover the basic costs of transportation, etc. to allow these Kenyans to engage in work that they deeply believe in, as I saw first hand when I was there in July.
Please consider donating and also passing on the website to others who might be interested. In addition to regular updates about the election process, in the upper right you will see that we have made it possible for Kenyans to update the website directly through twitter, so it will hopefully be a lively source of information about the elections. The Kenyans I worked with were willing to dedicate their time and risk their personal safety to try to promote peaceful elections, those of us outside Kenya can help them do it. kenyanelections2013.org]]>
Insofar as we talk about what is interesting and important to us, the coverage received is an interesting indicator. Considering books rather than news media, using Google's Ngram Viewer, you can see how often a term or phrase has appeared in the millions of books they have scanned, including in different languages.
So, for example, consider first the relative number of references for Burundi (blue), Sierra Leone (green), and Kenya (red) in English-language books, from 1800-2010:
Note that Burundi and Sierra Leone have roughly the same population, estimated at ~6 million. Next, the same chart but for French-language books:
Although Kenya was referenced more frequently than Burundi at first, this changed rapidly as Burundi came within a few years of independence (1961). Then with the Crisis that began in 1993, there was more written (in French) on Burundi than Kenya.
Finally, to put things in perspective, the last chart compares Burundi (blue) to references to Denver (red) or to the complete phrase "University of Notre Dame" (green):
So in English, the city of Denver (pop ~2million) is referenced roughly six times more than Burundi. Perhaps more alarming, even with the considerable violence that took place in Burundi in the 1990s, there were more references to the University of Notre Dame, (population: 11,700 students, surface area: 5.1 km2)!!
To those who have looked into the literature about Burundi and seen how few books are available, this won't come as much of a surprise. Similarly for other similar conflicts in Africa, even though they are quite complicated, interesting, and important to millions of people. No wonder we have a tendency to think of these conflicts as senseless and impossible to understand – we haven't even really tried yet!
(Note: the decline from 2000-2010 is, I would guess, a result of few books scanned or available. It's possible that this selection bias affects the rest of the analysis, for example if books on Burundi are less likely to be available than books on Notre Dame because of copyright issues, etc.)]]>
Arrests of members of opposition political parties, allegedly for their role in grenade attacks and other crimes, have continued, such that one human rights organization, APRODH, puts the total at more than 100 people since the communal elections, and the organization also claims that some detainees have been tortured.
For the elections tomorrow, some of the groups that refused to participate in the presidential elections have decided to join in, so that there are a total of six parties and two independent candidates, though not all of these will have candidates in every province. That should make the process run more similar to how it was envisioned, unlike the presidential elections when there was only one candidate. While of course it's too early to tell how they will go, there is definitely a less fear than during the previous election when there were widespread expectations of grenade attacks to discourage voters.
In the past week I've been upcountry doing some evaluation of our projects around Mutaho commune in central Burundi, which I hope will provide some interesting reading for future posts. And of course we've been busy preparing for the coming election and a press conference we will be holding to announce the results of our observations on Monday.
Finally, yesterday I also had a chance to go to an event hosted by the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI), in which one member of the commission made a rather startling claim, depending on how it is interpreted. In response to a question about whether they will be holding an “election night” in which they announce the preliminary results as soon as they come in the night of the election, he said:
During the communal elections, we had received information from the provinces, from the communes, through telephone calls. We made an assessment, we got many people who sent to CENI wrong information. And when you are wrong at CENI, and when you take one day after, …the political actors start saying « CENI is manipulating information. » This is the first explanation about why we didn't organize the electoral night last time [during the presidential election.]
Now, he was speaking in English, which is perhaps his third or fourth language, so perhaps he was less precise than he would otherwise have been, but I would have liked more clarification about what the “wrong information” was. Did they simply fill out the forms incorrectly? Or were the numbers incorrect? And if so, how were they corrected?
