Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t, watch the 2007 film “Primeval”.
Primeval, originally titled “Gustave”, follows a news team sent to Burundi to capture a crocodile on Lake Tanganyika. That crocodile is called Gustave. According to a Wikipedia entry, in 2004 Gustave was estimated to be 60 years old, 20 feet (6.1 m) in length and to weigh around 1,000 kilogrammes.
He is a notorious man-eater who is alleged to have dined on as many as 300 humans.
But there is another Gustave in Burundi, and he lives on land. It is the nickname of Major Pierre Buyoya, who ruled the country twice, from 1987 to 1993, and 1996 to 2003. Both times, like Ghana’s Flt. Lt. Jerry Rawlings, Buyoya seized power through a military coup.
A handsome chap, Buyoya’s looks belied the cruelty for which he was named after Gustave. Brutal as he was, and for all the carnage he caused, the irony of Burundi is that it was Buyoya, a Tutsi, who made some of the most important breaks in decades-long Hutu-Tutsi rivalries, and eventually brokered a peace deal to end years of war, and handed over power to Domitien Ndayizeye – a Hutu.
To corrupt Amilcar Cabral’s words, you might say Buyoya committed ethnic suicide. He still lives in Burundi; is still called Gustave in radio call-in programmes; a Senator for life.
The Big Man in Burundi is a former rebel leader, Pierre Nkurunziza. He is another contradictory figure. An election cheat and tormentor of his opponents, Nkurunziza has managed to bring a modicum of stability to Burundi. In a move you can’t begrudge him, he shamed many bigger, richer, and stable African countries when he sent troops from his poor nation to the African Union’s Peacekeeping Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), at a time when only Uganda had the stomach (or was mad enough) to do so.
As the US diplomatic cables leaked to the whistleblower website Wikileaks revealed, Nkurunziza calculated that plunging into Somalia fray would give his little ignored country huge diplomatic oomph. He has reaped benefits beyond his wildest dreams. Nkurunziza is a complex bloke. He is obsessed with the avocado fruit. He spends a lot of time in the village digging with peasants and growing avocado. He waxes grand about how Burundi can become an important world player in making avocado oil. Diplomats who go to see him in the capital Bujumbura (and a lot of them do these days that he is a kingmaker in Somalia) often find themselves driven to the bushes where he is digging. And to get his attention, they have to roll up their shirtsleeves, pick a hoe, and join him in tilling the land.
Nkurunziza has flogged avocados so much in Burundi that the people now call the fruit after the English version of Pierre – maPeter. If you go to a market in Burundi to buy avocado, you ask for maPeter. When Nkurunziza is not hobnobbing with Somali politicians, fixing his opponents, or tending avocado trees, he is praying. A Born Again Christian, Nkurunziza spends so much time praise singing, his critics say God’s business takes too much time away from weighty matters of state. First Lady Denise, too, is God’s girl. She is so devout, last year she was ordained a pastor of an evangelical church, and probably became the first First Lady anywhere in the world to make the priesthood from State House.
When the Nkurunziza house is in full prayer mode, it holds prayer-thons that go throughout the night to dawn. A lot of this time, Nkurunziza, a ruler who loves sports – he jogs and plays football – will be in a colourful tracksuit and sneakers. Depending on the season, Nkurunziza can spend a week or more dressed in tracksuits. Wags say that only Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete comes a remote second to him in owning tracksuits and sneakers.
However, even God has failed to stop the avocado president from persecuting journalist Alexis Sinduhije. For the last week, Sinduhije has been languishing in a Tanzanian jail, thrown there after the police in Dar es Salaam, in cahoots with Burundi authorities, arrested him after he arrived there on a flight from Uganda. The Tanzanians haven’t charged Sinduhije, because Burundi has not filed the paperwork. Meanwhile he is reported to be in poor health without medicine.
Sinduhije’s real crime was to stand as presidential candidate in the elections against Nkurunziza in 2010, and for rejecting that and subsequent local polls as fraudulent. An inspirational figure, Sinduhije even sparked off a rush of naïve and irrational exuberance when he was dubbed “Burundi’s Barack Obama”.
In March 2010, in one of the biggest media bonanzas in Africa, during a week of celebrations to mark Nation Media Group’s 50th anniversary in Nairobi, Sinduhije was honoured as “the Most Inspiring Journalist from Central Africa of the last 50 years”. Now the hard and unforgiving realties of African politics have engulfed him. In Bujumbura, the government is accusing him of everything from murder, terrorism, and treason.
There is something puzzling about this menacing face of Burundi power; the country holds Africa’s record of former presidents living relatively freely at home. It has Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, Pierre Buyoya, Domitien Ndayizeye and Jean-Baptiste Bagaza. In most of the rest of Africa, former presidents are in exile, prison, or were murdered by mutinous soldiers or rebels.
Unlike its cousin Rwanda, which is still hobbled by memories of the 1994 genocide in which one million, most of them Tutsi, were slaughtered, in Burundi there is a freewheeling debate about ethnicity.
Rwanda, however, has got a smart twitch and spark; a creeping gung-ho can-do cockiness; and its capital Kigali has a faint but still promising look of an African-Genevastyle city in the making.
Not so Burundi. It is East Africa’s most corrupt country. On my last visit, I had this sense that it will take at least another generation escape its hills, mountains, and Lake Tanganyika and become a sunny free land where people like Sinduhije, who are anti-establishment outsiders, can find accommodation. In addition to everything else, Bujumbura also suffers that small-mindedness and provincialism of African cities built in the valley and surrounded by hills – like Grahamstown in South Africa.
You almost sense that the mountains trap the bad air in, and that not enough light ever gets in. There is, of course, the open escape available over Lake Tanganyika. The only problem is that then you have to reckon with Gustave.
Rarely has a wonderful country and such a beautiful people, been imprisoned by elements that, in another time and place, would have been abundant blessings.
© Charles Onyango-Obbo / twitter@cobbo3