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Witnesses of Many Changes in Our Communities
By Adrien Niyongabo, Coordinator, HROC-Burundi

We [members of the Democracy and Peace Groups] have been so helpful to our communities. People of bad intentions stopped their doings because they knew that such acts were going to be reported and then the planners would encounter punishment. We provided information about the different elections such as dates, where polling stations were settled, who was allowed to vote, how the vote itself was organized.

The massive destruction and killings, which hit the country from 1993 until late 2000, had left many hearts wounded. It is obvious that unhealed wounds trail behind heavy grief, mistrust, hatred. It has become almost a rule that the unhealed aggrieved person becomes the next aggressor. With elections coming in Burundi in 2010 and knowing how the 1993 post election period had been so traumatizing with the war that followed, it was more than necessary to work with communities to prevent that from happening again. It was from that perspective HROC-Burundi put together a project combining healing, conflict prevention, and election monitoring to be implemented in nine selected communities.

1993 would seem to be along ago so a wound should have healed and therefore its cause forgotten and reconciliation to have taken place. Does this assertion match with the reality on the ground?

My two brothers were killed in 1993 and the other one who escaped just died a few years later in car accident. I then remained by myself with all that hardship in my heart! A time to remember, a time to share, a time to cry, a time to smile has no equal. My time in this HROC workshop has taken away all the bitterness from the multitude losses I have been carrying. I feel lighter and find live meaningful.

Life in the refugee camp is tough. Once you return home, it is like you do not belong to your community. You still do not know which way to go. It is unbelievable the community spirit I sensed in this workshop. I would wish to get such warm welcome back home. I want to be accepted and heard by my neighbors!

I have been displaced after all my relatives had been badly killed in 1995 and now I am living here in town. Each time I visit my home community, it's like I would want to kill as a revenge. But, the sharing I got here tells me the beauty of forgiving. I want to take that path because it is too destructive for me to hold hatred for this long.

Growing up in a context where you know things but can't speak about them, does not help at all with healing and reconciliation. People find it so unique and special to be in a Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities (HROC) workshop because they go there to listen and speak. All participate to make the workshop a success. There is no pressure at all. The safe place that is built as the workshop goes on draws up issues to the surface and folks find it very releasing to share the horrible stories they have been suppressing inside. For many participants, these workshops have been a key to getting peace with oneself, to a new relationship, to community involvement.

We noticed that people had a lot of trauma caused by their experiences in the 1993 crisis, but also the fear of what may happen if the coming elections would not go well. It is with that in mind that HROC organized the Democracy and Peace Groups for the community folks to get a place to meet and an opportunity to talk about the upcoming community elections.

The electoral campaign for the 2010 election was so scary and threatening. Luckily, we could talk in our Democracy and Peace Group meetings about those terrifying slogans and therefore get mutually comforted. Some of us who had begun not to sleep in our homes, got encouraged to come back and spend night under our roofs.

Our Democracy and Peace Groups were meant to closely follow the elections and community life during the electoral process. The community HROC trained folks were asked to gather monthly, especially before each election, and share their views on the electoral process and bring up anything that might cause violence to erupt within the community due to bad elections. Each meeting was an opportunity for the community people to engage in the ongoing electoral process as they stood as peace actors and citizen reporters.

Both the election observing on the day of election and the use of text messaging (SMS) in sharing and reporting any electoral violence were revealed to be tremendously useful tools in preventing violence from happening. The presence of HROC observers ensured their communities that no electoral fraud at that polling station would pass unreported.

People in the communities wondered at first who we were as this Democracy and Peace group practice was new as such. It was when they learned about us that they began revealing to us who was planning to destabilize the community so that we could report it. The way we handled things increased our credibility and trust as folks kept coming to us or calling us to alert any wrong being planned. The result was fabulous with our SMS system.

We are the witnesses of many changes in our communities. A few days before the presidential elections, there was much tension. Much rumors of violence were circulating. Our role in the communities, through our Democracy and Peace group meetings, helped a lot to tranquilize people.

However, the technology side of the work became a serious challenge for some of the HROC citizen reporters. Although they were trained in how to use cell phones, in writing and sending text messages, and making calls, still some citizen reporters struggled to use cell phones. Yet this methodology has been quite a great experiment.

