When schools across Burundi reopened on May 24 and students trudged back to work after a protracted strike by their teachers, the government was probably hoping they had heard the last of it. The strike was but the latest in a long line of industrial action by teachers’ unions in the country, which has been met with consistent resistance from the government.
But it was not to be. For a second time this year, teachers resorted to strike action to express their frustration with a government that has left them underpaid and short of support. On June 10, Burundi’s National Council of Secondary School Teachers (CONAPES) began a strike, followed a week later by the Union of Education Workers of Burundi (STEB) and the National Union of Primary Education (SYNAPEP), bringing primary educators into the standoff.
Whilst superficially the dispute primarily concerns wages, this recent action, as the latest in an almost unbroken line of unrest in the country’s education sector, has helped reveal the deeper issues concerning Burundi’s patchy human rights record and struggles to meet international development goals.
Educators are calling for the government to increase their salaries to match those of other public employees in the country. State-employed teachers, though constituting the largest proportion of the country’s civil servants, have the lowest salaries in the public sector. They want official provision in the new 2014 budget to fulfill an old promise and eliminate these wage disparities.
Far from isolated, the two strikes of 2013 are the continuation of long-standing protests by educators. In December 2012, the four main teachers’ unions released a strike notice, threatening to withhold completed exam results until the government agreed to officially discuss pay equity. Two years previously, 42,000 teachers went on strike in an effort to extract wage increases promised since 2002, as well as two years of unpaid wages, totalling $43 million. Similar large scale strikes took place in 2007 and 2004.
This time, as in the past, the government was in no mood to make concessions, instead declaring the strike illegal and threatening to sanction those who “did not come to their senses”. Frustrated, primary school teachers resumed work on June 25, with secondary school teachers following three days later.
The teachers are seemingly aware of their lack of bargaining power given the government’s unwillingness to compromise. Emmanuel Mashandari, president of CONAPES, explained to IWACU, a popular online independent newspaper in Burundi: “Given the radicalisation of the official position, CONAPES wants to show the parents of students and the Independent National Commission on Human Rights (CNIDH) that it has agreed to play a conciliatory role in its willingness to create a good climate for dialogue”.
But despite this conciliatory language, many in the unions are frustrated and angry. Mashandari told Think Africa Press that the Burundian government is “spurning” the teaching profession, making teachers Burundi’s “forgotten” civil servants, with some on the verge of homelessness and most struggling to cope with rising food prices. The teachers’ demands were handed to the CNIDH for mediation, but the Commission has not yet issued a formal response.
The government claims – and not without foundation – that the money is simply not there. Burundi, its economy ravaged by years of civil war, is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a life expectancy of less than 60. The tiny land-locked country has a population not much larger than that that of London, the majority of whom live in poverty.
The government struggles to fill its coffers, and, during past strikes, has blamed these poor finances for wage deficiencies. In late July the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Burundi told the Security Council that the country is in an “extremely difficult” fiscal position which, if not properly handled, could pose a “serious threat to hard-won yet fragile stability”. With government revenue significantly decreased in 2013, Burundi will need to find at least $35 million in 2014 to even begin to reduce wage disparities.
STEB president Eulalie Nibizi has accused the government of burdening teachers with the cost of the public authorities’ mismanagement of national budgets. Professor Joseph Ndayisaba, a specialist in Educational Sciences at the University of Burundi, agrees that the anger of teachers is reasonable, explaining to Think Africa Press that while other civil servants were able to extract salary concessions from the government, teachers’ requests have not seemed to carry the same “coercive force”.
Yet there is an even bigger concern than finances which dominates the minds of striking teachers in Burundi. According to Radio France International, teachers have been subject to threats and harassment, claims which Mashandari confirms, accusing officials of responding with “terrorism”. “This is the kind of intimidation we condemn every day,” he says.
Clément Ntibagayimvo, a teacher involved who spoke to Think Africa Press, said that teachers who are members of the ruling party (CNDD-FDD) were threatened with a “return to work by force”. Also worrying are attempts to block teachers from speaking to the media, including a list of teachers to be “punished” with “severe penalties”, the existence of which was acknowledged by Cankuzo’s Provincial Director of Education.
The current crackdown is neither new nor surprising. In April 2011, three teaching union representatives, including Nibizi, appeared among members of the opposition on a death threat list. Complicating matters further are Burundi’s laws surrounding the right to strike. Though the right is recognised in the constitution, workers can only strike if the government is satisfied they have exhausted all other means of dispute resolution, effectively giving the authorities “the power to veto all strikes”.
However, the government’s ruthlessness this time around can be seen as part of a wider political trend in the country. President Nkurunziza’s regime has been described as “increasingly authoritarian”, with his ruling CNDD-FDD party holding all “levers of power”; the international community is looking on with increasing unease at a deteriorating human rights record.
The government’s sights have been set on civil society organisations in particular, with groups that do not toe the party line viewed with suspicion. Included in this are attempts to bring teachers’ unions under state control. In 2010, two teachers unions with close ties to the ruling party were created and workers were harassed by employers to join them. In a bid to undermine organised labour, these government-controlled or ‘yellow’ unions called their members to boycott all strikes.
Nibizi, who herself was arrested by government forces for a peaceful meeting during a strike in 2004, denounces the government’s repression and sidestepping. She insists that rather than solutions, all it offers are “simply excuses”.
The continued discontent threatens the delicate progress the country has made towards achieving the second Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education. With primary school enrolment at over 94%, a 2012 report by the UN Secretary-General placed Burundi at the top of the list of developing countries ranked by advancement in education.
Yet, ironically, the government’s intense focus on this goal has done much to threaten its relationship with teachers. A key move in achieving the high enrolment figures was Nkurunziza’s decision to abolish school fees in 2005, a dramatic change which was not accompanied by the necessary increases in funding and support.
Teachers have complained that the government “put the cart before the horse” in abolishing school fees, and educational quality has decreased in the country, with high repetition rates and declining performance rates. Over 50% of students drop out before the end of primary school.
Yet rather than address the need for more funding, the government has responded with even more reform. In a bid to improve performance, a new system will be implemented for the next school year called ‘école fondamentale’, which encourages creativity, competitiveness and active participation. Minister for Education Rose Gahiru said the new system will rely on enhanced teacher professionalism – a perhaps ironic remark for teachers who do not believe they are being paid even the basic wage.
Many believe that école fondamentale will be just another addition to the list of trial-and-error reforms implemented without adequate preparation, infrastructure or teacher training . STEB has accused the government of responding only to international donor pressure and failing to involve teachers in the reforms. It was unfair, Nibizi argued, that children were being used as “guinea pigs”.
Nibizi’s comment highlights the downside to the MDGs. Their focus on measurable results over process means some governments are aiming to “look busy” rather than undertaking incremental changes which would be sustainable in the long term. The dearth of homegrown, sustainable, and economically viable reforms in Burundi suggests that it will take more than wage increases to correct Burundi’s educational system in the long-term.
Following the return to work, end-of-year exams were undertaken with a relatively “peaceful atmosphere”. But the “truce” may only be a temporary lull in the standoff between unions and the government.
Nibizi points to a worrying reality: if claiming one’s right to strike can no longer extract results from the government, other strategies could be used “that would be dangerous both to learners and to the nation”. But one thing is sure, she claims: “There won’t be peace in the classrooms during the coming school years”. It seems that this is a battle of wills that will continue to threaten Burundi’s hopes for educational improvement.
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