This highlights one of the big problems with the operation of the electoral commission, which was a significant lack of transparency, perhaps just a result of technical inadequacy, but nonetheless leaving the door open to more malign interpretations. As a number of people have pointed out, a more transparent process, even if it indicted the election for certain inadequacies, would nonetheless essentially resolve the question of intentional manipulation. On the bright side, CENI has taken some of these comments to heart and promised to release copies of the reports from each polling station on the day after the elections.]]>
Last week the country was filled with speculation about where Agathon Rwasa, the leader of the largest opposition group, the FNL, had disappeared to. Many say he is in Congo, while at least initially his political party denied that he had left Burundi. The politics of this “Where's Rwasa?” spectacle are somewhat complex, but I'm not sure it is worth describing, since fundamentally, it has not moved the country forward in the question of who should govern and how.
Similarly with the Presidential elections, in which the incumbent president and soul candidate, Pierre Nkurunziza, reportedly won with between 60 and 97% of the vote, depending on the province. When you think about the process leading up to and following this process, however, it feels like the actual value that was supposed to come from the activity has somehow got lost amidst the details and contentious arguments that arose after the first election.
The question that forms the background of many conversations (whether about politics or the most recent grenade attacks) is whether Burundi can survive the elections without descending into chaos, which is a little like being happy with a restaurant meal because you didn't die of poisoning.
I have been thinking of the comparison between the long Quaker tradition of consensus-based decision-making, which aims to draw all people involved into a genuine dialogue, and the past few weeks of vicious claims and counter-claims made by the political parties here, or for that matter, of political campaigns in the US. In one process, participants ponder the perspective of other people, consider what they might be willing to give up, think about how they might be wrong or biased, and ultimately there is a genuine attempt to find common ground on which to move forward. In the other, in theory there are competing policy platforms and candidates put forward, from which a well-informed electorate makes a choice, but in practice, the actual issues drop out of view and it begins to sound rather like young children arguing over who stole the cookie from the cookie jar.
On the brighter side, the National Independent Electoral Commission has confirmed that there is at least one other party that will participate in the next round of elections coming up in July. Depending on who this is, it could make the campaigning and voting process somewhat more interesting. One can only hope that it will be one step further towards a form of governance that promotes the interest of all Burundians.]]>
Then yesterday the rumor mill had many people heading home early. Originally it was reported that two main opposition leaders, Agathon Rwasa of the FNL, which only recently laid down arms and became a political party, and Alexis Sinduhije of MSD, had been arrested. Later the radio reported that the government claimed that there hadn't been any arrest warrant, and that that Rwasa had simply been called in for questioning. In any case, hearing something was up, Rwasa headed home and called out his supporters to surround his home. So far, this had prevented the police from getting to Rwasa, even after they tried shooting their weapons into the air to disperse the crowd. Additional explosions were heard last night, but no specifics yet. And people traveling around the capital today report military demonstrations and troops being moved around, and the current rumor is that they have returned to Rwasa's house, with greater numbers. Also, Rwasa's supporter's had been coming and going, taking shifts in standing in the way of the police, but they have caught on to this tactic and are now blocking access to the area.
I also heard today that the long-time principle of a Quaker peace school in Gitega, who is also quite involved politically, had a grenade thrown at her house last night, with one person injured, though she herself was not injured.
Last week along with my brother and Jessica and Jess, we put together a workshop on using cell phones and SMS messaging (through FrontlineSMS) to create a community-based early warning system and provide an additional channel to collect updates and results of the elections. While it's just getting underway, and we are still in need of more cell phones to provide for our key observers (see my brother's blog for more info), we have already gathered some updates about what has been going on around the country.]]>
party in the pre-election period, to the lack of voting cards for certain political parties, to a claim that the electricity outage in 7 of 17 provinces during the time the votes were being counted was part of a deliberate plan to stuff ballot boxes. The list goes on, and ranges, in my opinion, from rather speculative circumstantial claims to some that were clearly confirmed by the press and other observers.