With previous elections, it was not that often local grass root people were given place and time to observe elections in their communities. HROC, under the umbrella of QPN-Burundi, offered this unique opportunity to those who were trained in its program.

Election observing increased our visibility in the community and drew a lot of appreciation from our neighbors. Many of them would never think that we were capable of such endeavor. HROC has empowered us. We demonstrated great professionalism at the polling stations that the other independent and political observers had to consult us in most of the cases.

We are grateful to all who supported us in this project. Many of our HROC people acknowledge having grown in humility, simplicity, bravery, devotion, character and skills. This project allowed them to make a step forward in being peace actors in their communities. As our electoral slogan says, “Peace is the Way”. The last Burundi electoral campaign left communities and people so much divided as competing politicians wanted to get votes by any means. Democracy and Peace group meetings are therefore more than appropriate to help bring all parties to the same understanding of how the community should be run. To extend such meetings to the broader population would be much more beneficial. We have to bring communities back to unity; we are called to rebuild the social tissue. We are convinced that the good will prevail over the evil. Let's us join hands and support Friends to be peace witnesses.

Promoting Democracy and Peace

The material in PeaceWays-AGLI is from the evaluation report prepared by Andrew Peterson, master’s degree student at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

In June of 1993 after decades of mostly Tutsi military rule, there was the first genuine election in Burundi since independence in 1963. A Hutu, Melchior Ndadaye, was elected president. But on October 21 after less than four months in office he was assassinated by the Tutsi military. Hutu citizens began attacking Tutsi and the Tutsi military retaliated by killing Hutu. A civil war ensued. During the twelve years of civil war an estimated 300,000 Burundians were killed, another 300,000 or more fled mostly to Tanzania to Burundi’s east, and large number of Tutsi entered internally displaced camps patrolled by the police and army. Finally after long, drawn-out negotiations, in 2005 an internationally sponsored election occurred and the active fighting of the Burundian civil war ended. Pierre Nkurinziza of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) from the main rebel group that had been destroying Burundi for more than a decade easily won the election. This then became the Burundian ruling party.

By 2010 after five years it was time for the next election. For unknown reasons the electoral commission decided to hold five separate elections over a five month period. Counselor elections were held on May 21, the presidential election on June 28, the legislative election for members of parliament on July 23, and indirect elections for senators on July 28, and lastly local elections on September 7.

This series of elections led to major problems. The ruling party, CNDD-FDD, handily won the first election with 64% of the vote. But the opposing political parties accused the ruling party of rigging the election, particularly, in its strong-hold areas where over 90% of the voters turned out with more than 90% going for the ruling party. As a result a coalition of opposition parties decided to boycott the presidential elections. The electoral commission then decided to make that election a “yes” or “no” vote on retaining the current president. The opposition parties countered this by asking it supporters to boycott the presidential election. This raised tensions in the country. The result was 92% of the vote for Pierre Nkurunziza with 77% of the registered voters voting.

During this period over a hundred grenades were throw at crowds in the capital of Bujumbura or ruling party offices upcountry. Three of the potential presidential candidates who had boycotted the election then went into hiding or fled the country as the Government was accusing them of the grenade attacks.

Interesting enough the ethnic hostility of the previous decades between Tutsi and Hutu were not a factor in this election as most of the various opponents like Nkurunziza himself were all Hutu. By the parliamentary elections some of the political parties which had boycotted the presidential election decided to participant in the election for members of parliament. Very few of them won as the ruling party captured 81% of the votes.

Then for the indirect election of senators, each district needed to pick one Hutu and one Tutsi as senators in a method which was supposed to ensure the minority Tutsi adequate representation in the legislature. Since the ruling party was mostly Hutu and did not have many Tutsi candidates, the former Tutsi party, UPRONA, won most of the Tutis seats. While political parties were required to be multi-ethnic, the system that was set up froze ethnicity into the elections even after it was no longer a significant factor.

