By Stephen Buchanan-Clarke, Consultant in the Justice and Reconciliation in Africa Programme, IJR

This month the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) held a three day workshop in Bujumbura, Burundi; the focus of which was to help develop an effective communications strategy for Burundi’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The workshop commenced just one day after the 42nd anniversary of the death of Prince Rwagasore, Burundi’s national liberation hero.  The workshop forms part of an on-going partnership between the IJR and the Burundi TRC, and is an aspect of a wider regional reconciliation initiative being undertaken by the Institute. In addition to commissioners from Burundi’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the workshop was attended by a cross-section of the country’s journalists from radio, TV, and print media. Zenzile Khoisan, a former senior investigator for the South African TRC, joined the IJR team. He led a team which successfully investigated numerous high profile cases of the South African TRC. These included death squads, disappearances, torture, intelligence structures and military projects such the chemical and biological warfare programme of the apartheid government.

Burundi has had an extremely turbulent modern history. After World War II, international pressure mounted for Belgium to prepare Burundi for independence. The Union pour le progress national (UPRONA) was established, headed by King Mwambutsa’s popular son, Prince Louis Rwagasore, who quickly established a broad-based constituency with strong representation among both Hutu and Tutsi. Established in opposition was the rival Parti démocrate-chrétien (PDC), who took a strong anti-communist stance. This appealed to the Belgian authorities, who gave them their support. In preparation for independence national elections were held in 1961, in which, contrary to the hopes of the Belgium government, UPRONA won, securing 80% of the votes and 58 of the 64 seats in the legislature. Prince Rwagasore was appointed Prime Minister, but on the 13 October he was assassinated by agents of the PDC. This assassination attempt was most likely carried out with Belgian assistance. However, this important part of Burundi’s modern story has yet to be fully uncovered.

The assassination of Prince Rwagasore not only stripped Burundians of their most beloved leader but destroyed the ethnic cohesion between Hutu and Tutsi, something the Prince had worked hard to achieve after years of colonial rule had highly politicized this divide.  Since then, the country has experienced episodes of severe conflict including several coups and total civil war in 1993. The signing of the Arusha peace accords in 2000, facilitated by Nelson Mandela, brought a tenuous end to the conflict. It also established Burundi’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the mandate of bringing “to light and establish the truth regarding the serious acts of violence committed during the cyclical conflicts which cast a tragic shadow over Burundi from independence…

[and] upon completion of its investigations, propose to the competent institutions or adopt measures likely to promote reconciliation and forgiveness, order indemnification or restoration of disputed property, or propose any political, social or other measures it deems appropriate.”

The workshop came at a difficult time. In May this year, President Nkurunziza, in contravention of the constitution, made the decision to run for a third presidential term. Violent protests erupted in parts of the capital and thousands of Burundians fled the city. Amid the turmoil there was an attempted army officer’s coup which was quickly put down. While the worst of the violence has abated, there is still instability in parts of Bujumbura.

The severity of the situation only serves to demonstrate the importance of reconciling Burundi.  The workshop spoke specifically to the important role the media plays in this reconciliation process, and what needs to be done to ensure the work of the TRC is covered by a well thought-out communications strategy. Once the hearings begin the communications team will have to communicate effectively its work to the international community, regional actors, and most importantly, the people of Burundi. The core message of the Commission need to be conveyed in a uniform manner throughout the process, and the TRC needs to be seen as keeping its independence. Burundi’s TRC, along with media reporting on proceedings, will play an important role in creating an enabling environment where both victims and perpetrators feel comfortable recounting their stories.  This is especially important when reporting on stories which involve sexual violence against women who are already made vulnerable in a patriarchal society and often suffer ‘double victimization’ in periods of conflict.

The TRC cannot stay outside the public discourse. They will have to identify the most effective and wide-reaching media platforms in the country and produce content clearly explaining its purpose and intentions in a way that encourages participation from all sectors. A host of other considerations were discussed during the three day workshop, including how to effectively engage on social media platforms, how to build constructive messages, what forms of media are best utilized, how to document and store testimonies and ensure witness protection, how to communicate with perpetrators in a way that encourages them to engage rather than put them on the defensive, and much more. Perhaps most important, as raised by Zenzile Khoisan in his closing remarks, will be the ability of the Commission to “distil the fullness of the narrative extracted from all the testimonies, documents and information flowing into the process. The core of the message must flow from the primary mandate, which is to facilitate the process of reconciliation through the telling of the truth. The sharper and more acute the message, the greater the possibility of opening the road to a national healing process, through a pathway of reconciliation.”

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