Burundi’s Crisis Could Escalate Into Civil War
Pierre Nkurunziza won’t give up power
Burundi’s government says that it has apprehended more than 100 people and killed at least 30 armed men during two days of fighting. The rebels confirmed the clashes in principle, although they painted a different picture of their outcome.
The conflict is escalating in the wake of contentious parliamentary elections and only days before the population is set to go to the polls again. What’s happening is seriously bad — as the central African country looks set on continuing a 50-year streak of political and ethnic conflict.
Worse, it’s a throwback to the beginning of Burundi’s civil war, which raged from 1993 to 2005 and claimed about 300,000 deaths. The roots of the current violence reach back decades, but the latest trigger has a name — Pierre Nkurunziza.
Nkurunziza is the sitting president of Burundi, and his insistence on running for a third term is at the heart of the current crisis. His opponents claim that his bid is unconstitutional and flies in the face of the 2003 Arusha Peace Agreement that Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader himself, signed.
Both the constitution and the agreement are clear that candidates can serve a maximum of two terms.
Nkurunziza tried to amend the constitution in 2014, but failed. He still insisted on running again, claiming that his first term from 2005 to 2010 doesn’t count, because the country’s legislature elected him instead the public, as the constitution stipulates.
But the president sparked strong resistance from the opposition and within his own political party. In 2015, there have been several massive protests in the capital city of Bujumbura. Nkurunziza’s security forces have brutally repressed these protests, killing at least 70 demonstrators and bystanders.
Violent clashes between Nkurunziza and his opponents have only escalated since. Several grenade attacks claimed by elements of the opposition ripped through Bujumbura in the run-up to the June 29 elections.
A dissident faction within the the army tried to stage a coup in May. It failed, but some of plot’s leaders and soldiers escaped. The ruling party has armed its youth wing, the Imbonerakure. At least 127,000 Burundians have already fled the country because out of fear or because of direct acts of violence.
Nkurunziza is unlikely to back down before the July 21, 2015, presidential elections, and renegade generals are threatening all-out civil war. The situation in Burundi looks like it could go south — and fast.
It wouldn’t be the first time. Political violence, coup d’etats and civil war are par for the course in Burundi’s since it gained independence.
Burundi, like neighboring Rwanda, was originally ruled by a feudal monarchy and managed to keep its pre-colonial borders largely intact. German — and later Belgian — colonial authorities found it useful to rule through these established structures.
In an attempt to fit Burundi’s complex society into their racist worldviews, European empires defined the “Tutsi” aristocracy and “Hutu” peasants as different races, instead of social classes that they originally were.
Tutsi privilege bred resentment among the majority Hutu population. After independence in 1962, Hutus carried out targeted killings of Tutsis. The Tutsi-dominated military and government retaliated, igniting the first Burundian genocide in 1972. Between 80,000 to 210,000 people were killed, depending on the estimate.
Rebellions and coup d’etats continued. Ethnic violence proliferated with both Hutu and Tutsi groups targeting civilians of either side.
Another episode of mass killings, this time against Tutsi, reached genocidal proportions only a year before the devastating Rwandan genocide.
This resulted in the Burundian civil war was linked to the Rwandan civil war — that ended the genocide in that country — and the two Congo Wars. All of these interlinked wars together amounted to the bloodiest global conflict since World War II.
But unlike the Rwandan civil war, Burundi’s internal conflict never had a clear victor. Nkurunziza, who led the Hutu-dominated CNDD-FDD, got himself elected to the presidency as a candidate of compromise.
The situation started to improve. The international community generally applauded the peace process and the 2005 Arusha Agreement. But an early warning sign was the 2010 elections, which the opposition boycotted.
Today, Burundi is on the brink of falling back into its violent past, and there is plenty of blame to go around. For one, the international community could have acted earlier and should not have been afraid to question Burundi’s reputation as a democratization success story.
The African Union — the guarantor of the Arusha Agreement — has failed at reigning in Nkurunziza’s antics. It should have taken a principled stand against any attempt on Nkurunziza’s part to run for a third term.
Instead, the A.U. sat on its hands, paralyzed by aging heads of state who are themselves eyeing an extension of their stay in power. The A.U.’s current chairman, Zimbabwean Pres. Robert Mugabe, has held the office since 1987.
Meanwhile, there is a real risk that large-scale violence in Burundi may suck in other countries in the region. In Rwanda, a Tutsi-dominated government has firsthand experience of being at the receiving end of a genocide, and commands a capable military that it has no hesitation to use.
If Burundi’s violence becomes more explicitly ethnic in nature, it’s unlikely Rwanda will keep to the sidelines. An intervention could spark a wider war.
There’s some signs this is already happening. Nkurunziza’s administration told reporters that armed men involved in last week’s clashes came from refugee camps located in Rwanda. If true, it’s unlikely that this could have happened without at least the tacit approval of Rwandan Pres. Paul Kagame, who runs a highly effective intelligence and military apparatus.
The Rwandan government has denied these allegations.
Finally, there’s the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi’s western neighbor. While more stable than some years ago, the DRC is still awash with armed groups, freelance military commanders and lawless, ungoverned territories. An escalation in violence Burundi could help destabilize Congo.
There’s no obvious solution to Burundi’s current crisis — except for an immediate intervention by the international community. But there’s little appetite for this. There is a debate whether the world should impose sanctions on Nkurunziza and his cronies, but that would be a long-term contribution to a solution, not a short-term fix.
The most constructive way forward would be for Burundi’s neighbors, the African Union and the international community to quickly agree on a common position and push hard for it. And the cessation of violence should be on the very top of the list.