While the last local elections held on September 7 were peaceful enough, the result politically has been the de facto formation of a one-party state. Already a number of assassinations have occurred and there is fear that Burundi is slipping back into civil war. In particular, losing presidential candidate, Agathon Rwasa from the National Liberation Forces (FNL) which just ended its armed rebellion in April 2009, is rumored to have returned to the bush to form a new rebel movement.

The Burundi Election Violence Prevention Program:
The African Great Lakes Initiative received a grant from the United States Institute of Peace to conduct an eighteen month long program to prevent election violence in nine communities in four provinces. These communities were selected because they had experience significant violence during the twelve year civil war. The project began with a series of Healing and Rebuilding Our Community three day workshops (see with four in each community. Later there was a follow-up day where the goals of election violence prevention were discussed. This was then followed by a community celebration to show the community that there was a cohesive group that was concerned about violence during the election. The 720 participants in these workshops were then organized into eighteen Democracy and Peace Groups, two in each community.

As the elections approached, 120 of these participants joined the Quaker Peace Network as election observers. In an innovative add-on project, one hundred participants were trained as citizen reporters. These were given cell phones and airtime to report election problems or lack of problems in their communities. Messages to the Call-In Center could then be re-broadcast to all the cell phone holders in any one community. The intent was that if something arose in a community the citizen reporters and members of the Democracy and Peace Groups could intercede by observing as a group any events that were taking place.

An evaluation of the program was conducted by Andrew Peterson, a former extended service volunteer with AGLI in the HROC program in Burundi. The African Great Lakes Initiative thanks the United States Institute of Peace, Change Agents for Peace, International, and individual donors for their support for the project.

HROC Workshops

A three-part series of trainings and activities that progressively build on the experience of participants were held in each of the nine communities. Training began with a three-day Basic HROC Workshop to begin the process of trauma healing and reconciliation for participants; each series included a diverse group of twenty. Subsequently, the participants took part in a follow-up workshop that introduced the goals of the election violence prevention program. This was followed by a one-day celebration to engage the wider community in the program and raise awareness that there was a group of people working to prevent violence during the election process. The following comments from different HROC program participants include personal change, domestic issues, ethnic division, and influence on government and other leaders.

When I was a [Hutu] refugee, I came to believe that Tutsi are the enemy; and I thought this for three years. When I came back to Burundi, I still thought of Tutsi as the enemy, as those who were the cause of my suffering. Through HROC I was put directly in touch with those who had traumatized me. It was very difficult the first and second days. When I listened to people talking I focused on thinking about their ethnicity. But as we began to speak about our feelings, and I heard, for example, a Tutsi who had lost someone close to them speak positively about Hutu, I began to be opened up. The trust walk was moving – I was the one blindfolded and led by a Tutsi woman, and I was sure she would lead me into a patch of thorns or something, but instead she was quite caring. Through this I came to see the image of myself in Tutsi, and now am close friends with many Tutsi.

I used to be a thief. I would break down neighbors' doors and steal all their possessions without pity. I do not know how I was invited by the HROC person to attend a HROC workshop in my community. But truly, since the end of the second day, a very deep change happened in me. It was then that I came to realize that I had been making my neighbors' lives miserable and tough. I had been traumatizing them so terribly. I decided then and there to stop breaking into peoples' homes. For the moment, not many people believe that I have become this truly new person, except my old friends. But I am committed to showing them my new face. With time, they will trust me. I have started warning my community any time I hear that my old friends were planning some robberies. I want to be a tree of trust. I feel free and joyful.

Personal change:

I am originally from Ngozi province, and I had a house there that I didn't have much need for after I moved [to the Ruhororo internally-displaced persons camp for Tutsi]. I knew a Hutu was in need of a house, but of course I wasn't ready to just give it away. But later I began to think about the teachings of HROC and I decided to give him my house in Ngozi. Now we are like family, and occasionally when I come to visit in Ngozi I stay with him at my old house.

HROC was an incredible force for me. At first, I thought I was just a bother to people and I just wanted to stay at home all the time. I never thought people would listen to what I had to say. I lived here but I didn't have friends, even in the camp [of internally-displaced Tutsi]. It was during the HROC workshops that I first saw people really could listen to what I had to say. Even more surprising was when everyone in the workshop cried with me when I shared all the bad things that I happened. After that, they became my friends and I visit them often. We created a friendship and it makes me happy to be recognized by my group. I feel like a new person, very useful to my family and to the community. I thank very warmly the people responsible for HROC who thought of coming here and inviting me. It is an immense blessing that I have received.

