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Last Updated: 06/29/2012
The relationship between civil society and public institutions in Burundi
Vital Nshimirimana

Vital Nshimirimana discusses the relationship between civil society and public institiutions in Burundi.He argues that a permanent tension exists in defining civil society. He suggests that such a tension might be resolved in the light of the definitions adopted by several international organisations of which Burundi is party.Indeed, he assesses the achievement of civil society in Burundi and asserts that what makes it be seen by public institutions as a threat is because it is working and actually committed to defend the common good. Key words : civil society, public institutions,associations,labour unions, synergy, citizenry,media, common good

Burundians demostrating in front of the  European Parliament, Bruxelles, 2012

In the contemporary world, civil society is sine quoi none for a democratic regime. It affords ordinary citizens (the voiceless) the opportunity to be heard. Similarly, it empowers and incites the citizens to participate in the decision making process and the management of public affairs and overall to keep an eye on their rulers. Yet, in Burundi, a tough controversy exists regarding who is civil society and its mission. Meanwhile, it is widely agreed that civil society tries to fill the gap created by government’s inability to address many issues.

Defining civil society

To date, civil society organizations are increasingly seen as the resort for citizens whenever there is any issue regarding human rights, governance or justice. Yet, there is no consensus regarding the concept of civil society in Burundi. The consequence is that public institutions attempt to avoid the synergy of civil society organizations merely because they intervene in different sectors or may depend on different regulations. The tension in defining civil society in Burundi can be resolved in the light of definitions provided by several international organizations and scholarly perspective. Though the latter adopt different approaches, one can detect a series of similarities in defining civil society. For instance, the United Nations Report of the Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations –Civil Society Relations (UNGA, 2004) adopts a citizen-centred definition as a network that citizens voluntarily join with the aim to advance the group’s interests, ideas and ideologies. The report lists a number of organizations of particular relevance to the United Nations including “ mass organizations (such as organizations of peasants, women or retired people), trade unions, professional associations, social movements, indigenous people’s organizations, religious and spiritual organizations, academe and public benefit non-governmental organizations” (para.13).

In defining civil society, the World Bank (2010) lists organizations which enjoy a presence in public life and run according to a set of moral considerations:

The term civil society refers to the wide array of non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) therefore refer to a wide of array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labour unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations (para. 5).

The United Nations Commission for Africa (2010) notices the ideological differences and the diverse typologies of civil society in Africa but comes up with a common definition which runs as follows: “ civil society is a wide range of formal and informal non-state actors serving as intermediaries between the state and the household, and engaged in self-help, welfare, humanitarian, governance, socio-economic development, and advocacy activities for the common good of society.”

Notably, the definition adopted by the UNECA put an emphasis on the role of the non state actors as intermediaries between the state and the people and whose purpose is to contribute to the common good of the society.

Peter and Kibalama (2006) offer a similar perspective and assign civil society the role of filling the gap between citizens and the state. For these scholars, it does not matter whether the organizations are formal or informal, what amounts is the social struggle at the heart of their agenda :

voluntary organisations that occupy the space between the family and the state. These are associations; both formal and informal, which are separate from the state and enjoy some autonomy from the state, and are formed voluntarily by members of society to protect or extend their interests or values....they include trade unions, employers associations, professional associations such as lawyers and journalists associations, religious organisations, cooperatives, women and youth associations as well as other associations dealing with social, class and gender interests in the process of social struggles generally(p.58).

The East African Community(EAC) that Burundi integrated in 2007 adopts a simple definition of civil society which runs as follows: “civil society means a realm of organised social life that is voluntary, self generating, self-supporting, autonomous from the state, and bound by a legal set of shared rules" (EAC Treaty, art.1).

With regards to the aforementioned perspectives, the question which is often raised by the ministry of Interior as to whether labour unions can group with other civil society organizations including those involved in human rights or environmental advocacy lacks of relevance. In effect, as long as the common interest of the society is concerned, citizens enjoy the right to group for the defence of their interests, ideologies and welfare. Therefore, a labour union enjoys the right to synergize with other social groups provided that their actions do not seek the conquest of power in any respect and strictly stick to respective missions of the organization.

While launching the Peace and Security Report of the Institute for the Security Studies(ISS, 2009), Tim Murithi clearly contended that “As long as civil society is concerned, the question for the African Union is no longer who are civil society but how to work with it”.

