Burundi is quietly unraveling
Burundi, the tiny country of 10 million people in Africa bordering Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is embroiled in a major crisis. However, the issues that plague the country are largely going unnoticed by most outside the continent.
Burundi has been dealing with unrest since President Pierre Nkurunziza sought a third term last April. Burundi, like the U.S. has a two-term policy for its presidency, but Nkurunziza’s supporters point out that he was not popularly elected in his first term.
The opposition of course has a different view and sees this as a power grab that undermines the Arusha deal that resolved the 1993-2006 civil war in Burundi. By seeking a third term, Nkurunziza risks creating an authoritarian state and marginalizing the minority Tutsi population.
To summarize events quickly, when Nkurunziza announced he was running for a third term it sparked almost daily protests in which the government eventually cracked down on. An attempted coup d’état in May 2015 by Burundian army officers failed and further fanned the flames of unrest.
In July last year, the opposition boycotted national elections and Nkurunziza was re-elected to a third term. According to Amnesty International — an international human rights monitoring organization — Burundian security forces shot dead dozens of people last December, putting the country on the brink of civil war.
In Burundi, Hutus make up about 85 percent of the population while the rest is primarily Tutsi. International organizations have feared that recent events could cause further political and ethnic violence, primarily aimed at the Tutsi population.
With the international community still reeling from its failure to act during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU) have been vocal about their concern with the crisis.
Most Burundi watchers have said that political violence is a greater threat than ethnic violence and presently that is likely true. Calling the crisis in Burundi a future genocide is probably premature, but it is entirely possible that it could spark a civil war, and at that point anything could happen.
What then is being done to solve the crisis? Sadly, the answer is little. The UN’s policy to date has been to explore diplomatic avenues rather than put in place a peacekeeping force that would be both expensive to maintain, and intrusive. This of course coming with UN reports that have said bodies are commonly dumped on the street and police- and government-affiliated militias are threatening opposition politicians, journalists, and human rights advocates.
Furthermore, earlier this year a top human rights official for the UN said that his team documented 13 cases of gang rape allegedly carried out by Burundian forces. Naturally the Burundian government has dismissed nearly all accusations.
To be fair, the UN was not created to solve the world’s problems itself. Rather, it was designed to provide an avenue for countries to work together on solutions. For that reason the UN is hoping the AU will take charge on the issue, but unfortunately the results have been dismal at best.
Following a December 11th attack on three Burundian military bases, in which Amnesty International has discovered mass graves, the AU announced it would authorize a peacekeeping force in Burundi of 5,000 for an initial period of six months. At the time this was a revolutionary decision, because the AU had never deployed peacekeepers in a member state without acquiring consent first.
However, consent was never granted and Burundi announced that it would treat AU peacekeepers as an invading army. Thus after an AU summit in Ethiopia earlier this year, the AU decided not to deploy a peacekeeping force after all. Worse yet, no monitoring delegation was ever sent out, so Burundi is essentially being left alone.
Burundi, for its part is blaming most of its woes on neighboring Rwanda. Burundi has accused Rwanda of training opposition rebels, and hosting the leader of the May 2015 attempted coup. There is likely a shred of truth to this though.
Thomas Perriello, the U.S. envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa has stated that Burundian refugees, including children, were being recruited from camps in Rwanda to participate in armed attacks against the Burundian government.
With more than 400 dead and more than 240,000 that have fled Burundi, it is time for the passivity of the UN and AU to end. Burundi’s refusal to allow peacekeepers or additional human rights monitors into the country clearly shows it has something to hide.
With recent reports that Rwanda is now giving military training to rebels, a more sincere solution needs to be found and quickly before more are killed and the conflict spreads to more regions.
Follow Jake Pfeifer on Twitter at @jake8922.