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 marked them.
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, 2016:
I am dismayed by continuing reports of the suspension and arrest of schoolchildren and students for having scribbled on pictures of the president in textbooks.
Nkurunziza, the ‘eternal supreme guide’
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 institutions.
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 prédident #Nkurunziza @LewisMudge @hrw @hrw_fr https://t.co/BkAP5PfglK pic.twitter.com/z4HkiFbi3Z
— Eléonore Abou Ez (@Eleoabouez) March 22, 2019
High schoolers in prison for scribbling on a portrait of the President #Nkurunziza.
If I did this in #Nkurunziza’s #Burundi, I could be jailed #GribouilleMoi https://t.co/V7nVxKXZ0P pic.twitter.com/ahcO0apSQ7
— 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. @radio_rpa @RadioInzamba pic.twitter.com/3R9KQ1oz6Y
— 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 asserts:
…[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.
Media outlet closures, harassment of opponents, and clampdowns on NGOs and restrictions in political space for alternative narratives and arguments.
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.