Role of civil society in global governance

To date, it is widely agreed that civil society plays a key role in global governance. In effect, the majority of states and international organizations regularity afford civil society the opportunity to bring in its perspective regarding important issues and civil society is frequently consulted in the decision making process. In this regard, two international organisations, for example, offer their perspective regarding civil society in global governance.

As stated earlier, Burundi is member of the East African Community. The latter was revived in 1999 after its collapse in 1977 which was partly due to the exclusion of civil society in the process of strengthening the EAC. The preamble of the Treaty establishing the EAC(1999) recalls that:

the main reasons contributing to the collapse of the East African Community being lack of strong political will, lack of strong participation of the private sector and civil society in the co-operation activities, the continued disproportionate sharing of benefits of the Community among the Partner States due to their differences in their levels of development and lack of adequate policies to address this situation (para. 4).

Most importantly, in the East African Law Society case (EACJ, 2007), the East African Court of Justice emphasised the role of the civil society in the decision making process, including the amendments of the East African Treaty:

It is common knowledge that the private sector and civil society participated in the negotiations that led to the conclusion of the Treaty among the Partner States and, as we have just observed, that they continue to participate in the making of Protocols thereto... We think that construing the Treaty as if it permits sporadic amendments at the whims of officials without any form of consultation with stakeholders would be a recipe for regression to the situation lamented in the preamble of “lack of strong participation of the private sector and civil society” that led to the collapse of the previous Community. In conclusion we find that failure to carry out consultation outside the Summit, Council and the Secretariat was inconsistent with a principle of the Treaty and therefore constituted an infringement of the Treaty within the meaning of Article 30 (p. 30).

Advocates demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court, Bujumbura, July 25, 2010, AFP

In the aforementioned case, five NGOs including the East African Law Society, the Kenyan Law Society, the Tanganyika Law Society, the Zanzibar Law Society and the Uganda Law Society had logged a file to the Court aimed at challenging the adoption of amendments of the treaty which were done without consultation of all the stakeholders including the civil society which took part in the negotiations of the treaty establishing the community.

On the global level, the Panel of Eminent Personalities on the United Nations-Civil society relations came up with the conclusion that civil society is indispensable for the United Nations:

civil society and other constituencies are important to the United Nations because their experience and social connections can help the United Nations do a better job, improve its legitimacy, identify priorities and connect it with public opinion. Civil society can also raise new issues, focus attention on the moral and ethical dimensions of decisions in the public sphere, expand resources and skills, challenge basic assumptions and priorities and protest unfair decisions. So enhanced engagement, carefully planned, will make the United Nations more effective in its actions and in its contributions to global governance. There is a synergy here, not a contest. Opportunities for working with the United Nations strengthen civil society, and this in turn empowers the United Nations, enhancing its relevance to the issues of our times(p.28).

Civil society in Burundi

Despite its dynamism, civil society in Burundi is young. In effect, the discloser of the civil society in Burundi goes back in late 1980 when professors of university created two human rights associations, the Ligue Iteka and Ligue Sonera. The constitution of Burundi of 1992 integrated the Bill of rights on the one hand and introduced the multi party system on the other hand. In this context, civil and political rights and freedoms where recognized, including freedom of association and assembly. The outbreak of the civil war in 1993 precluded the development of civil society though some organizations were created and succeeded to participate in the peace talks between the then government and rebel groups in 2000. Meanwhile, organizations such as AC-Genocide Cirimoso restlessly souk prosecution of the perpetrators of genocide and frequently launched compelling appeals urging the government to take measures to prevent genocide and deal with reparation for victims. In the same way, the Human Rights Ligue Iteka released several reports regarding human rights abuses by rebel groups and government agents.

Since 2000, a new wave of organizations working in various fields including human rights, gender, health, HIV/AIDS, agriculture, religious organizations, media, good governance, child rights and environment were created, many with the support of the UN peacekeeping mission present in Burundi from 2000. Today, there is any area which is not covered by civil society organisation.

As stated earlier, some organizations are interested in the field of anti corruption, good governance and accountability, gender and human rights; and a dozen of media were created with the aim to inform the citizenry on many issues regarding public policy and raise its awareness regarding current and burning issues.

To date, thanks to civil society, many issues are addressed or at least are known by a wide public; and such actions may prevent the repetition of the harm to the society. The presence of civil society organizations in Burundi widely contributes to the empowerment of the citizenry and offers an ultimate opportunity for many to be heard. If citizens join some associations, it is generally because they expect that the latter are likely able to offer them a space to express their thoughts and concerns and defend their rights.

