Cross border dynamics: Burundi-DRC (updated August 2019)

This brief summarises key considerations concerning cross-border dynamics between Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the context of the outbreak of Ebola in North Kivu and Ituri provinces. It is the third in a series of four briefs focusing on the at risk border areas between DRC and the four high priority neighbouring countries (Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan). As of July 2019, there have been no cases of Ebola imported from the DRC into Burundi, although cross-border movement has been identified as a significant risk to transmission. This brief provides details about cross-border relations, the political and economic dynamics likely to influence them, and specific areas and actors most at risk.

The brief is based on a rapid review of existing published and grey literature, previous ethnographic research in Burundi and informal discussions with in-country colleagues. The brief was developed by Jean-Benoît Falisse (University of Edinburgh), with support from Ingrid Gercama, Nadia Butler, Theresa Jones and Juliet Bedford (Anthrologica) and Oto-Asael Magerano, Louis Rivière, Shaka and Hugues Nkengurutse. Prior finalisation, it was reviewed by expert advisors from the University of Antwerp, University of Cambridge, Université Catholique de Louvain, University of Edinburgh, University of Gent, Université du Lac Tanganyika, Northwestern University, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, and the UNICEF Country Office in Burundi. The brief is the responsibility of the Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform (SSHAP).

Key considerations and recommendations

• Politicisation: The ruling party, Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie – Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy, CNDD-FDD), is present at all levels of public (and often private) life. The surveillance apparatus extends from the national to the local level. Ebola preparedness and response actors must pay particular attention to the perceived and/or real politicisation of public health interventions and how they intersect with communal and political tensions and patronage networks.

• Political crisis with Rwanda and international aid actors: The 2015 political crisis and its aftermath led to severe tensions between Burundi and Rwanda, countries in the global north, and NGOs. Many organisations ceased operations or diminished their presence in the country. Donors that could be key in supporting a response to Ebola, such as the European Union, have, to some degree, stopped funding the government (in part due to human rights issues) and this has increased pressure on the Ministry of Health due to the substantial reduction in operating budget.

• Porous border: Burundi shares a 236 kilometre (147 mile) border with the DRC (South Kivu Province). The border remains highly porous and is important for the trafficking of minerals, arms, drugs and smuggled goods (including truckloads of fuel, beer, fabric, second-hand clothes, cattle, and other imported items). Key actors who operate at the border (both formally and informally) include the police, army, Imbonerakure (the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD) , traders, local cattle herders and fishermen. All these groups should be sensitised and actively engaged as part of Ebola preparedness and response activities.

• Tensions and armed groups: The Rusizi plain, the only terrestrial border between DRC and Burundi, has seen important interand intra-communal clashes on the DRC side of the border. Multiple armed groups of various sizes and kinds operate from there, including Burundian rebels who make occasional incursions into Burundi. The Burundian army and the Imbonerakure (‘those who see far’ in Kirundi, the national language) also make less frequent incursions into the DRC.

• Informal cross-border life: Life in the borderland, which extends to Bujumbura (Burundi’s economic capital) and Uvira (the second largest city in South Kivu), includes small-scale trade in food and clothes (mostly by Congolese women) and larger-scale trade in beer and sugar. Familial ties straddle border communities, students travel across the border in both directions, and social activities such as cross-border football games are common. Most people usually cross the border legally, although abuses at border posts involving people from vulnerable groups have been reported in the past. Access to cross-border services is often channelled through brokers (commissionaires). They are a specific group who should be identified and sensitised as part of Ebola preparedness activities. In all cross-border activities, is important ensure that everyone, including women and youth, are treated respectfully. Kirundi is the main language across Burundi (spoken by 98% of the population) and should be used in communication activities and materials for Ebola preparedness. At the border, Congolese who do not speak Kirundi may use Swahili.

• Cross-border healthcare: There is perception on the DRC side of the border that Burundi has better quality health services, and it is not uncommon to see Congolese patients crossing the border for treatment. The movement of patients with malaria may be particularly problematic for cross-border monitoring so testing and surveillance to distinguish between malaria and Ebola symptoms must be carefully implemented. Community Health Workers (abaremeshakiyago) remain good entry points to engage the population and along with the Association des Tradipraticiens du Burundi (Associations of Traditional Healers, ATRADIBU) have already been engaged and sensitised to refer patients if they present with signs and symptoms of Ebola. Such engagement needs to be continued and CHWs and tradipractiens (traditional practitioners) supported to make referrals.

• Cross-border churches: Faith plays a central and critical role in social life across Burundi and religious leaders are an obvious channel of communication that have already served as important way to directly and effectively relay Ebola-related information. Banyamulenge (Pentecostal and Evangelical) churches are present across the border, and peripatetic evangelists and ‘prophets’ attract large audiences. The followers of Zebiya, a Christian sect, used to span the border but currently appear to be mainly based in Burundi. They may constitute a group difficult to engage because of certain firmly held beliefs (such as sickness is God’s will) and it has a history of clashes with authorities of both sides of the border.

• Engaging fisherfolk: A focus on preparedness activities at the terrestrial border is well-placed, but key exchanges also take place on Lake Tanganyika. Fisherfolk follow fish populations across DRC and Burundi territorial waters, and some vessels may fly two flags depending on the country and nationality they assume. Burundian fishing communities have already been engaged as part of Ebola preparedness activities through the Fédération des Pêcheurs et des Fournisseurs du Poisson au Burundi (Federation of Fishermen and Fish Providers in Burundi, FPFPB) and its local committees (FPFPB claims to have 15,113 members and trained leaders). Fisherfolk should be further engaged in preparedness activities, and sensitisation about Ebola cascaded through FPFPB.

• Refugees and returnees: As of May 2019, there were close to 347,100 Burundian refugees in the African Great Lakes Region, of which over 45,000 were in DRC. There were also over 78,000 Congolese refugees in Burundi. The movement of refugees is often quite fluid as they ‘informally’ visit their country of origin, and are visited by friends and relatives who have remained at home.
To date, the voluntary repatriation of Burundian refugees has been relatively limited, but pressure from the Burundian, Tanzanian, Ugandan, and Congolese authorities may generate mass movements back to Burundi or to alternative asylum country such as Rwanda or Uganda.

• Limited freedom of information: Freedom of the press is limited in Burundi. Many independent media outlets have been shut down since the 2015 failed coup, and Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters without Borders) has highlighted systematic human rights abuses against journalists. The remaining radio and television stations are seen to be the voice of the ruling party.
Engaging with social media (WhatsApp, Twitter), new micro-blogging platforms (e.g. Yaga Burundi), and media located abroad may help reach the more urban and affluent population, but these communication channels will not reach the broader population and those based in rural areas.

• Perceptions of Ebola: Little is known about how Ebola is perceived in Burundi. Although there have been a number of preliminary studies, focused social science research with different stakeholder groups would provide important contextual data to help shape preparedness and response activities.