The major groups involved in election monitoring, such as the Catholic Church, the European Union, and COSOME (an organization of civil society groups) have stated that, despite some irregularities here and there, overall the elections were free and fair. To me, it is unfortunate that this message gets reduced to saying simply that things went well, either as a result of the way they present their observations or the way the media represents them. While it is true that many things passed more peacefully than some imagined, to the extent that the ruling party and opposition parties used violence, intimidation, and other unfair tactics to influence the outcome, this needs to be highlighted and addressed, not marginalized under the mantle of all too rosy picture. Then yesterday it was reported that five of the seven candidates that were expected to participate in the presidential election have dropped out in protest, claiming that the vote would be rigged in favor of the ruling party. This includes Agathon Rwasa of the FNL, the rebel group that ended their insurgency in 2008 and recently became a political party, and was the largest opposition group. Earlier, when asked how he thought the election went, Rwasa responded that there hadn't been any election. Then yesterday, when asked if pulling out of the race would harm democracy in Burundi his response was that there hadn't been any democracy in the first place.
Call it what you will, it puts Burundi in an awkward situation. If things go forward as planned, the incumbent President will run against only two other candidates who have miniscule chances of winning, and it will look like a rather thin version of democracy. Yet the ruling party is unlikely to make significant concessions such as creation of a new electoral commission, since that would admit guilt that they don't take themselves to have. It's hard to know where things will go from here.]]>
Voting is conducted here by having a ballot for each of the candidates, and placing the card of the desired candidate in one white envelope, and all the other in a second black envelope (the discard pile). There are two potential problems with this system. The first is that there were a number of reports that there were not equal number of cards, which if the election had continued, might have made it more difficult to vote for one party than another. Secondly, if someone is interested in buying votes, they can verify that you have not voted for another party if you bring them the card for that party. In response, this is illegal, and they also count the votes in the discard box, but there are reports of voters taking cards with them.
Campaigning is only allowed between 16 days before and 48 hours before the polls open (think how that would change politics in the US…) As I understand it this is meant to limit the conflict that is created as parties campaign. Indeed there have been scattered incidents in the country, ranging from the deaths of party members to attempts at violent intimidation or vote buying to events that escalated into riots. That said, compared to some expectations, it seems from the results so far that the elections have been a significant success, with only scattered and relatively minor irregularities, an overall a tranquil and fair environment. The HROC program, in coordination with the Quaker Peace Network (QPN), was at a number of polling stations overseeing the process, and we will be collecting their observations in the days ahead, and we’ll also be seeing how people respond to the announcement of the winners.
And of course, much has been going on in Burundi without me, including the beginning of registering of people for the elections, and the recent arrest of 13 members who were alleged to be plotting a coup against the current government.
On the brighter side, Alex has been doing great work with the Friends Women’s Association, and keeps a great blog about her work and life in Burundi. And a few weeks ago I heard news that one of the grants I helped write for our work in North Kivu was funded, which will provide support to survivors of rape in the internally displaced persons camps in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite occasional mentions of the problem in the western press, I was amazed to find when I visted last year how little support is offered to these women, as well as the steep challenges of stigmatization they face in their communities. Hopefully this program can start to create a space for healing and building community with them.
So though I have been short of time for posting, I hope to keep writing as the summer approaches. In the meantime, I will be speaking at the Human Development Conference at the University of Notre Dame on February 26, including some reflections on my work in Burundi.]]>
The week before last, I traveled to five communities in the interior of the country to oversee the distribution 150 goats, each goat to a pair of people that will jointly take care of the goat, giving them an excuse to interact more regularly and build relationships.
Now, it’s never too hard to give things away, but doing a good job of giving things away is more tricky. In general, I think the meetings we had beforehand where we discussed the program and opened it up to comment and criticism caught many of the little details we had missed in planning the program.
