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International History
22 November 2019

Politics and Violence in Burundi: The Language of Truth in an Emerging State

In his latest book, Aidan Russell, Associate Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute, brings fresh perspectives on the formation of the postcolonial state in Burundi by following the language of truth as a form of political vocabulary. He unveils how decolonisation politics evolved towards making Burundi a violent and authoritarian state based on ethnic stratification, after a decade of turmoil characterised by multiple possibilities. A state-endorsed narrative of a single truth emerged that engaged in the politics of denial, including the denial of the state-led participation in genocide that confirmed the ethnic national reality. At the same time, citizens challenged this top-down narrative by using parables and idioms – another “language of truth” as an active but silent form of keeping historical memory alive in the hope of future justice. 

Professor Aidan Russell’s monograph originally stemmed from his doctoral dissertation partly as a response to current trends in African politics, as the success of waves of multiparty democracy that occurred in the 1990s seems to be called into question by constitutional changes and new crises. Turning to the past to understand these uncertainties, his book looks back to the last time when such multiparty systems seemed to fail on the continent, shortly after independence. These first postcolonial decades have been mostly neglected by Africanist historians, partly due to a disciplinary focus on colonialism and partly due to the difficulty to access sources in such contexts. However, they are essential for understanding the emergence of the postcolonial state. The book argues that the process of decolonisation could be better understood by moving the focus away from the relationships between national elites and former colonial powers to the relationships between rulers and ruled, citizens and others. Taking this perspective, the dynamics that built and broke political communities after independence can be better understood, and their consequences for today come into view. 

With Burundi’s decolonisation as its focus, the key theme of the book is “truth”. It emerged entirely from the sources, but has become particularly significant since 2015 for two reasons: first, in Burundi recent political crises after an attempted coup d’état in 2015 have seen problems of “truth” again take centre stage in national politics; second, the global discourse of “post-truth” since Trump’s election urges the universal relevance of this particular national experience. Professor Russell centrally frames the “language of truth”, rather than truth itself, as an important aspect of the vocabulary of politics in Burundi. He finds that the importance of “truth” in politics is not only about what is real or not, but that how people talk about the truth can matter even more. Although it is the strong conviction of many participants, an underlying idea of a “single truth” is difficult to truly find in democratic politics, but the idea echoes powerfully as a political slogan. In Burundi, what was counted as “real” in politics was framed in opposition to “false rumours” rather than lies. Colouring vibrant debate during multiparty competition, and used strategically by peasants to claim belonging and protection from the state, this language also drove the closure of political possibilities. In increasingly authoritarian terms it structured political relationships around the idea of a single truth coming top-down from the state and of false rumours as the antithesis of this state-endorsed “real truth”. 

The timeframe of the book follows events from 1959 to 1972 and the ethnically defined genocide in Burundi, which was one of the first in the context of postcolonial Africa. The book focusses on two communes on the border with Rwanda in order to de-centre the account of decolonisation from a purely national narrative, or the point of view of a central authority located at the nation’s core. The regional or border experience provides a perspective that shows the forms of political engagement from the nation’s periphery. Movements and relationships across the border were central to creating the postcolonial system for the nation as well as the region, especially concerning hostile relationships with the neighbouring nation-state of Rwanda.

This approach also reveals a striking aspect of the postcolonial process: the rapid evolution from an environment of multiple and competing political fields in the early years of African decolonisation to a severely restricted and ethnicised authoritarian order, which was eventually confirmed through the genocide of Burundian Hutus. All the while, the ethnic politics that laid the ground for this genocide was treated as false rumours. Denying the genocide it was committing, the state attempted to create an alternative narrative of the “real truth” and how society ought to work. At the same time, common people responded to such politics through a competing language of “truth”. Protest against the genocide frequently took the form of speaking plainly about what happened, which in turn often resulted in people being arrested and killed. In the aftermath, people spoke as if this violence had revealed the truth of what had gone before. The extermination of Hutus confirmed the definition of relations with the postcolonial state in Burundi and the nature of that state. Parables and riddles were commonly used by people to express how they understood the nature of these power relationships. Instead of a call for uprisings against the state order, there was an active memory of rejection of the state narrative, as people shared their own notions of truth in this manner. Professor Russell argues that this revealed the notion of a future justice, and the need to hold on to the truth in silence until this justice could be realised.

Full citation of the book:
Russell, Aidan. Politics and Violence in Burundi: The Language of Truth in an Emerging State. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019. doi:10.1017/9781108581530.

Interview by Aditya Kiran Kakati, PhD in International History and Anthropology and Sociology.
Banner image: excerpt from a picture by sevenMaps7/Shutterstock.com.