I used to become angry easily, and would argue frequently with people. Talking with people at HROC helped. Now I love to dialogue with people to resolve problems.

I used to be someone who just stayed at home all the time, except going to church. Now because of HROC I go out and participate in my community. Because of my trauma, I did not want to participate in any associations, but now I do. Seeing this change, people started asking what political party I had joined, but I told them I hadn't joined any political party and it was just work with independent organizations.

One person advised me to spend my time making bricks rather than participating in HROC activities, but I said to them, “I will have bricks but no peace.” Now they call me “HROC” rather than “Alfred”, which I accept. I am proud of the work I am doing for peace.

One Tutsi civil servant said, “I love your HROC program. I have lived 37 years with wounds to my heart, and you were the first to touch the problem. Iit helped to relieve the burden I felt, like a heavy rock on my heart.

The program helped in my daily life – now when I hear rumors, I think of how I need to analyze them critically.

It helped me – even though I am a member of the clergy, and therefore have for many years been helping others in need., I never realized that I too might be traumatized. This helps me in my work

Now I know what trauma is, how to understand it, and how to help others who have it.

Domestic issues:

It helped me personally because it helped me to understand the needs of the orphan children I adopted and how to help them heal. In particular I liked the stages of trauma. Now when one of the girls in my house, or my husband, gets mad, I realize it might be from trauma.

Understanding traumatization helped me to understand other people. Everyone has experienced trauma. In my family, my father used to beat my mother, savagely, like an animal, and mom would sleep in the living room. Then I said to my mom, “I am a mediator from what I learned in HROC. Let me as your son help try to resolve the problem”. So I invited them to come together in the living room and I read them all my notes from the HROC workshop and explained what I had learned. From this experience, they were reconciled, and now they sleep in the same room. Dad used to call mom by the word for “dog”. Now he calls her by her proper name. Later I overheard my mom saying, “My son has grown up, where did he learn all these skills”? These days when my dad has a problem, he brings the family together to discuss it.

It is like I have become a doctor without many years in school. At first I thought HROC trainers were crazy, telling us to revisit the difficult times and memories. Afterwards, I cried, and it was a good cry. I realize it helped me, and now I know better how to work with my husband.

The program is very beneficial for families, which can be changed dramatically if they participate. For example, for women whose husbands no longer commit domestic rape.

Ethnic division:

During the community celebration a number of people shared their testimony of how HROC had changed them and helped them to transform themselves and overcome ethnic divisions.

HROC allowed me to feel forgiveness and tolerance in my heart and to see with one love all the people regardless of ethnicity or political affiliation.

I believe that the program has made a difference because I now know techniques for communicating with and listening to people of different identity and who have different ideas from my own.

HROC helped create a friendship between churches. Normally Pentecostals refuse to go into other churches and to let others enter their church, but through the workshops, this practice was abandoned.

HROC helped me to discover my new family – Hutu, Tutsi and Twa all together.

Influence on government and other leaders:

Various government officials and a Catholic priest took note that I was participating in the program and asked me by what credentials I had to take part. And in general people came to see me more as a leader in the community.

On the community celebration day there was a Twa person there [a third small, marginalized group], who said that it was the first time that they had eaten a meal together with an administrator.

During the community celebration, a local government official asked why the project was training small everyday people and not leaders like himself.

On the community celebration day I saw that the local leaders that had been invited were clearly touched by the stories of healing that were shared and by the skit about trauma healing that was put on.

Democracy and Peace Groups

One of the people whose house was burned participated in the HROC workshop. After calling in the problem, we were encouraged to go to the site where it happened and help the victim. When the victim promised to seek revenge, we urged him to seek nonviolent solutions, for example by pointing out that he might in the process hurt an innocent person and merely start a vicious cycle. It is more important to act cautiously and have those truly responsible brought to justice. After his house was burned he went to live with his mother in a simple straw hut. We kept up with him, and some of us donated things to help him out. I gave him two pieces of clothing myself. We were afraid he would become angry and commit violence in revenge, but he has remained peaceful.

