Rebels Wiped Out During Burundi’s Bloody New Year
Army blasts insurgents as elections loom
On the night of Dec. 30, 200 rebels crossed from the Democratic Republic of the Congo into Burundi, close to the town of Cibitoke.
The rebels’ plan? Infiltrate past the border and vanish into the forests — where they’d prepare for a long insurgency during the country’s upcoming elections.
They never made it. While crossing the border, the rebels collided with the Burundian army. The ensuing firefight lasted five days.
Burundi’s troops gained the upper hand, according to press reports. Soldiers killed 95 rebels and took nine others into custody, according to an army spokesman.
Burundian troops also captured a 60-millimeter mortar, five rocket launchers and more than 100 assault rifles of unspecified type. Officially, two soldiers died in the firefight. But the AFP quoted an anonymous military source who said the rebels killed up to a dozen members of the armed forces.
Local witnesses corroborated these statements in broad terms.
Burundian rebel attacks are not unusual. But what’s noteworthy is how quickly and decisively Burundi’s army suppressed an incursion of this size.
The central African country has a long history of political violence. The government has not released the identity of the rebel group, but it’s unlikely these were completely inexperienced fighters.
Several army battalions which engaged the rebels previously served as peacekeepers in Somalia—bringing with them combat experience and sophisticated training from international partners.
But the incident also puts a spotlight on Burundi’s political process. Several sources indicate the rebels intended to traverse Burundi’s border region to set up shop in the Kibira forest, an area that has served as a base of operations for many domestic insurgencies over the years.
Col. Gaspard Baratuza, Burundi’s military spokesperson, says the rebels wanted to “recruit, disseminate the movement’s ideology, before starting attacks in the run-up to the elections in May 2015.”
Burundi’s local and national parliamentary elections in May—and the presidential ballot in June—are among the most closely watched upcoming elections in Sub-Saharan Africa.
There’s reasons to worry about rebel attacks before the elections. Many experts have warned the elections could reignite Burundi’s devastating civil war, which ended in 2005.
The conflict—which has many connections to the 1994 Rwandan genocide—also pitted Hutu and Tutsi groups against each other, albeit in a different political context. The war concluded with the Arusha Peace Agreement.
Until the Burundian general elections of 2010, the principles of Arusha seemed to set the country on the right track. For one, the agreement enforced ethnic power sharing, which opened space for peaceful political conflict—as opposed to conflict waged with small arms and rocket launchers.
But the 2010 elections went badly. Irregularities and post-election violence doomed Burundi’s democracy.
Supporters of the ruling party, the Hutu-dominated CNDD-FDD of Pres. Pierre Nkurunziza, attacked and suppressed the opposition. The government tried to unilaterally change electoral law and institutions in its favor.
Most of the opposition boycotted the election, a strategic mistake that left the CNDD-FDD in almost complete control of parliament—and Nkurunziza with a landslide victory.
A wave of post-election violence killed some of the opposition leaders and forced others into exile. When the violent repression abated after 2012, the government used the breathing room to dismantle opposition structures and further strengthen its grip on power.
The run-up to this year’s elections have been eerily familiar.
Again, the CNDD-FDD has tried to limit the political space and has pushed for reforms that would strengthen its hand in the elections. The two main sticking points are a constitutional reform, which would allow Nkurunziza to stand for a third term, and a land reform law that the Tutsi opposition interprets as pandering to the Hutu majority.
The CNDD-FDD has also armed parts of its youth wing, the Imbonerakure, which played an important role in the 2012 violence.
Now the swift and violent repression of the rebel incursion at Cibitoke lends further credibility to the government’s intent to use force—if necessary—to stay in power.
The opposition in Burundi, which includes Hutu and Tutsi-dominated parties, has never recovered from the debacle of the 2010 elections and the subsequent repression.
While the international community pays for 50 percent of the government budget, it has limited influence. That’s for one overriding reason—there are few credible alternatives to Nkurunziza.
It’s therefore likely that the president and his party will complete Burundi’s return to a one-party state with this year’s election, through violence, if necessary.