Title: Burundi: Scribble on the president's picture — go to jail
Author: Nwachukwu Egbunike
Date: Mon, 25 Mar 2019 09:36:24 -0400
Podcast Download URL: https://globalvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/2553747532_aea89fe921_o-400x300.jpg
Scribblers in solidarity
President Jacob Zuma visits Burundi on February 25, 2016. Photo Credit:
GovernmentZA. Flickr, CC licence.
Six students were detained on Tuesday, March 12, in Kirundo province in
northeast Burundi for scribbling on pictures of President Pierre Nkurunziza in
five textbooks. The students were accused of “insulting the head of state.
The National Federation of Associations Engaged in Children's Welfare in
Burundi (FENADEB) reported that another student, 13, had been immediately
released because he was a minor under the age of 15.
Three students were reportedly provisionally released on Friday, March 15,
but, the remaining three were kept in custody. The girls, aged 15 to 17, if
found guilty, risk up to five years in prison for insulting the president.
Iwacu newspaper reported that families affected were deeply distressed.
“Scribbling [on the president’s picture] is a punishable offense under the
Burundian law,” according to a Reuters report. However, the age of the
offenders may serve as a “mitigating circumstance” in these students’ trial.
As a teacher anonymously noted, the textbooks had not been checked for
several years and are often shared by students, so it is difficult to know who
A similar episode occurred in 2016, following the controversy over the
president’s third term, where high school students scribbled on textbook
pictures of Nkurunziza. Authorities took this as a serious insult and expelled
hundreds of students from various schools across the country. Eleven
students were charged with “insulting the head of state” and “threatening state
security,” although they were reportedly later cleared.
These actions were highly criticized. Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, United
Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, issued a statement on June 29,
I am dismayed by continuing reports of the suspension and arrest of
schoolchildren and students for having scribbled on pictures of the president
Nkurunziza, the ‘eternal supreme guide’
President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi. Photo by Eric Miller / World Economic
Forum, 2008 Africa Summit, Cape Town, June 3-6 2008. Image via Flicker (CC
Pierre Nkurunziza has been president of Burundi since 2005. In 2015, he was
controversially nominated by his party for a third term in office.
In March last year, Nkurunziza was named “eternal supreme guide” by his
political party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for
the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). Evariste Ndayishimiye, CNDD-FDD’s
secretary general explained why that title was conferred on Nkurunziza:
He is our leader. Therefore in our party… no one is comparable to him. He is
our parent; he is the one who advises us. That is why I ask all our members
to respect that because a home without the man (its head) can be overlooked
by anybody. For us, we have the best.
While the CNDD-FDD downplayed the title, Nkurunziza’s reinforced status as the
“eternal supreme guide” has made it difficult for anyone to disagree with his
choices, including his move to change the two-term limit enshrined in the
country’s constitution. This reflects a centralization of power in the ruling
party around Nkurunziza and supporters, and of the party’s control of state
Scribblers in solidarity
Netizens have taken to scribbling on pictures of President Nkurunziza in
protest through two hashtags: #Nkurunziza and #Burundi:
Burundians online are scribbling in protest, doodling on pictures of
President Nkurunziza in reaction to the arrest of three school girls who were
detained for drawing over the picture of the President on their school books.
— Patience Atuhaire (@patuhaire) March 22, 2019
#Burundi : des lycéennes en prison pour le gribouillage d’un portrait du
— Eléonore Abou Ez (@Eleoabouez) March 22, 2019
High schoolers in prison for scribbling on a portrait of the President
If I did this in #Nkurunziza’s #Burundi, I could be jailed
— Wietske Nijman (@WietskeNijman) March 21, 2019
#Burundi Thank you @CNN@jeune_afrique@FRANCE24@RFIAfrique
@africanews@lemondefr & others for your solidarity with jailed
teenage girls bcz they scribbled @pnkurunziza ‘s picture.
The Burundian autocratic regime must know that prison doesn't educate.
— NDAYISHEMEZA Denis (@NDAYISHEMEZAD) March 22, 2019
The government of #Burundi jailed schoolgirls for allegedly scribbling on
photos of the president. We tweeted our scribbled photos in solidarity.
They dared us to scribble on our president's photo, so I did. I am confident
I will not be arrested here. https://t.co/eqrrxussun
— Andrew Stroehlein (@astroehlein) March 22, 2019
Crackdown on criticism
Burundi's government has become increasingly sensitive to criticism since
2015, after a failed coup, clashes with rebel groups, criticisms of
rights abuses, sanctions, economic hardships and a refugee crisis.
Nkurunziza’s third term bid was opposed by the European Union, and the
United Nations, who demanded a restoration of stability before elections.
Faced with these challenges, a “siege mentality” hardened and authorities
clamped down more harshly on perceived threats.
The Human Rights Watch May 2018 special report discovered that Burundian
state security forces, intelligence services, and members of the ruling party’s
youth league, the Imbonerakure, carried out brutal, targeted attacks on
opponents or suspected opponents, human rights activists, and journalists,
“killing an estimated 1,700 people and forcibly disappearing, raping,
torturing, beating, arbitrarily detaining, and intimidating countless others.”
This has led to a refugee crisis that has seen Burundians fleeing particularly
to Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda. While
thousands have returned, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
recorded over 347,000 total Burundian refugees in February 2019 UNHCR
…[P]olitical unrest in Burundi took a deadly turn in 2015 after the president
announced plans to seek a third term. Street protests led to violent clashes,
and hundreds of thousands fled to nearby countries in search of safety.”
Earlier this month, Burundi closed the United Nations human rights office after
23 years, saying it was no longer needed. The government was incensed with
former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al
Hussein, who described Nkurunziza’s Burundi as one of the “most prolific
slaughterhouses of humans in recent times” in February 2018.
Mediaoutlet closures, harassment of opponents, and clampdowns on NGOs
and restrictions in political space for alternative narratives and
For example, rights activist Germain Rukiki who documented acts of torture
committed by Nkurunziza’s regime was sentenced to 32 years in jail in 2018
for “participation in an insurrectional movement,” “undermining state security”
and “rebellion.” Rukiki's trial was also marred by irregularities and came
weeks before the controversial constitutional referendum.
The “scribbling affair” is also indicative of the government’s increasingly
conservative, moralizing approach, including mandatory marriages for
cohabiting non-married couples in 2017, clampdowns on prostitution and begging
Written by Nwachukwu Egbunike, Liam Anderson · comments (0) 
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