Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza has a silver-tongued porte-parole in Willy Nyamitwe, a bespectacled spin-master with a penchant for smoothing things over with the international press when his iron-fisted boss gets a little carried away. And with almost 350 extrajudicial killings last year, 250,000 refugees fleeing to neighboring Rwanda, and blatant targeting of Tutsis indicating the ongoing repression’s “persistent ethnic character,” Burundi needs a man of Nyamitwe’s rhetorical gifts now more than ever.
Where outside Burundi would such an avowed apologist for state-sponsored violence receive a hero’s welcome? Zimbabwe, perhaps? Maybe Sudan? How about North Korea?
Try Canada. The CBC:
The federal government is warning Burundian authorities against attempting to sow discord within the diaspora community in Canada.
Global Affairs Canada issued a sternly worded statement following a controversial event last week in Quebec City, at which a senior member of the current Burundian government spoke.
In an address at the conference, Willy Nyamitwe, a communications advisor to President Pierre Nkurunziza, said reports of human rights abuses by Nkurunziza supporters are overblown.
What the CBC leaves out of an otherwise interesting and objective report is how Nyamitwe was received at what can only be described as a pep rally for Nkurunziza in Quebec. One minute into his remarks, Nyamitwe says, “I wanted to wear my best-looking suit [for you]. But this one is the most…resilient. It’s the suit I wore on May 13, the day of the coup attempt.” Then he grins as the crowd goes wild.
And that’s how Nyamitwe frames the crisis in Burundi—not as an organic outgrowth of the poisonous seeds Nkurunziza sowed in early 2015 when he decided to run for an unconstitutional third term, but rather as an artificial crisis engineered by the plotters of the May 13 coup attempt. (That was when elements in the military, fearing Nkurunziza’s centralization of power, tried to topple him, failed, and managed to give him the ultimate pretext to repress his enemies—sedition.) “I was an actor, one of the main actors, in the crisis—not in the creation of the crisis, but in the resistance,” Nyamitwe intoned to his Burundian-Canadian audience. It’s a little like Assad blaming the liberals who took to the streets in the Arab Spring for causing the war in Syria.
Nyamitwe’s remarks put Canada in an indelicate position, for the Canadian government seemed to realize all of a sudden that the attitudes of its large Burundian immigrant community sharply conflict with the country’s human rights-oriented foreign policy.
It’s important to stress here how much Canada sees itself as a pillar of the liberal world order. Canadian statesman Lester Pearson essentially invented UN peacekeeping in the 1950s, and a peacekeeping memorial stands mere blocks from Parliament Hill in Ottawa, a grand tribute to Canada’s enduring love affair with global do-gooder-ism. That’s why Canada’s political elites are more than a little uneasy after all the ethnic chauvinist sentiments on display at the Burundi propaganda fest in Quebec. Again, the CBC:
“Hutus didn’t invest in media when they came to power,” said Marie Banyankindidagiye, an audience member who described herself as a Hutu, the largest ethnic group in Burundi.
“They need to have more of their voices heard in international media instead of all the lies.”
There may be little or no biological basis for the distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi, and it’s widely known that no linguistic or religious fault lines separate the two ethnicities, which share almost identical cultural practices. But when people believe that there is a difference, local media outlets emphasize the danger the other group poses, and many in the Great Lakes region have been killed and are being killed on the basis of ethnicity, it’s impossible to say that ethnicity does not matter.
This tragic state of affairs means that to do a good job reporting on Burundi (or in Rwanda, which is trying to subsume ethnic differences underneath a common national identity, and in the North and South Kivu provinces of Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Hutu-Tutsi enmity still lingers), journalists must cover the ethnic dynamics in play. Kudos to the CBC for in-depth reporting on an important story, one that evidently is now echoing all the way from Bujumbura to Quebec City.