Burundi’s youth says no to violence and yes to education

By Salathiel Ntakirutimana and Lauren Greubel

Over the last half-century, Burundi’s pre-election periods have been terrifying, unstable and often engulfed in violence. This year, representatives of the country’s largest stakeholder – its youth – have said enough! No more violence.

Better educated and more dynamic than their predecessors, the country’s youth are prepared to do whatever it takes to see tangible improvements in their lives and strengthen Burundi’s socio-economic stability.

In this small country, young people below the age of 25 make up almost 60% of the country’s 11 million people.

Young people want to be engaged

More than 500 young leaders from across the country gathered in the capital Bujumbura for an unprecedented conversation. Organised by the youth-led organisation YouthGlobe, (founded by Salathiel, one of the blog authors), the three-day conference brought together young people from every one of the country’s 17 provinces to discuss global citizenship, education and skills and the role youth can play in the country’s 2015 elections.

YouthGlobe was recently appointed by Burundi’s electoral board (known as CENI, its French acronym) to co-ordinate youth engagement and provide civic education to the country’s youth in advance of the upcoming elections.

In Burundi youth engagement in the elections has a direct implication on the country’s peace and stability. Without prospects of education or employment young people were vulnerable to political ploys during previous election periods. This led to bloodshed and violence.

This year YouthGlobe has dedicated human and material resources to ensure the youth’s participation in the elections strengthen rather than weaken the country’s hard-earned peace. The first step in this process was the national youth conference.

Creating national dialogue between youth and government

We suffer globally from conference fatigue: meeting after meeting, which bring people together, create energy and excitement, and then everyone parts ways to return to their status quo. What made this conference so unique was that young people had not gathered just to speak to each other (or adults and experts speaking to each other about youth issues without any youth present – which happens far too often).

Instead ministers from the highest levels of government, including the Minister of the Interior and Minister of Higher Education, CEOs and community leaders came and sat in the large school auditorium to hear directly from the youth of the country. And given the opportunity to speak their mind, those youth did.

In a country whose 12-year civil war ended in 2005, the young people at the conference did not shy away from discussing openly the conflict that occupied much of their childhood. They took to the podium to speak about how they are actively taking the lead – even without resources – to ensure that the plight of the war doesn’t define their futures and that of their country.

Most of the youth in attendance are already leaders in their communities having founded youth organisations, as part of student unions, university groups, private enterprises or other avenues. One such participant is Adelard Kakunze, who is the curator of the World Economic Forum’s Bujumbura Global Shapers Community. Having recently founded Burundi 3.0, a social enterprise using ICTs to tackle youth unemployment, Adelard spoke passionately about the need for skills development in the country. He challenged the youth and the government saying,

“Obama created the Young African Leaders Initiative [YALI] to strengthen the skills and capacities of African youth – but why do we have to wait for Obama to do that? Why can’t our own government create a YALI?”

Another young leader, Lise-Claire Nimubona, a student representative from the University of Burundi, responded passionately and directly to some of the government and private sector panelist’s claims that Burundi’s youth are lazy.

“How can we be productive if the education we receive from our national university does not impart any tangible skills on to us?” she asked. This feeling was expressed by many other participants who believe the country should do more to provide an education that equips the youth with the skills that will enable them to find entrepreneurial solutions to some of the intractable problems the country is enduring. 

Training a generation of leaders

A theme that ran across the conference was that while youth will be the leaders of the future, they are also leaders in their own right today. To support their work and continue to build their capacity, two members of the UN Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative Youth Advocacy Group led a training session on education advocacy based on the Youth Advocacy Toolkit. The training focused on a tool kit (Understand It, Plan It and Do It) to support the participants to continue to build on their exiting leadership.

The end of a conference but not of a movement

The conference organisers and participants were conscious of the importance of defining next steps – so that every young person in attendance could return to their community and mobilise other youth in their communities to be active participants in charting the course of their future and that of their country.

To further this goal, a National Youth Forum was established to give the conference participants and other youth a forum to discuss ideas pertaining to preserving peace and contributing to Burundi’s development. The forum will be chaired by Edmond Harabandi, who was awarded a national medal of honour by Burundi’s president for constructing schools and two bridges in his community without seeking any government or external support, and Lise-Claire Nimubona, mentioned above.

As one of the speakers said, Burundi’s greatest wealth is its youth. With young leaders such as those convened last week committed to peace and education, we have good reason to believe that no future child in Burundi will grow up during a civil war and everyone will have access to a good education.

YouthGlobe is a non-profit organisation officially established in Burundi with the vision of “inspiring a generation of well informed, enterprising, and responsible Burundians.” Through its programs YouthGlobe seeks to provide a platform for its scholars, entrepreneurs and other beneficiaries to create value in their communities through cooperation and innovation to lead their generation in building a better Burundi.