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Is Lacking a National Hero Hurting Burundi?


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In April 2015 a situation occurred in Burundi, which could remind us of the situation in Burkina Faso in October 2014: the sitting president announced plans to change the constitution, attempting to extend his presidential term. After unravelling these situations in these two countries they turned out to be far from similar. Many factors influence why the current situation in Burundi is so different from the Burkinabe uprising in 2014. This article will only focus on how the lack of an historic national revolutionary hero hampers active participation by the general public and forestalls an active uprising.

Burundi vs. Burkina Faso

The attempted coup in the capital of Burundi, Bujumbura, immediately awakened heavy fighting between government and rebel troops. The reaction of the general public was one of despair, reminiscent of the violent civil war that officially ended in 2005. The majority of the Burundian population was anything but interested in getting involved in the violence. As a result, people started fleeing to neighbouring Tanzania or Rwanda immediately, many had just resettled in their home country after years of refuge, when they had to flee again, now with the belief of never returning back to Burundi. The coup resembles the horror that happened in 1994 with speeches echoing genocide rhetoric. Although the current situation is not yet in a state of genocide, such alarming rhetoric only increases the chances of an escalating conflict.

In Burkina Faso however, President Blaise Compaoré’s attempt to change the constitution, to extend his presidential term, triggered a public uprising. This resulted in a coup that successfully ended his rule within a week. It was Compaoré that fled the country instead of the people of Burkina Faso.

Over the years, the Burkinabe, especially the leftist opposition and the youth, have become increasingly inspired by Thomas Sankara, the anti-imperialist, Marxist revolutionary president of Burkina Faso from 1984 to 1987, when he was assassinated. The popular public uprising in October 2014, the same month when Sankara was killed 27 years ago, was built on the ideology of and respect for Sankara. Balai Citoyen, the political grassroots movement that comprises mainly youth and spearheaded the October 2014 uprisings, directly claimed Sankara’s legacy,. These Burkinabe protestors were able to unify big parts of the country in a collective movement against the president. A shared national revolutionary hero is very likely to have exerted a positive influence on realising this.

The Importance of a Social Identity

Burundians have since before Belgium colonialism belonged to ethnic groups, consisting of the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. Belonging to a group gives all of us a sense of social identity. This means our self-image is not only dependent on our personal identity, but also on the status of the group to which we belong, our in-group. In order to safeguard this self-esteem derived from belonging to your group, we will compete in favour of your group whenever a situation occurs in which you oppose a rival group, our out-group. We create a “positive-We / negative-They” perception, influenced by, amongst other factors, a tendency to evaluate the out-group negatively, hold unfavourable perceptions about the out-group and have a history of conflict with the out-group. In situations of intergroup conflict this negative evaluation of the other group is strengthened creating anger and aggressiveness. The current violence in Burundi is however not yet divided along ethnic lines, as it is rather political. Apart from being Tutsi, Hutu or Twa Burundians have not collectively internalized any other social membership category as a component of their self-identity. This could be a reason why the Burundians feel less empowered to jointly stand-up against the regime.

In comparison, the general public in Burkina Faso, especially the youth, identify strongly with one common category: Sankara. He is their revolutionary hero, the one whom they see as having given his life for their country. What Sankara did and achieved in the 80s has become and still is an important part of the national identity shared by many Burkinabe. This could have empowered them to stand strong in the uprising against the government. While the youth in Burundi are the greatest victims of the political unrest, in Burkina Faso, the youth are first and foremost the revolutionaries, the agents of change, just like Sankara had been during the coup of 1983.

The Underestimated Power of a National Revolutionary Hero

It might be very obvious that a stronger social identity motivates people more during conflicts than a weaker one. What might however sometimes be underestimated is what one person can mean to a collective social identity. An iconic figure’s legacy can reach for generations. A hero can play a remarkably constructive role in building a collective social identity for an entire country. Maybe in the current Burundian political violence, a revolutionary hero will arise, inspiring many more in the generations to come.

Written by Sabrina Gehrlein and published on 02-January-2016




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