• Student unrest has been gaining traction in Burundi in what is slowly becoming ‘cold’ protests against President Pierre Nkurunzisa’s leadership.

    Some students have been doodling and scribbling on the photos of the head of state in textbooks, a matter that has not been taken lightly by the authorities.

    Earlier in the month, eight secondary school students in Muramvya province were arrested and accused of insulting the head of state. How did they do it? They drew and wrote phrases like “Get out” or “No to the 3rd term” on a picture of President Nkurunziza in a textbook.

    Angered by the arrests, their classmates demonstrated in the streets. Security forces responded to the protests by shooting at the students, injuring two of them. A motorcycle driver was also shot and later succumbed to the injury. They also arrested three other students. Although the minors were released, “five students aged 19 and 20 are still detained, facing charges of insulting the head of state. They could spend up to five years in prison if found guilty,” Human Rights Watch reported.

    In May, school administrators of a secondary school in Ruziba, located south of the Capital Bujumbura, suspended over 300 hundred students for damaging the photo of the President. Some 230 more were kicked out of school in Ruyigi province in eastern Burundi on June 14, for refusing to reveal who scribbled on the president’s face in textbooks.

    Human Rights Watch (HRW) also noted that around 400 students might be expelled unless their parents paid to replace textbooks in which the president’s photo had been doodled on. Just recently, a student in Cankuzo province was badly beaten in a police cell for doodling on a photo of the president.

    Why are students agitated?

    HRW proposes that the increasing behavior by students could be a mere “typical teenage antics.” Teenagers tend to act in questionable manners as they try to understand the changes happening within and outside them.

    What started as a social behavior degeneration among a few students in a particular school has now turned into a groupthink scenario, being adopted by students and other teenagers in other schools, something that is common among people fighting for a cause.

    And Burundian authorities are not helping it. By arresting some of the members of the group, they only stimulate further demonstrations within the group or elsewhere by sympathizers. According to a psychological view, “a group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in the background when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making.”

    Oppressed by the authority and without clear channels to air their grievances, the youth has resorted to what they think will attract attention and possibly bring about change in a country that has been in turmoil since Nkurunziza pursued and won a third term in 2015. Critics argued the move violated the constitution and a deal that ended a civil war in 2005.

    Is there any other way to handle this, other than arrests?

    Basically, when handling groupthink reactions, there are few items that must be put into consideration.

    First off, the matter should be handled within the school through the relevant department that handles counseling or any other related office.

    Students should be encouraged to raise their objections and concerns through identified reliable communication channels. Other than opening up communication channels, the school administration should organize group counseling for the students involved in such behavior. Additionally, if identified, group leaders should be called to air out group grievances as well as feedback from the groups. The group can also be supported to develop multiple situations of events upon which they are acting, and eventualities for each situation. Later, a meeting can be organized in which a decision consensus can be agreed upon by the group members prior to the final approval which should be adopted by all.

    In my opinion, the above is the better option in handling groupthink among teenagers, instead of responding with guns and brutality. It is easier, cheaper, faster and does not attract the negative media publicity that has been going on since the unrest.


    Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images