As Bodies Pile Up on the Streets, Burundi’s Regime Breaks Out Genocidal Rhetoric
'Get to work' comments recall Rwanda's descent into mass murder in 1994
The crisis in Burundi is continuing to intensify six months after president Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would stand for a third term, which opponents claim is unconstitutional. With hundreds killed in violence perpetrated by government and opposition forces, the latest escalation is a rhetorical one.
“Go tell them [those who have weapons]: If something happens to them, they shouldn’t say ‘if only we had known’ … The day when we give people the authorization to ‘work,’ it will finish and you will see what will happen,” Révérien Ndikuriyo, the Senate president and a staunch Nkurunziza ally, told a crowd on Oct. 29.
“Gukora,” the Kirundi word for “work” was used extensively by government officials and sympathizers during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide to incite people to murder Tutsis.
Ndikuriyo’s speech comes in the context of a government security crackdown in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital. Aimed at disarming the opposition, security forces are raiding houses in neighborhoods that have traditionally supported the opposition. Afraid of the crackdown, thousands of people reportedly fled their homes during the past week.
It is unlikely that Burundi will experience an actual genocide in the strictest sense of the word. After all a genocide is the systematic elimination of “particular races and classes of people, and national, racial or religious groups,” according to the Nuremberg Trials. While Burundi has experienced genocidal violence in the past, this time around there is no actual ethnic divide between the government and the opposition.
Nkurunziza has mixed Hutu and Tutsi parentage. And at least until now, none of the conflict parties have assumed a distinct ethnic identity.
The conflict is, instead, intensely political and rooted in Nkurunziza’s refusal to abdicate in line with constitutional provisions. Much of the blame likely falls to Nkurunziza’s entourage, including notorious Twitter propagandist Willy Nyamitwe, Nkurunziza’s spokesperson.
Because of the government’s failure to significantly advance democratization and economic development since the end of the civil war in 2000, Nyamitwe and others like him would not only lose their profitable positions of power, but would have to fear payback from rival political groups should Nkurunziza give up power.
But even without the genocide label, Burundi’s crisis remains deadly and could well evolve into a full-blown civil war.
Dead bodies appear every morning on the streets of Bujumbura, often showing signs of torture. Civil society activist have identified 200 people killed by security forces since April. At the same time, around 210,000 of Burundi’s 10 million people have fled the country. Armed opposition movements are forming and, in a region awash with weapons from decades of armed conflict, are preparing to challenge the government militarily.
Left to Burundi’s own devices, it is unlikely the country can avert even greater violence and instability. Nkurunziza’s camp has systematically undermined all attempts at brokering a peaceful resolution, seemingly happy to rely on its control of key elements of police and army to sit all challengers out.
Most protagonists, including Nkurunziza, can trace their political careers back to armed groups in Burundi’s civil war. Targeted sanctions, or even losing control over parts of the country wouldn’t be a failure from their perspective, as long as the military guarantees their rule in the long term.
But in taking this hardcore stance, Nkurunziza and associates have significantly increased the risk of a regional escalation. “People are being killed every day [in Burundi], bodies are found on the streets,” Rwandan Pres. Paul Kagama said earlier in November. “Leaders are spending time killing people.”
As one of Burundi’s neighbors, Rwanda has accepted tens of thousands of Burundian refugees. Rwanda’s government, which is largely comprised of people who were targeted by the genocide in 1994 and led an armed rebellion that succeeded in stopping the mass murder, is very sensitive when it comes to genocidal rhetoric.
With a strong and battle-tested military at his disposal, it is conceivable that Rwanda could militarily intervene in the Burundian crisis.
The international community, meanwhile, has largely fumbled the crisis. Neither Western nor African governments were able to convince Nkurunziza to abstain from a third term.
While the West was too caught up in praising Burundi for its — in retrospect flimsy — gains made since the civil war, thereby justifying billions in taxpayer money that went into democratization and development programs, African nations just weren’t credible when castigating Nkurunziza’s plans.
Twenty of Africa’s 54 heads of state have been in office for 10 or more years, with several currently trying to alter their constitutions to allow them some Nkurunziza-style extra time. One of them, Yoweri Museveni, who has been president of Uganda since 1986, is ironically leading the African Union mediation with Nkurunziza.
The United Nations Security Council has so far restricted itself to expressing its “deep concern” about the situation, largely deferring the matter to the African Union as the responsible continental body.
The African Union has shown more aggressive rhetoric, at one point asking its Peace and Security Commission to prepare contingency plans for a potential military intervention by African peacekeepers. The problem with this threat — the African Union has no functioning rapid intervention forces which could be deployed in such a situation.
And as the response to the Central African Republic’s civil war demonstrated, no African military currently has the means to rapidly deploy in case of an ongoing mass atrocity, especially if the deployment is opposed by government forces, as would be almost certainly the case in Burundi.
The other obvious threat to Nkurunziza and his associates, the International Criminal Court, has been severely weakened in recent years by the A.U.’s and many African countries’ complete refusal to cooperate with it or develop a credible regional alternative. African heads of state are freely flaunting ICC arrest warrants and hindering investigations.
It is only consistent for Nkurunziza and his allies to prioritize their immediate political survival over any future, and presumably weak, legal challenges concerning their responsibility for the current violence.
The likely result — the violence will get worse.