An overview of some associations and organizations shows the presence and achievement of civil society in Burundi and how it contributes to the welfare of the populations or offers a certain space in the decision making process.

For example, the Ligue Iteka, whose mission is to promote and protect human rights is the most known throughout the country for it is present even in the remote and smallest areas of the country and advocates for human rights respect, monitors and denounces human rights abuses, disseminates human rights instruments and releases half -yearly and annual reports on human rights (LBDH, 2012). Since 2005, the Ligue Iteka established local committees of good governance in many provinces of the countries, which are grassroots community in charge of monitoring local governance and combating corruption in their administrative area.

APRODH(Association pour la Protection des Droits de l’Homme et des Personnes Détenues) and ACAT-Burundi(Action contre la Torture) specialize respectively in the defence of the rights of detainees and combat torture but also cover other areas of human rights. To date, APRODH has acquired such notoriety that citizens often resort to the association to denounce human rights abuses committed by public officials, judges and prosecutors.

FORSC (2012) is the national forum for the reinforcement of civil society made of 146 associations and organizations. The forum is today acknowledged as playing an important role in the inception of public policy and management of important issues including human rights and recently it was actively involved in the establishment of the National commission on human rights and the tripartite commission on consultation regarding transitional justice mechanism. With its motto “civil society, a force to build the country”, FORSC endeavours to strengthen civil society in Burundi in the spirit of working together towards common good.

The anti corruption organization OLUCOME plays an important role in investigating cases on corruption since 2003.Too often, cases that are prosecuted are the ones which have been denounced by the organization. The OAG whose mission is the control of the governmental action plays a role in the monitoring of public affairs including the budget affectation and management, independence of the judiciary, decentralisation. As for 2012, it has organized more than 70 studies (OAG, 2012).

Similarly, media fall within the law on civil society organizations. To date the country lists around twenty five radio and TV. Through their programmes, they contribute to the establishment of the rule of law, good governance, promotion of human rights and combat corruption. These media constitute an educational tool for the citizenry mostly made of illiterate people and thanks to them; ordinary citizens enjoy their right to information.

Trade unions also play an important role in the defence of labour rights and livelihoods of workers, but also contribute to the strengthening of the rule of law. For example, the labour union of judges and prosecutors SYMABU, through its advocacy, raised the awareness of the public regarding the violation and denial of independence of the judiciary in Burundi (SYMABU, 2011). The labour union of the sugar company workers SYTIS denounced embezzlement of an important amount of money from the company which was leading to bankruptcy and investigations conducted thereafter resulted in the prosecution of the managing team.

To date, many assert that in Burundi, civil society is vibrant and empowering. In this respect, Omara and Ackson (2010) maintain that:

Civil society’s influence has transcended political, social, economic and cultural issues in Burundi. Its most significant contributions have included promoting peace and reconciliation, promotion and protection of human rights, advocating for democratic governance, and monitoring government performance. It has made valuable contribution to peace, reconciliation and the overall post-conflict social and economic reconstruction in Burundian society (p.77).

On the ground, civil society’s strength manifests for it is able to capitalize and mobilize its resources for the defence of common good. In this regard, civil society organizations recently succeed a tremendous advocacy regarding the high cost of living. In effect, in late 2011, prices of basic goods in particular food were increased up to three times whereas civil servants including teachers, nurses, physicians, professors of universities and magistrates repeatedly resorted to strikes with compelling demands towards the government for increase of salary. The general strike organized by civil society organizations on March 27, 2012 was an unprecedented mobilization (Iwacu, 2012) and resulted in the presidential decision regarding suppression of tariffs on imports in food. In the same way, a series of killings including those in Muyinga, Gatumba or in many areas of the countries are often revealed by human rights associations and media(HRW, 2012).

Police disperse demonstrations organized by civil society, Bujumbura, April 4, 2009, AFP

Because of its dynamism and courage, civil society is victim of its actions. In as much as a series of denunciations unearth corruption, embezzlement or misuse of public resources by state’s agents and point out their involvement in human rights abuses; public institutions become angry towards civil society organizations. For example, the denunciation of the governor of Kayanza regarding his complicity in the death of a citizen resulted in the cancellation of the edit which establishes the Forum of Reinforcement of Civil Society (FORSC, 2009). Labour unionists in SOSUMO and RPP for example were fired after they denounced misuse and embezzlement in their company. Too often activists flee the country because of persecution or are literally killed. The example is the assassination of Ernest Manirumva, the Vice President of OLUCOME.