After the end of the HROC cycle of activities, Democracy and Peace Groups were formed to serve as the basis for observing the elections and preventing election violence in their local community. The intent was to have a cohesive group of people who were well known to each other as the basic social structure to observe and prevent violence in the local community. As part of their participation in the Democracy and Peace group, some of the members were assigned as election observers and others as citizen reporters. These activities are described in the next sections.

Community fears:

People were generally fearful as evidenced by the extent to which they listened attentively to the radio in case an urgent message was broadcast and by the fact that when people heard a rumor they began to pack their belongings in preparation to flee. Another indicator was people that were not willing to sleep at home and instead slept in areas considered more secure.

Mistrust and misunderstanding was caused by people being from different political parties. This can lead people to leave a bar when others arrive and even to divorce or loss of employment.

Grenade attacks, rumors of people possessing arms, and arrests of militants/armed members of political parties increased community fears. Participants in Bujumbura Mairie variously believed that these arrests were important to protect public safety or that they were unjustified attempts to intimidate political opponents who were not in fact armed.

People were also scared when the coalition of opposition parties boycotted the presidential election and began discouraging people from voting. As a result a few fled or were killed.

Rumors can have harmful effects; even when false. For example, one person who was working on opening a small shop heard that war might be coming and decided to give up on the project. Some believed that these rumors were part of an intentional campaign of political intimidation. Another rumor that circulated was that if people did not go to vote, they would not have their electoral cards stamped and this would be used as a basis to deny them social services such as access to the hospital. Finally, one person reported a rumor that if the UPRONA political party did not receive enough votes in the legislative election, they would stage a coup d'état. (UPRONA was the Tutsi party of the former Tutsi military presidents.)

Democracy and Peace group responses:

We discussed the question of what is democracy...Here democracy [i.e. the elections] can kill, it can destroy a family...Democracy is still young in our country, and so we focused on questions of how we can promote democracy in our community.

We focused our efforts on speaking with youth who we thought were at risk of getting involved in violence. We used playing soccer as a starting point to our relationship. Then later when the topic shifted to politics, we would urge them to consider carefully where violence led in the past in 1993 and suggested that if they love their country they will find other means of addressing the problems they perceive. For example, after the communal elections [on May 24, 2010], one young man said that he would go into the forest to join an armed militia, because he had fled a number of times and he did not want to do so again. Since we knew he was a good student, we suggested that such behavior might be common for uneducated people, but that he, having had a chance to receive an education, should think more carefully. He seemed to take this to heart. We also spoke with parents to urge them to keep an eye on their children, for example to consider where they might have been if suddenly they start coming home late.

In our Democracy and Peace group, we start by discussing recent events that have been taking place – such as the elections and other local events. We also discussed the teachings from earlier in the program, such as the mock election role play that we did in the follow up day. As it turned out, the elections were just like what happened in our role play – with one of the parties contesting the outcome.

In the Democracy and Peace Groups, we discussed problems in the community, such as conflicts between political party members. For example, there was a confrontation between members of different political parties, where one accused the other of witchcraft causing her to pass the due date of her child. I asked a Catholic priest to speak with her to ask her not to accuse the other of witchcraft and the conflict ended.

I feel like the training helped me to play a more active role. For example, the mock election activity [in the follow-up workshop] helped me understand the problems with people being too partisan. Now when I see people being very polemical, I ask them, “Do you know the candidates who might become President? And do you think they would come to help you if, for example, you ended up in jail?

I'm sure if I hadn't taken part in HROC I would have been involved in one of the political parties and I would have wanted vengeance after the house of a party member was burned.

I don't feel that my voice is being heard. I am just an unimportant citizen. But problems begin at the local level, so if HROC helps at that level, perhaps the leaders will see the difference and will respond in turn.

I learned that I should be a role model in the community, and that we can address problems ourselves rather than just bringing problems to the leaders as is usually done.

One thing I learned is what a true leader is. Previously we tended to look at leaders as simply dictating what others should do. Now I know that they need also to listen to others.

