In the first two weeks of June, I spent a few days with opposition leader and one-time presidential candidate Alexis Sinduhije. Sinduhije is a former journalist and the founder of Africa Public Radio (RPA, Radio Publique Africa). He and his station had a reputation for toughness; they used journalism to hold the government accountable on issues ranging from corruption to languishing promises to build roads. The station was also something of an exercise in reconciliation: he trained Hutu and Tutsi ex-combatants as journalists, demanding they work together.
His crusading journalism landed him in jail a few times, but his conversion to politician was a greater threat to the government, if you measure threat in number of days spent behind bars. Sinduhije was jailed repeatedly, once for a stretch of four months for "insulting the president," after he entered the political arena. It also helped raise his profile: he was one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people of 2008.
When I sat down with Sinduhije, he was frustrated as hell – at his government and at the international community. A week later, his tune had changed a bit, at least according to IRIN.
The play-by-play of Burundi's election politics is out of my reach now, but I think Sinduhije had some important – and long-lasting – things to say about democracy in Burundi. Here's an edited version of our conversation:
What is the significance of this controversy for Burundian politics in the long-term?
Burundi is not Rwanda. It's not going to be Rwanda. We have been fighting for democracy and the rule of law, and we will never accept this ruling party, this dictatorship. We're better dead, killed, than to accept this.
The vote is the only thing, the only worth I could say, that Burundian people have had so far. Taking away their vote is taking away their dignity. So we'll never allow that also to go away, never.
At least we can push to change our leaders. And with that, we can change leaders until we get a good deal done. We don't have founding fathers like you guys. But this country was founded by good kings. While you were fighting a revolution, we were negotiating with Rwandans. We were making peace. The problem is we lost our footing.
What's your end goal?
My [personal] goal was not to win and become the president of this poor country. My goal, and the reason I'm fighting against this today, is that if we leave it this way democracy will be dead in this country, completely.
My goal was to have some communes, some members of parliament, and go into a presidential campaign just for sending out our message. My goal was to build long-term, to start constructive opposition, to help build the rule of law. In this country the president has enormous power. The president of Burundi has more power than Barack Obama. In terms of power, he's an absolute monarch.
So if we dare accept these results, ten there is not any ground to settle any long term and strategic plan to build a real democratic state. It's completely finished.
Is this going to get violent?
No, I will never allow violence, because the outcome of violence is to produce monsters. The outcome of violence is monsters.
I want dialogue. Everybody will say that I am weak; even our coalition, they avoid that, they always tell me, 'Don't say dialogue.' But there is no solution without sitting down and finding ways of building up a new way of getting into election system.
Burundi has a history of terrible ethnic violence. What role does ethnicity play today in politics and in personal life?
In life, it doesn't play any role. I think it ethnicity is used to manipulate politics. In this country there is a confusion of genetics and politics. There was some small dose of ethnicity in the campaign.
To be honest, if I were a Hutu, with my speech, with my ideas, I would have won this election without any problem. [Youth, even Hutu youth] say, 'This is the future of Burundi.' Many of them vote for me and vote for the party. The Tutsi ruling party in 70s made mistakes. They killed people. They killed Hutus. And all these mistakes are on the back of Tutsi. It's like an original sin.
What's one policy issue important to you in this campaign?
The Burundi society is completely suffocated by debt. We don't have financial markets in the countryside, so our peasant farmers are exposed to usury. And in fact they are working to pay debts, not to accumulate riches. You cannot develop a country in that situation. And the volume of the debt is not more than 15 billion Burundian francs, so $10 or $12 million. My suggestion was to identify all the debt, then pay the check on the behalf o f those people to the userers and with it try to build a financial market in the countryside. We pay through microfinance. If you pay them you are putting mass money in the system, and that money can be used in the loan system to peasants with less interest rate.
How did being a journalist influence your life as a politician?
Very much. My name was very and well known in the countryside. If you say the name of the party, people will say, "Um…" If you say my name, they say, 'Oh, we know him!'
I went into politics because I was very angry. I am not angry at any person, but I am really very angry at the system, which doesn't change. It's like we refused ourselves to change. The leaders, the elite refuse to change. So I said, I should go into this and try and fix myself with the people who can understand the same way I understand things, who can fix this whole mess. To fix it is to be realistic.
Look, Jina, I am 44 now. If I can live long enough, I will live up to 70. So I have only 26 years remaining. And 26 years in the time of the life of a nation, it's nothing. So if I work very hard, I will be able to work only 15 years; I will have energy to work only 15 years. But we need 50 years of working hard, of stop stealing [sic], of developing this country.
I've heard it suggested by some outside observers that Burundi lacks the education level necessary to have informed voters. What do you think about that?
I don't believe in that. My mom didn't go to school, but she knows what her interests are. Even in America, not all Americans, they say blue collar [workers], they don't have university degrees, but they know they need jobs, their children need jobs. So we have the same thing. I think our people they know where their interests are.
People built democracy everywhere. They were not really intellectuals. An intellectual is a dictator, even in his ideas, because being an intellectual he will think he knows everything and can convince everybody.