But you can’t foresee everything. For example, since the goats had to be bought ahead of time, in local markets, some people in the group took on the responsibility of caring for the goats until the time of the distribution. This created problems, however, when one of the women who cared for the goats wanted her choice of goats (and some were already showing signs of pregnancy), while we were trying to ensure a random distribution of goats to keep everyone happy. So for a while the discussion became a bit heated over this little dispute, but we all had a good laugh when we learned the name that had been chosen for the goat they were arguing over was “Amahoro” (“peace”). Then the exact same thing happened in a second community. At first this had me concerned a bit, but as everyone seemed to come to agreement, and with a little perspective looking back, it was really just a minor hitch, and yet at the same time demonstrated how much these little goats can mean to people.
The best part, however, was the glances I caught four or five times throughout the day of pairs people who were not really paying attention to what was going on with the rest of the group. The reason they were distracted though, was at the very heart of the program. They had become so engulfed in getting to know their partner – formerly someone of whom they might be wary – that they were completely absorbed in being with each other. It was quite striking actually, often they would be holding hands, as Burundians do when having a close conversation, and they were really enjoying each others company. If gentle, nurturing relationships like these can grow from the project among many of the participants, it will have been truly worth its while.
The province of South Kivu had a difficult time during the wars that started in 1996 and 1998, seeing a significant amount of fighting and a number of massacres. Now though, things are relatively quiet in South Kivu, unlike North Kivu where the conflict is actively continuing. There have been a few isolated events here however, such as an attack on the prison near Uvira that freed the prisoners earlier this year, and violence continues further north in the province, such that the UN has 4,000 peacekeepers stationed here to protect civilians.
In Uvira, I stayed at a small peace center that was started by the Friends Church in 1999. It is up on a small hill, which makes for a great view overlooking the lake and a good part of Uvira, and surrounded by simple semi-urban area that is quite tranquil.
While there, I witnessed a Change Agents Training sponsored by Change Agents for Peace International, and had a chance to chat with some of the participants, who were enthusiastic to use their skills as leaders in their community. I also participated in some informal strategic planning sessions, though most of the outcomes consisted in me having a chance to learn about the different work they do.
In the rural community of Abeka, I had a chance to see the first Friends Church in DRC, started in 1983 or so, as well as beautiful site where plans are underway to build a trauma healing clinic, and finally an ill-equipped, but desperately needed hospital.
This hospital has been very much on my mind since visiting. The doctor is making due as best he can, performing basic surgeries, with seemingly little more than a scalpel, anesthesia, and disinfectant. (And growing peanuts and other food in his spare time to supplement his very modest income.) The only electricity currently available is one solar panel that operates one light bulb in the operating room. Actually they have a generator that was donated, but no funds to buy the wires to connect it. And if they did, they wouldn’t have much to connect, beyond a refrigerator.
And this hospital serves a wide area south of Uvira, comprising 55,000 people, who can generally only get there by sitting on the back of a bicycle over miles and miles of rugged dirt roads.
I asked if the government provided any support. “The government?” one member of the staff remarked, “I have been living in Abeka for more than 20 years and I’ve yet to see the government so much as set foot here.” (Keep in mind that the Kinshasa, the capital city, is located about 1,100 miles away by air, which is the only practical possibility).
So they do the best they can with what they have. “It’s war-time medicine,” he remarked, “and it is only thanks to God that so far no one has suffered from an infection.”
Part of me says to myself, you have to look at the larger picture, you have to think about the need for the Congolese state to build effective institutions to end the conflict, impunity, and provide healthcare for its citizens. And after all, many in the US are without proper access to health care. Still, in the meantime, a woman rests with her child delivered by c-section, on old mattress, sharing the room with a man whose appendix was removed, and a community and a whole region struggle to survive where a even few thousand dollars would make a signficant difference. Perhaps they cannot wait until the state gets it together, and if it were your mother or your brother, would you be willing to wait?