In the same way, civil society organizations or their members are targeted by public institutions whenever their advocacy attains sensitive interest of the power. For example, the Radio Publique Africaine, Radio Isanganiro were suspended for broadcasting at least once; and journalists of many media are often prosecuted or jailed. Mostly, this happens when the organization or its member comment or advocate on any issue in which some high ranked personalities are involved including for corruption, misuse of public funds, embezzlement, human rights abuses to name but few.

Obviously, what makes civil society be viewed as a threat for public institutions is that it is really working. This is to say that is has became able to challenge public institutions for their wrongs and denounce states agents whenever they breach the law or fail to accomplish their duties.

Conversely, when civil society offers a same perspective with public institutions, the latter support their decisions or positions by referring to civil society, the example being the results of general elections in 2010 which were, to some extent, legitimised by their acceptance by civil society since it was monitoring the process. One may wonder what would have happened if civil society had revealed electoral fraud.

Remarkably, to date, there exists some attempts to undermine civil society. The strategy often used by public institutions is to mislead the opinion by attempting to demonstrate that activists are working on behalf of the opposition(Rugero, 2012); that they distract the people and are always ready to blame the government and for whom there is never any achievement for common good by the government(Isanganiro, 2012). Another attempt is the creation of some unions or associations visibly backed by public institutions with the aim to hamper the activity of civil society.This strategy is commonly known as “Nyakurization”(Hakizimana, Ngabire & Manirakiza, 2012) which is a kind of civil society shadow merely created to counter the actions of the genuine civil society.

However, it has proven impossible for such organizations to succeed since they had an ambiguous agenda and unclear objectives. For example, many recall the creations of teachers’ unions which would blame the existing unions of which they defected, saying that resorting to strikes endangers the nations. Notably, it is widely agreed that strike is a legally protected right entitled to workers whenever they have a well founded professional demand towards their employer. At the end of the day, renouncing to the right to strike for a union is to renounce to a substantial right for a union and one may wonder what becomes a union which can never strike. Hence, one may not wrong to say that such an organization runs for a hidden agenda or is purely an adventurous one randomly created to serve as a “trouble fete”.

It has proven to be a reflex for many employers or decision-makers to mislead the opinion whenever a question of great importance or a dispute occurs. Their attempt to escape the claims or demands by employees or any organization results in escalation of the conflict and may even turn into violence.

In a state of fragile peace such as Burundi, much has to be done in order to create a culture of dialogue, trust and confidence. Imprisonment of activists or their assassination result in the establishment of a state of fear and such context avoid any effort heal from the long scale of human rights abuses committed over the two last decades.

The role of civil society is and remains to defend the interests of the society especially those of the weak, the voiceless frequently seeking social justice but whose claim are rarely heard.

As Burundi heads towards the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms, indubitably, civil society is expected to play an important role. In this respect, OHCHR (2006) suggests that:

Local NGOs play an important role in as much they are the ones which are dynamic on the ground and possess a bench of precious information and easy contact with the populations. Their mission must remain independent from the commission even when they are required to provide information, contact or specialised competences (p.33).

The assessment of the civil society in Burundi led Omara and Ackson (2010) to assert that:

The body of CSOs in Burundi testifies to the many social problems typical of a post civil war society, which need urgent redress, but which the government is not in a position to. The problems of abuse and violation of human rights, political vilification, unlawful arrests and detention because of suspicion and lack of tolerance for critics, corruption in public offices and embezzlement of public funds for personal gain and abject poverty among the majority are among the mounting problems in Burundi. Civil society has tried to fill the gap created by government’s inability to address all these issues (p.77).

Obviously, what makes civil society be recognized by the community is mainly when it is willing and committed to bear the suffering of the ordinary citizens that otherwise are even unaware of what threatens their livelihoods including corruption, degradation of the environment or widespread human rights abuses. At this stage, civil society is viewed as likely to break the blindly cycle of violence since it imposes as the very watchdog for human rights abuses. Many that desperate vis –à- vis the failure to achieve any change and those who are sceptical may argue that in a state of human rights abuses, in the state lacking the rule of law, the action of civil society is meaningless. In my view, the answer is that change is a change, be it the smallest.


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Vital Nshimirimana is a Burundian scholar and activist. He just graduated with MA in International Law and the Settlement of Disputes from the United Nations Mandated University for Peace. You can reach him at