Election Observing:

In the past the Quaker Peace Network-Africa has realized that too many people concentrate on the voting process itself by poll watching on the day of the election, but neglect all the activities during the enrollment of voters, the election campaigning period and the post election period of potential violence. So QPN-Burundi has decided to observe throughout the entire process. QPN-Burundi had 35 observers during the two weeks of voter enrollment in February.
I met with over 20 of these observers. They were not confident that the election was going smoothly. They observed many incidences of fraud. These included people registering more than once, underage children being enrolled as voters, buying of voter identification documents, under-registering of female voters, the spreading of rumors – the best one I heard was that if people registered to vote the country would be hit by an earthquake like Haiti and all the houses would be destroyed. It was also observed that election enrollment offices were hard to find, the ruling political party took the enrollment books home at night adding unauthorized names to the polling list, and other similar misdeeds.

In a number of cases the observers reported the misdeeds to the Burundi National Independent Electoral Commission and the Commission did respond by investigating and correcting the fraudulent practices. But how many occurrences of fraud were not caught by election observers? In order to win, every political party must seek whatever unfair advantages it can get; otherwise its opponents will win. Will these numerous frauds cancel each other out? Can there be a "free and fair" election when there is substantial grassroots fraud? I think that the answer is "no" because the ruling party, through its control of the organs of government, has much more power to instigate fraud than any of the other political parties. I was told that one of the "tricks" of the out-of-power political parties is to accuse the ruling party of fraud at every instance to build up the case that the ruling party is "stealing" the election. But is this a "trick" or is it true? The conventional wisdom is that the ruling party, if it lost, would not be willing to go back into the bush to start another civil war because they have become too used to the good life brought by governing the country. But this same statement can be used to indicate that the ruling party will do everything possible to win re-election.

David Zarembka, February 2010

Members of the opposition accused me of complicity with the rigging of elections. They said, “You were there while they stole the election”. I told them it was not stolen, at least not at the polling station where I observed, but they did not accept this result. They said I was just lying.

One hundred and twenty participants from the Democracy and Peace Groups were selected to participate as official election observers. They were selected by program facilitators based on their aptitude for observing and engaging in the project as well as to balance gender, ethnic and regional criteria. These participants received training on election observing and on a code of conduct for observers – which they signed. They were registered as official observers with the National Independent Electoral Commission of Burundi. These Democracy and Peace observers were also paired with other national and international observers from the Quaker Peace Network, organized with additional funding from Change Agents for Peace, International (CAPI).

There were 35 observers during the voter registration process. There were a total of 218 observers for the communal election, 278 during the presidential election, and, 259 for the legislative election. Reports were collected from these observers, based on a standardized questionnaire of 40 and then later 45 questions. These results were compiled into a report that was published on the AGLI web (available at: [Need to be posted on the AGLI webpage and the URL put in here.)]

The HROC staff considered holding a press conference after the first communal elections to disseminate these results more widely; instead the decision was made to produce a final report at the end of the elections rather than jeopardize future election observations. The atmosphere was extremely tense following the declaration by a coalition of opposition groups that the communal election had been rigged and their decision to boycott subsequent elections. The HROC decision was reconsidered for the legislative elections, the rationale being that the need to share the perspective brought by observers outweighed the possible threat to the program. Thus, on July 23, 2010, a press conference was held to share a preliminary report on the election. The analysis was carried on the radio and television stations that day.

HROC staff also met with the staff of the National Independent Electoral Commission to urge resolution of technical irregularities in future elections. While the Commission was sympathetic to the concerns, they lacked funds to provide additional training to polling station staff, and in the subsequent election the same irregularities were observed again.

On a local level, the impact of the project was evident. Some reported that just the presence of election observers calmed the population who came to vote and may also have deterred irregularities from occurring. Furthermore, serving as observers also changed the status of some participants who gained respect within their communities – being now seen as leaders and people who might be credible mediators of conflict. Finally, through interactions with staff at the polling stations and the National Independent Electoral Commission, the observing program worked in numerous small ways to promote more careful and effective election processes and served as an alternative third perspective between the Electoral Commission and the political parties.

