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Story Publication logo December 10, 2015

Why Should We Care About Burundi?


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Burundi, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and the Central Africa Republic were the targets of a UN...

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Jina Moore, for the Pulitzer Center

I'm in Burundi because it's one of the countries on the UN Peacebuilding Commission's agenda, but I scheduled the trip to coincide with its presidential campaign and elections. This was both a brilliant and a terrible choice. On the one hand, I'm witnessing first hand how its leaders are dealing with its most major peace-time political crisis (and I'd include in "peace-time" that awkward-to-categorize period where everyone had chilled out except the FNL, who didn't formally renounce rebellion until last year). On the other hand, the people I most need to talk to about how peacebuilding efforts have affected the way they run the country and deal with political crises are a little busy at the moment.

That's because all the opposition parties in Burundi have pulled out of the presidential elections. Burundi has an a election season -- the EU observation chief describes it as a "cascade" -- that runs from late May until early September. The opposition is boycotting because they say the president's party "stole" the first election, a local vote in late May.

I have an article explaining the controversy and its effects in the Christian Science Monitor, so I won't repeat all that here.

What I will say is this: I know waaaay more than the CSM, or any other American newspaper, wants to publish. And rightly so; your average American doesn't need or want the play-by-play of an election spat in a country they've never heard of.

Which is the funny thing about America. I was living in Germany in 2000, when one party accused another of stealing an election. While the American press seemed to report every exhale during the crisis, even the German press offered its readers a pretty weedy view of the American political system.

I suppose you could argue that, like it or not, an American presidential election has more consequences for the world than Burundi's. And it's been noted that we live in an age of digital noise, of over-information. One way our media sources can keep their relevance is to understand what American readers feel like they need to know and give them that, and not too much more.

That leaves a reporter like me in a weird spot, because the real story of the Burundian election isn't what you're going to read in the foreign press. And if you can get past the fact that it's "just Burundi," it's actually pretty interesting -- show me a place where politics is boring, and I'll probably assume you're not looking hard enough.

All of this is to say two things: I understand, and agree with, the reasons my editors don't want to know everything I know. But I also think what I've gleaned is telling. Because a horse race is a horse race, but also because this particular horse race may also tell us a great deal about the Big Questions donors, NGOs and others are always asking of post-conflict countries: How can you make democracy work?

So in the next few posts, I'm going to walk you through the weeds a bit. If you're into the politics of the Great Lakes, you'll love it. If you know Burundi well, you'll love it (and you'll probably also know my sources). And if you're not excited about either of those things, don't worry. Just grab the back of my shirt, follow along, and trust me. A huge political spat in a tiny country is going to show us more than you think.

Also, there's some pretty pictures. If I do say so myself...


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