After emerging from civil war, Burundi faced further political crisis in 2015 with the third term re-election of political “strong man” President Pierre Nkurunziza and his party CNDD-FDD, and a violent failed coup attempt. Subsequent political instability, economic slowdown and withdrawal from international engagement have followed. There have been persistent human rights violations, lack of space for pluralistic and political dialogue and deteriorating trust in the government. The two core elements of populism are present:
anti-elitism: The authoritarian populist ideology of the ruling CNDD-FDD party promotes the concept of “one voice, one line”. There are either Abagumyabanga, those who know how to “keep secrets” or the straight line, or Abamenabanga, the traitors who have lost this. The party relies on the support of Burundians living outside the cities and capital, Bujumbura, so its dominant discourse relies on the dichotomy between the “real” Burundians, the rural masses who understand “true” cultural values and are attached to the land, and the “false” small urban elite who are corrupt, support the West and do not represent the country at all. This distinction delegitimises dissent from urban areas, including the political opposition, which can rarely go to the interior of the country thanks to the numerous prohibitions on public assembly and political rallies.
The political opposition has also at times deployed divisive populist discourse with the goal of collectively rallying opponents against President Pierre Nkurunziza and the CNDD-FDD, and to attract the attention and sympathy of the international community. Ruling members of the elite in power have been called Abanyeshamba, the “savages” preparing a genocide, mostly after the failed 2015 coup attempt, by opposition or activists in exile who were analysing the crisis through an ethnic, rather than political, lens. Radicalisation of some opponents has led to sporadic, sometimes deadly, attacks by armed groups on the security forces.
anti-pluralism: Sidelining urban areas justifies the CNDD-FDD party’s policies and attempts to maintain its popular support, which since 2010 has declined because of authoritarian rule, economic burdens and strict repression of youth and perceived opponents of the regime. In this environment, the President is the only true representative of “the people”, and all other actors and ways of thinking are dismissed. The binary thinking promoted by this populist rhetoric has impeded young Burundians from thinking critically in a society that already believes they are not entitled to have their own or alternative ideas and opinions.
Additional features of populism that are present in Burundi’s context are:
anti-debate: Any political opposition is considered as a betrayal. Opponents are referred to as mujeri, or “wild dogs to eliminate”.
rejects intermediaries: In October 2018, the government placed a three-month suspension on almost all international organisations as part of a wider crackdown, which is seen as an unnecessary intermediary between “the people” and their “true representative”, the president. To demonstrate his paternalistic attachment to the “real” rural Burundians, the president directly distributes food parcels and bags of rice every week. He cultivates the image of a humble man, close to his people and rural Burundian values, who is persecuted by an internationally-supported urban national elite that wishes to secure his departure.