Citizen Reporters

While not part of the original proposal and based in part on the example set by the use of cell phones in Kenya in response to the 2008 post election violence, staff decided that the program would benefit from taking advantage of recently developed technologies for networking via cell phones. Cell phones have only become common outside the capital in Burundi in the past year or two. It is only during that time that cell phone companies extended coverage to the rest of Burundi. As a result many citizens have limited knowledge about the use cell phones.

The program staff decided to make use of FrontlineSMS, which is an open-source software program that allows people to send a single text message that is then rebroadcast to other members of a pre-defined set of users. In this case those users were citizen reporters who were part of the Democracy and Peace Groups as well as HROC staff in Bujumbura and upcountry.

Various technical delays and the lack of timely funding meant that the program did not get completely up and running – with users trained and having cell phones and the FrontlineSMS program functioning – until late May, after the communal election had already taken place. One of the challenges was that funding was not available to purchase the phones, and collecting 42 used phones which functioned properly in the Burundi setting and were donated from the UK and the US was time consuming. In early June additional funding was secured from Change Agents for Peace, International and used to buy a number of very cheap phones that provided a greater degree of standardization and allowed the inclusion of more participants.

There were 160 citizen reporters who participated in the system. They were organized into nine groups, one for each community, as well as groups for HROC facilitators and HROC staff. Training for the citizen reporters – to explain the basics of how to use the cell phones, how the phones would be used to promote the goals of the project, and how the phones would function with the FrontlineSMS system – were held in each of the nine communities. The skill level of the participants varied, ranging from people who were already familiar with using phones and sending text messages to people who had never used a phone, were barely literate, and had difficulty seeing the letters on the buttons and pressing the small buttons. Another minor challenge was that the FrontlineSMS system was occasionally overwhelmed with test messages, particularly on Election Day, which occasionally created delays.

Based on the record of the texts that were sent between June 25, 2010 and July 24, 2010, there were 735 text messages received from participants; about 12 messages per day. These were then re-distributed, and the system sent out 7,449 messages; about 124 per day.

The most frequent messages were those reassuring people that things were calm, followed by messages reporting incidents such as grenade attacks, arrests, or other concerns. During the election, teext messages were used to reassure people that things were going safely, particularly during the presidential election when people were expecting grenade attacks on polling stations. They were also used to share ideas with observers about possible irregularities for which they should be alert. For example, in some polling stations the staff and the political observers had signed the minute forms before the voting was finished. Messages were sent to urge people to verify if this happened at their station. The message also urged them not to sign the minutes themselves as some observers in some places were pressured to do because they were observers and not election officials.

Examples of messages:
• [sent to the Mutaho group] A grenade was heard in Ngungu, 4th of July at 2 a.m. A family was at home where it exploded, but no one was killed..

• [sent to the Buterere group] People are quite calm in general, but there are some opposition party members who have decided not to sleep at their home because they fear that someone will come and capture them there.

• We are hearing a lot of gunfire right now in Kamesa quarter.

• [sent to the Kamenge group] There were some people who had grenades and arms that were captured on the 12th Ave next to the Adventist church. Others were captured on Ave. Terminus. The latter were in the midst of robbing a house. The civilians who captured them took their pocket money and split it up amongst themselves.

• [sent to Nyangungu group during the Presidential election] Here in Mutaho – security was good, many people came in early. Now it's basically over and people are coming in one-by-one.

One particularly interesting series of text messages were explained by a participant during the evaluation interviews:

On the eve of the presidential elections, everything was very tense, the bars were all closed, and the police were on high alert. Then I heard that three people were arrested that evening who we knew were not actually engaged in illegal activities. I texted [another member of the Democracy and Peace Group, a Tutsi who lives in the internally displaced persons camp], who agreed to follow up on the case with the police. From there, the two of us communicated by cell phones to coordinate our efforts to speak with various local officials and administrators. Eventually we heard from the Commune administrator that they could not be released because it was too late in the evening, but that if one of us came the next morning we would see that they will be released. Later we heard from one of those arrested that one of the police officers was asking him, “Who are you that you have these administrators suddenly concerned about your status?” So it was really our coordination through the SMS network that helped these innocent people be released without harm.

This indicates the type of coordination that was achieved through the FrontlineSMS network.

Participants suggested that there were in fact good reasons for having the option of text messaging. One advantage they mentioned was the possibility of privacy. For example, if one is witnessing an event first-hand it may not be possible to inform others by a traditional cell-phone call since people in the vicinity might overhear and might misunderstand the reasons why other people are being alerted, putting the observer at risk. The same is true more generally since Burundi is a country in which people feel like they never know who around them is listening or who they work for or report to. Along similar lines, one person in the capital suggested that the program should have also taught people how to delete text messages from the cell phones, “for reasons of security”.

As with other communication tools, while the FrontlineSMS network enhanced the ways people were able to work together, ultimately the effectiveness of the network was a product of more traditional skills and relationships. The ease of communicating, and the ability to do so in a discrete way may have engaged citizens who would not otherwise have played an active role.

The SMS project's late start and the minimal knowledge and skills of some Burundians limited the impact of the program, but the group networks formed were functional and added to the overall program. Participants found the network useful for sharing information and keeping each other up-to-date; in this way the project set an important precedent for how similar networks might be used in the future. Such a project would likely be even more dynamic if conducted with a population more familiar with the cell phone technology.


It is at the local level that the most direct and concrete impact of the program was evident. Almost all participants interviewed testified that the HROC program transformed their interpersonal relationships, helping them to deal more effectively with anger and conflict and building stronger and more positive relationships with their family members, neighbors, and associates. For the participants who were involved in Democracy and Peace Groups, election observing, and the FrontlineSMS network, the project raised their profile as peacebuilders within their communities, gave them new skills, and catapulted some people into nonpartisan civil society activity who had not been so involved previously. It is possible that these peacebuilders may have had a dampening effect on conflict between members of political parties and government officials.

The adoption of citizen reporters using the FrontlineSMS system, though it was established later than would be ideal, provided an innovative new example of how the technology can be used. This made the program more effective. While massive violent conflict did not break out, the responses to smaller problems during the program show that had such problems arisen the SMS network would have been an important tool in directing and coordinating peacebuilding efforts to respond to violence.

With respect to the national-level political dispute that was the focus of conflict during the elections, the program provided an alternative third voice to the government and political parties through its election observation reports and its dialogue with everyday citizens on a local level. This voice was purposely not widely heard as a result of the decision to keep a low public profile to avoid jeopardizing future election observation efforts. While with the benefit of hindsight the program might have more publicly shared its results, this judgment is difficult to consider fairly when one keeps in mind that at the time the decision was made many feared that the dispute would lead to large-scale violence. In fact, the elections led to more than a hundred grenade attacks, arrests of opposition members and members of the media, and some violent clashes.

Way Forward

The African Great Lakes Initiative plans to use what we have learned from the Burundi Election Violence Prevention Program for the coming August 2012 elections in Kenya. The project will be done in partnership with the Friends Church Peace Teams (FCPT) which was formed in Kenya during the 2008 post election violence, AGLI is proposing the Comprehensive 2012 Election Violence Prevent Project for Turbo Division, Rift Valley, Kenya. In this division which had over 15% of its population or more than 20,000 people displaced during the 2008 post election violence, AGLI and FCPT are planning an extensive program with youth, government sponsored peace committees, and the Turbo Inter-religious Peace Task Force which has already been formed.

In addition to what was done in Burundi, the plan is for youth to have Alternatives to Violence workshops in each of the seven locations in the division, non-violent direct action training, and voter sensitization/anti-violence activities prior to the election. For adults, the plan is to conduct HROC training and follow-up days leading to the formation of Democracy and Peace Groups, and a project on transformative mediation skills. One hundred and forty people will be trained as election observers and another 140 will become citizen reporters. Since the cell phone system is much more widely developed in Kenya than in Burundi, and since almost everyone in Kenya already owns and uses a cell phone, we expect the Early Warning System to work more effectively than in Burundi. The Turbo Inter-religious Peace Task Force will also hold peace prayer days on the Sunday before the election. The government appointed peace committees will be trained in non-violence seminars and will hold five peace gatherings in each of the seven locations during the campaign period before the election.